Across 11 years competing, my DI team had a few unwavering rules that season after season, no matter the challenge, we always upheld:
- If you don’t know how to do something, learn.
- The more excessively difficult something is, the more likely it’s worth doing.
These rules led us down a highly creative road of tediously handmade costumes, musicals written only in rhyme, and big sets with as many moving parts as possible. The latter—interactive sets—became a favorite of my team. We were inspired initially by other teams we had seen at tournaments, but after building one elaborate set ourselves, I think it was the process that really hooked us.
I wish I could talk about every set we built, but my favorite was created in our final year competing, when several team members had already graduated from high school. Like usual, we started our season with a freeform brainstorming session about the Challenge where we tried to come up with some sort of wow factor right off the bat. Somehow, these conversations always spiraled toward the idea of sending a team member airborne—a human catapult was regrettably discussed on more than one occasion. This idea was thankfully never seen to fruition, but don’t worry—we still found something excessively challenging to do.
That year we landed on a light-up set. Since the Challenge restricted us from plugging things in, our set was powered entirely by a home-built bike generator. We didn’t know the first thing about electricity, let alone building a generator, but it wasn’t long before we were deeply immersed in the world of online electrician gurus. I wish I could describe a neat process that lead us to eventually creating the set of our dreams, but most of our time that season was spent in a chaotic whirlwind of trial-and-error, frustrated tears, and haphazard ventures to electrical supply stores. After we had learned the basic gist of building a generator and created its skeleton, we attached our set-up to one single Christmas light to start.
We tried time and time again to get that one purple light to turn on. Our weekly meetings became daily afterschool engineering sessions as we sat in one corner of a teammate’s house for weeks and tried anything we could think of. There were late nights and a regrettable number of meltdowns. We kept trying long after our Team Manager implored us to consider whether we had started to waste time not just in solving our Challenge, but in our personal lives. We all had other obligations—two of us were graduating seniors and I was managing a Rising Stars! team at the time.
The moment that tiny purple light finally went on is something I don’t think any of us will ever forget. Picture the mom from “Stranger Things” when she first sees her Christmas lights go on—weeping and grinning at the same time—yeah, that was us. There was just one issue; the generator we could afford to make was pretty weak and it was going to take a lot of mechanical power to get an entire string of lights to turn on. We would have benefited from a larger motor, but we were not the kind of team to pass up an opportunity to cut corners. So we did what anyone else on a $100 budget attempting to build a complex electrical device would do: we picked our most athletic team member and we told her to pedal really, really fast.
I’m hesitant to say how this year actually ended, but I think it’s an important part of the story. The set worked great in the end—our performance was a musical that also involved a chicken costume made out of hundreds of rubber gloves, a shadow puppet, and a projector that created the illusion of a mirror, so a character could sing a duet with itself. We ended up scoring very low on the entire performance. It was certainly upsetting at the time and eye opening, to say the least. However, I don’t think it took long for any of us to learn the larger lesson. The things we took away from DI (especially in our final year) were much larger than the scores the Appraisers gave us. The process that had brought us to the end goal of the bike generator was so invaluable that here I am writing about it almost six years later. Six years out, my teammates and I have a hard time remembering which years we went to Global Finals or how we placed, let alone what our scores were. What we remember best are the things we accomplished that we didn’t think were possible and the creative process that it took to get there.
About the Author: Yael Horwitz participated in Destination Imagination for 11 years in the Seattle metro region. She and her teammates also volunteered as Team Managers for several elementary level teams and started a DI program at a local elementary school, where Yael managed a Rising Stars! team. After DI, she discovered a strong interest in neurobehavioral and psychological research, which she studied and worked in for several years. She currently works in healthcare in San Diego, CA and is hoping to pursue a career in public health. Yael is a DI Alumni Ambassador and loves her continued volunteerism for the DI program. She and her former teammates continue to get together to create extravagant challenges for themselves to solve. When she’s not looking for ways to relive her DI glory days, she loves exploring outside, cooking, taking photos, and spending time with any kind of animal.