green light, maggie mcreynolds blog, traffic light

Red Light, Green Light

It was my first day of kindergarten. I was already homesick and scared. And then the teacher, Mrs. Brown, brightly announced, “Today, class, we’re going to make stop lights!”

I promptly burst into tears.

Mrs. Brown tried to figure out what was wrong, but I didn’t know how to articulate the cascade of overwhelm in my head. It went something like this:

OMG it’s my very first day of kindergarten and I’m not at all sold on this school thing and now apparently these people expect me to somehow construct a working traffic signal and nobody else seems worried so I guess I’m the only kid in the class who doesn’t already know the mechanics and electronics involved—kindergarten is going to be way more awful than I thought!

It took some time for Mrs. Brown calm me down and explain that all I would have to do was glue red, green, and yellow construction paper circles to a piece of paper.


First day of kindergarten, and a great teachable moment—just not the one on Mrs. Brown’s lesson plan. Observe:

I assumed the goal would be ridiculously hard to achieve. I assumed I didn’t have the skills to pull it off. Most interestingly of all, I assumed everyone else did.

How many times have we looked at a project, a goal, or a big dream and blown it off because we thought it would be too hard?

How many times have we not taken a risk because we were afraid we might fail or look stupid?

How many times have we felt that we are only pretending to be grown-ups and know what we are doing, that everyone else knows some secret passcode we don’t, and that we will ultimately be exposed for the frightened children we believe ourselves to be?

Sure, I learned how to make a “stop light” that day in kindergarten. But I also learned lessons far more valuable and universal:

  • Get clear on what you want to accomplish. Is it as simple as a small art project, or as complex as designing and manufacturing traffic equipment?
  • Ask for help. Afraid of looking stupid? Consider which is dumber: acknowledging that you’re not an expert and asking someone who is, or plowing along blindly hoping you’ll figure it out as you go along?
  • Nothing is complicated if broken down into enough manageable steps—even building a traffic light. When you’re hit with overwhelm, chunk your task down into steps so tiny that you can’t possibly fail to take one of them. (Hint: a step could be as small as a quick Google search.)
  • Finally, be willing to fail. Trying—and, often, failing—is just about the only way I know to learn how to do something you’ve never done before, and get to the point where you do it well.
  • So imagine being able to articulate your goals, unafraid to ask for help, adept at breaking things down into steps you can handle, and being willing to fail.

How many more of your dreams would you give the green light?

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