When Srikanth Akkaram’s daughter Sahana entered her first spelling bee in third grade, he was happy. When she placed third in her school bee in fourth grade, he was understandably proud. And when she advanced to the regional bee in fifth grade, he was over the moon. Akkaram appreciated her “grit” as a self-starter, he says. And he especially liked that she had other interests — the violin, piano, math, even coding. He allowed her to develop this newfound interest independently and trusted her to allocate her time wisely.
He knew Sahana would take that advice with a grain of salt. After all, participating in the spelling bee had been her idea from the start. She had a plan and was going to see it through.
“A lot of people think that when you’re studying for the spelling bee you take a list of words and you just memorize it,” Sahana says. “But that’s very, very wrong — because there’s only so much memorization the brain can do.
“There’s no way for a person to memorize the dictionary,” she adds. “What people do instead is learn root words. They learn the history of language, the cultures of the people who developed the terminology we use.”
So that’s what she did. Sahana studied independently and received mentoring from one of her teachers, John Carraher, and support from a former speller, Srinidhi Valathappan. She used online resources effectively during the pandemic but did not have long-term professional individual coaching, as many of the national spellers did. As they prepared for the trip to Washington, D.C., in June, Srikanth and his daughter knew how humbling the national-level experience could be.
“I’m an engineer by training,” Akkaram says. “And in our profession, it pays to be humble. There is always something you don’t know, right? Our whole career is about making progress. And you learn from your mistakes during your journey of progress — just like in spelling.”
That advice came in handy when Sahana exited the bee in the final round. The word that tripped her up? “Nerine,” a bulbous flowering plant with thin, strappy petals found in South Africa. But she wasn’t upset. She’d finished ninth in the country and was proud of herself for making it so far. On top of that, she had befriended many of her fellow spellers, who shared common interests and goals and had experienced similar spelling journeys. Sahana and the other spellers would encourage one another throughout the competition, and even after bowing out, they’d cheer on the remaining participants. Intuitively, she knew she’d done her best and that it was time to move on with her studies. (Of course, her father hopes she’ll pursue engineering.)
“At the end of the day, there’s just one person who’s going to win the entire bee,” Sahana says. “If you just keep that in mind, you [understand] how actually difficult this entire thing is.”
Though Sahana’s spelling-bee years are behind her, she picked up some useful new habits along the way. Which, in turn, helped her father reframe how he approached work.
For much of his professional career as an analytics engineer, Akkaram has been tied to keyboards and screens — the devices that dominate modern work life. However, for months he had seen his daughter painstakingly filling a 520-page binder with the words she memorized. “The brain actually remembers things better if you physically write it down,” Sahana says. “Because the more effort you put into learning something, or the harder it is, the more it gets reinforced in your brain.”
In short order, Akkaram started writing more. He also had noticed how, as part of her daily management routine, Sahana would “set small goals for the next day.” So he started writing down not only his goals but how close — or how far — he was from reaching them. The questions he asked himself provided a simple but effective strategy for steady improvement: “‘What did I achieve today? What did I feel good about?’ And then, ‘‘What’s my plan?’” Which got him to: “Here’s what I want to accomplish the next day.”
Sahana learned a lot from her spelling-bee journey, and so did her father. “It’s taught me that progress is incremental,” Akkaram says. “Don’t expect big things in a day. But those little things — little improvements or little learnings that you do day by day — are going to have a big impact at some point. And you just need to be patient about it and wait for it.”