The most productive part of the last Wednesday of February may have been the two hours at the end of the afternoon I spent outside of the office with a few first-year students, carving a great white shark out of a pile of snow.
I’ve been working with most of the students involved throughout the academic year as part of the First-Year Residential Experience program at our college. Teamed up with an RA in one particular residence hall, I help create special events and activities about once a month for students, generally around a core-curricular theme of “Inquiry, Innovation, and Imagination.”
This particular day, I was challenging them to bring innovation and imagination to snow sculpting, because we’ve had a couple feet of the stuff lying around campus for weeks. I supplied hot chocolate and hot cider. It was a sunny day, making it feel a lot warmer than the 14 F degrees it probably was.
We had fun. And these students kind of blew my mind. I mean, of all the things I could have expected to see sculpted in the snow by the end of this activity, a great white shark rising up out of the ground would have never occurred to me.
And that’s why I count this as the most productive thing I did that day, because I came away from it with a feeling of satisfaction and pride in what the group had accomplished. More importantly, I discovered that sometimes having only a vague goal of “what can we make out of this and how will we do it” gives better results than “make one of these and here are the tools and plans to do it.”
I discovered that sometimes having only a vague goal of “what can we make out of this and how will we do it” gives better results than “make one of these and here are the tools and plans to do it.”
All we had was a lot of snow that wouldn’t stick to itself, a couple shovels, and a few smaller garden tools. We had to fail at piling snow by itself before someone realized we’d be better off sculpting out of the firmer piles that plows had already made. But it was the shape of the first failed pile that inspired the idea of the shark, so maybe that means it wasn’t actually a failure?
There was no design-by-committee think session, no white boarding or voting on suggestions. It was group improv, working with what we had, paying attention to the material we had to work with, listening to and encouraging each other, and letting the challenges be met by the group.
Nobody dictated or led the design. Everyone pitched in and took breaks equally. Nobody was a sculptor or an art student, but as a group we did a pretty good job of finding the snow and, following the old adage about sculpting, we did our best to just remove all the parts that didn’t look like a shark.
One would shape while another shoveled. Another brought out pitchers of water to help stick parts together in the cold. When carving out the detail of menacing shark teeth failed, another student improvised an even better solution by molding individual teeth with her hands and adhering them in place with more water. Add some suggestion of gills, some flower pot eyes, and there it was – the rare Great White Snow Shark, rising up from the depths of the campus grounds.
It was improbable, but it really felt like an accomplishment in the end. I felt like I was ten years old again, playing in snowbanks with friends and siblings, carving whatever we could imagine, and there were no rules and no expectations except to make something cool before the sun went down and mom called us in for dinner. Everyone contributed as much as they wanted, and everyone played a part.
It turns out that when it comes to creating something as a group, sometimes you can get more surprising results by planning less in advance, and just letting the work evolve. But it also means committing fully to participating in the work, acting and reacting with your team, knowing when to take a lead, and when to follow the lead of others.
When you’re done, you may have something surprising and wonderful to show for it.
To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim:
Look, we made a shark…
Where there never was a shark.
It may not be the greatest snow shark ever made, but it’s ours, and it’s awesome.