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More Than Building Roller Coasters

One of my favorite games growing up was Roller Coaster Tycoon. I loved the hum of the park as I bought log flumes, hired maintenance staff, and added sidewalks. I loved renaming all my food stalls so they were alliterative (Paul’s Pizza; Betty’s Burgers; Daniel’s Drinks). And of course, like everyone in my general age range, I loved building custom roller coasters.

I was talking to someone recently about roller coaster tycoon when they said they really only liked building roller coasters. They’d open the park, sure, but it would really just be about building different coasters and seeing how tall or topsy or turvy they could make it. I consulted with another friend. This was, apparently, a popular draw. To forget about the organized lines and the trash cans outside the spinny rides and instead shoot guests off into the distance with incomplete tracks.

Since these conversations, I’ve been thinking about The Smile Project as an amusement park. I have my favorite parts. Akin to my friend constructing custom coasters, I have my tasks that I could lose many an afternoon to. But there’s more to this organization than just building coasters. Sometimes, you have to do the less exciting stuff. That less exciting, behind the scenes stuff is what allows you to build coasters in the first place.

It's an imperfect analogy in my case. For better or worse, I just as much enjoyed watching the amusement park staff clean up vomit outside the roller coaster as I enjoyed building it. But that’s definitely not the case in many aspects of my life and my work.

There are certain things that will always be delightful and fun and easy. And there are other things I’ll put off for weeks because they seem hard or scary or never ending.

If I think of building a roller coaster as a grand achievement, I have to honestly look at what it took to build it. I have to look at the investment of time and energy into learning how to build a roller coaster. I have to see the greater context of where this roller coaster will be. I have to be willing to make sacrifices to see this thing to completion. And of course, I imagine much of this will be quietly… or alone… or without fanfare or applause.

Growing up outside of Pittsburgh, PA, I have an unbelievable soft spot for Kennywood Amusement Park. It feels incredibly nostalgic and I am grateful for sticky summer days spent there in childhood and cooler fall nights as a young adult. When we talk about Kennywood, or any amusement park really, we tend to talk first about the roller coasters.

But running a successful amusement park is about more than building coasters.

And starting (or continuing) a big project is about more than the things we find fun or flashy. It’s in the weeds. It’s hours spent looking over the same task. It’s frustration and fatigue and turning to mentors and supporters. It’s asking for help. It’s going back to basics. It’s failing and failing and failing and failing and failing and then, one day, getting it right. It’s constant growth and it makes us better, day by climbing day.

Take time to build your coaster. But don’t let that distract you from the ground work. You’ll still need sidewalks to get people to the ticket booth.


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