The Three-Item Challenge

by Dawn Brown

The Three-Item Challenge

Results. We all want them. Some rely on them. Some have to go into overtime to get them. Some get statues because of them. (#Peyton) Some write books about them. That’s what Simon Sinek did. His book, Start with Why reminded me of book Good to Great by Collins in that it shows the minor things that companies can do to get major results. Perhaps because I’m at a stage in my life where I’m around a lot of 16-24-year-olds, Sinek’s premise of starting with why reminded me of a game some of the millennials play—The Three Item Challenge. Unlike sports, there’s no score kept in this game; but bragging rights go to the victor with the best results. This is how you play:

  1. what: Go out with your friends to the nearest grocery store, a Meijer or Walmart would be terrific.
  2. how: Choose three of the most random items that you can imagine being purchased together.
  3. why: Get a reaction–the best result would be the cashier at the checkout literally questing your purchase or possibly laughing out loud. The biggest reaction wins!

It’s harder than it sounds! As I was trying to think what I’d purchase, I recalled this one time at Walmart when I bought 200 travel-sized tubes of toothpaste, yet nary a toothbrush. The cashier had a quizzical look on her face, no doubt, but she didn’t ask. However, since this isn’t a 200-item-challenge, some friends gave me a successful example:

(1) doughnuts, (2) doughnut holes, and (3) Elmer’s glue. See what they did there?! Results!

As fun as the game is, it got me seriously thinking about results. All too often we’re so concerned about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, that we forget why we’re doing it…which is exactly the premise of Sinek’s book. Therefore, in the interest of science, I thought I’d conduct a Three Item Challenge experiment with my niece, Katie. I wanted to discover if, at the youthful age of 9, she’d concentrate as much on why she was doing the experiment as she did on what and how she was doing it. It went like this.

I simply outlined the basic rules without guiding her decision-making in any way. And let me tell you, she was so giddy in the car on the way to the store, the seatbelt could hardly contain her. What can I say, the girl likes a challenge. On the three-block drive to the store, she shared with me her strategy. She figured if she could walk the store and pick three items that would absolutely gross someone out at the thought of combining them. Surely, the cashier would react in disgust or at least question her shopping sanity. Solid strategy if you ask me. After 15-minutes of cruising from fresh fruits to frozen foods, Katie made her decision. She chose the combination that she truly thought would cause our cashier to exclaim, “¡Dios mio!” to our terrible trio. Here is what I spent my hard-earned money on that day:
(1) flour tortillas, (2) salsa, and (3) Fancy Feast feline fare. Bon appetite!

I gave her a ten-dollar bill and she got in line. She giggled as she placed each specially selected item on the conveyor belt. And we waited. Would the combination be bold enough? Would the impact be failure or fanfare? Would she have legitimate bragging rights as a victor of The Three Item Challenge? Alas, it was our turn. A local high school student scanned our groceries one-by-one. She told her the total and placed the purchase in a plastic bag. No smile was given. No comment was made. I could swear that I heard The Price is Right loser horn when she handed her the receipt. Katie had lost The Three Item Challenge. ☹

As we walked to the car, we retraced our steps. Where had we gone wrong? We decided together that we hadn’t really done anything ‘wrong’. The game is just hard! Trying to put just the right combination together to make an impact isn’t as easy as people make it sound. But, it didn’t squelch her enthusiasm. So, as we drove away, we both agreed to an encore event. Sometime, someplace, at a grocery store near you, we’ll be back—more competitive than ever. Why? Because when I asked Katie what the hardest part was, she said, “Trying to control my excitement as I waited for her reaction while standing in the checkout line”. And, that right there is why I love her. She wasn’t excited about what she was doing: Going to the store. She wasn’t bubbling over about how she went about doing it: Trying to concoct a repulsive recipe. She was bursting with excitement thinking about why she was playing the game: To get a silly reaction from the cashier in Lane 2—Results!

The experiment was complete. Kids, you know the ones who play games every day of their lives, clearly understand that you have to know what to do and how to do it; but in the end, to claim victory, you must know why in order to get results. Somewhere along the way, adults forget this. And, not just average adults like you and me. As Sinek explains, adults in charge of major corporations like Microsoft and United Airlines forget this, too. So, he wrote Start with Why to remind us.

You see, The Three Item Challenge is really more than a game; it’s an elementary reminder that why we are doing things is the most important aspect of any worthy endeavor. Sure, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t; but, we have to keep trying because the potential result, the why, is worth it.

Grant County’s collective impact initiative, Thriving Families, Thriving Grant County, just recently experienced a victorious result with a Lilly Endowment Inc. version of The Three Item Challenge. The what was simple, it started with an opportunity to apply for a Lilly Endowment Comprehensive Counseling Grant. The grant was competitive and with 92 counties and numerous school districts in Indiana, we knew we had to bring our “A” Game; so, the how was critical. That’s when two local non-profit ninjas approached all five Grant County public school systems to form an unprecedented alliance that would be a force to be reckoned with in any kind of a collaborative effort. But, if you want to win The Three Item Challenge, you need one more vital, secret ingredient—the why. To win a competitive grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., your why has to come in clutch!

Our powerhouse professionals combined forces to strengthen our Thriving Families Talent Pipeline because our students desperately need complex academic, college, career, social and emotional counseling. That’s our why. It’s big. It’s audacious. It’s hairy. And, it achieved a reaction from Lilly Endowment Inc. A $1,044,000 result!

This is a terrific model of how being intentional with The Golden Circle of what, how, and why can be fruitful…the fruit of this labor had a beautiful dollar sign and two gloriously placed commas!

Sure, we won’t always win—even when we think our three items, what, how, and why, are stellar. But, what I do know is that this collaborative trio has more potential to make a significant impact than any other method we’ve tried in recent memory. It obviously worked last week under the umbrella of Thriving Families, Thriving Grant County and it can work again.

I applaud the efforts of all involved in this victory for our kids. The press conference to announce this big news literally gave me shiver bumps. Congratulations to all involved! But I think we need to have a true celebration next time we meet. Perhaps a breakfast meeting…I’ll bring the donuts!

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