How One Act of Kindness Changed Me

Sep 20, 2017 By Rhodes Conover, FIRST Alumnus; Student, Florida Polytechnic University




High fives between team members

We had failed. As other teams celebrated their victories, our robot sat motionless on the playing field; each cheer from the crowd felt like salt in our wounds.

I was a high school sophomore competing at a regional FIRST Robotics Competition event. I was young and shortsighted, with little sense of perspective. Now, I’m a senior at one of the top engineering colleges in Florida, thanks in part to my FIRST experience. FIRST taught me things that were crucial to my future success — not just about engineering, but about life. Other high school experiences simply do not match up.

I remember walking away from that dreaded match feeling so defeated, until another team’s build captain offered to help fix our robot. Over the next four hours, Rory helped us patch errors and strengthen connections. By match seven, it was working, and we even scored a few points!

Here are four lessons Rory’s act of kindness taught me:

1. Gracious Professionalism

When asked later on why she had chosen to help us — and miss three of her own matches — Rory cited a FIRST term we had heard before, but never seen in practice: Gracious Professionalism. That’s is the belief that competition does not equal disrespect. At its core, it is the expectation that those who compete should passionately root for their own team, but never root against or put down their opponent. It is the belief that through collaboration, each team becomes stronger. Even though we all compete for first prize, “last place” is respected because it’s worth celebrating when everyone is at their best.

I used to believe that weakening others was simply collateral damage en route to my larger goal. Rory taught me that intense competition does not impair my (our) ability to be respectful or successful. I now understand that the highest form of professionalism is gracious by nature. I have found that most employers (and people in general) search for individuals who are gracious in both victory and defeat, who don’t foster malice or selfishness. They search for gracious professionals.

2. The Spirit of the Law

If Rory had looked the other way, no one would have accused her of failing to show Gracious Professionalism. She had every opportunity to ignore our plight for her own benefit. After all, we hadn’t even asked for her help. But instead, she took an opportunity to demonstrate a key feature of leadership: understanding the spirit of the law.

Rhodes Conover profile
FIRST Alum Rhodes Conover is a student at Florida Polytechnic University


If knowledge is knowing the rules that bind you, wisdom is knowing when to bend those rules (even when it’s not to your advantage). In this case, nothing in the competition rulebook stated that Rory had to help us. But she understood that the rulebook was created to encourage her to help.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many leaders strictly follow rules, without any sense or understanding of the situation, to the detriment of all involved. Ironically, this action is nothing more than a robot could do. Because of my FIRST experience, I now lead with the mindset that Rory taught me, including when serving as student body treasurer at my university. Despite requests by my colleagues to apply rules literally, I applied rules with common sense. This leadership style allowed those I worked with to try new things and allowed us to reach new heights as a team.

3. Leadership

Rory was a critical leader on a competitive team, yet she did not hesitate to drop what she was doing to help us. At first, we couldn’t understand how such a pivotal team member could leave for even a moment, let alone an afternoon. She assured us that her entire build team was able to handle any situation in her stead. My team took this lesson to heart when we attempted to reorganize our team structure the following year. Good leaders motivate and organize others, but also get their hands dirty when needed. The best leaders encompass all of those traits while creating leaders below them and making every team member feel like they are contributing to something larger.

By the time I started college on the path to my own STEM career, I had already learned a great deal about management and leadership from FIRST. I became the project manager for my team’s capstone design project, and I emphasized perspective and individual leadership. Our team did very well and was praised by professor and industry alike.

4. More Than Robots

Officially, our team lost that competition. But rankings don’t matter. FIRST (and life) is about more than building winning robots. It is about leadership, friendship, and personal growth. My senior year, even though I was leading software development, I spent one of our three competition days helping a rookie team get their robot working — not because I was required to, or felt socially obligated, but because it was right. I wouldn’t have made that choice without FIRST. I am better because of Rory. I am better because of FIRST. So to FIRST and Rory: Thank you.

Rhodes Conover is a senior at Florida Polytechnic University, majoring in computer engineering. He was a member of the University’s Inaugural Class. In addition to his studies, he enjoys writing stand-up comedy, watching and analyzing baseball, and playing complex strategy board games.

If you have an inspiring story or piece of wisdom that you’ve picked up through your experiences in the FIRST community, please reach out to us at and inquire about becoming a guest contributor for Inspire.

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