I Have a Passion for Creating Things that Have Value for Other People

Spelling champ Cole Shafer-Ray turned his knack for words into a consulting business that helps others excel.

From the outside, spelling bees might seem like a cute, geeky pastime. Anyone within the spelling world, though, knows just how grueling and competitive they actually are — and how the difference between victory and disappointment can be a single letter.

Cole Shafer-Ray, a high school senior from Norman, Oklahoma, made it to the top of the field despite personal hardship and little institutional support. After finishing as a runner-up at Scripps National Spelling Bee, he came out on the other side stronger, more motivated, and ready to embark on his next adventure: his very own online consulting business. Here, Cole takes us through his remarkable journey in the spelling world and the lessons he learned along the way.

The makings of a spelling champion

Even back in kindergarten, I remember trying to make my own dictionaries. But I got interested in competitive spelling when my brother got second at the Oklahoma State Spelling Bee.

He was in eighth grade when I was in third grade. I’ve always been super-competitive with him, so I decided I’d get first in the State Spelling Bee just to one-up him — everybody was all proud of him.

So starting fourth grade, I took spelling really seriously. And from then on I was just hungry to win State and go to Scripps National Spelling Bee. Movies like Akeelah and the Bee, they got me hyped up.

In fourth and fifth grade I was into spelling as a side-hobby. I saw it like basketball or soccer — something I did on the side for fun.

My dad, who’d helped me get everything set up — like computer programs for me to study words — got leukemia in my fifth-grade year. When his health deteriorated he was still working. He was a physicist and was still working on his research. That was so inspiring to me.

He died two years later — halfway through sixth grade. I ended up qualifying for the National Spelling Bee a few weeks after he passed, maybe a month or two. And that year I didn’t do very well. That’s when I started taking it really, really seriously.

I just took it upon myself to work harder than any of them and prove to myself that I could do it.
Cole Shafer-Ray

I would study 10 hours a day on weekdays — I’d stay up until three, four, five A.M. every night. And then on weekends, same thing. At the time my only options were “win” or “failure.” That was a big transformation — the purpose of my life in seventh and eighth grade was to win the National Spelling Bee. It was what I thought about when I went to sleep, and what I thought about when I woke up. I just really wanted to prove that I could do it. And I wanted to honor my dad. I just saw that in my mind whenever I would be up late and sleep-deprived. I felt like giving only 80 percent to spelling was not honoring his legacy.

In seventh grade I didn’t make it to the semi-finals, which is the top 50 out of 300 or so kids. I missed it by a point. And that set off something in me.

Other kids that placed higher than me, they had infrastructural support — like parents helping them out and quitting their jobs to help them study. And I didn’t really have any of that. So I just took it upon myself to work harder than any of them and prove to myself that I could do it.

This was also the year that my brother went to college. It was just me and my mom. We weren’t the most stable household, as you can imagine. And I thought of spelling as a way out of that — it was all I had at the time.

I wanted to come out of nowhere and win.

Coming within inches of victory — and learning to move on

My first two years at Scripps I was just taking it all in: the fact that I was on TV, meeting idols that I looked up to and taking pictures with them. In eighth grade I didn’t really go to the social events — I was locked in.

At the time I was upset that I only got runner-up because I felt like I could have won. Watching the winners on talk shows the week afterward, that sucked. It was really hard. I will never forget the words that I missed in any year, ever. I know for a fact when I’m 95, maybe the last thing left in my brain left will be the words that I missed.

I remember my first spelling bee in my elementary school, like first grade. I missed the word fence. I won’t forget that. I won’t forget missing “tutu” in second grade. And I won’t forget missing “acritarch” at Scripps. Every competitive speller that makes it to the National Spelling Bee can tell you every word they’ve ever missed.

But now that I’m four years removed from it, it really doesn’t matter to me anymore. Looking back on it a few months later, I honestly would not have had it another way. It was this open-ended thing: I did really well but I didn’t win, so there was more motivation in that. I still got the recognition I’d been seeking. I had just proved to myself that I could be the best at something.

Starting a business was never really a decision for me. I just started to do it.
Cole Shafer-Ray

Carrying that confidence into high school has helped me in almost every facet of my life — if I obsess over something and really devote myself to it, I have empirical evidence that I can get really, really, really good at it. That was a big thing for me. It helped me start a business, too — having that knowledge, experience, and name recognition in the spelling industry.

Starting a business was never really a decision for me. I just started to do it. I have a passion for creating things that have value for other people, and find it fulfilling to know that I had a big part in someone else’s success. I’ve coached multiple finalists in the National Spelling Bee, and it’s pretty much the same feeling of actually competing.

The summer after eighth grade, I just started my website, put up a bunch of resources there, and started making cool stuff — like statistics for all the lists that I had made. I shared it with people and they really liked it. And then two years down the road the website just blew up and I realized I could be making money off of this — I could go out to lunch with my friends instead of staying in.

My WordPress.com site has been awesome for that. I’ve connected with people from all 50 states and so many different countries. WordPress is so simple and easy to use, and it has really helped me do that.

If I was just a spelling coach in Norman, Oklahoma, it would’ve been hard to find people who had the same passion for spelling that I did. The fact that I’m able to connect with people from all those places — California, New York, Idaho, Wyoming, even Scotland — is exciting.

But even if I did it for free and made no money, I would still like to do it because I really like spelling, and I really like making things that other people find value in.

How to run a business and plan your future — while finishing high school

I barely balance everything. It’s definitely something I’ve had to figure out as far as time management. The results are worth it to me, because I really want to strive to be the best version of myself.

Whenever I make it home I just power off my phone. I don’t spend too much time on social media. I’ll still go out with friends on Friday or Saturday nights, but I don’t spend a whole lot of time doing nothing.

Spelling really taught me time management and work ethic. So it’s another thing that I’ve carried forward.

I am almost positive that I want to go into a career where I’m doing something on my own terms. I like making things where I’m in charge of what happens. I want to create stuff that people use and value — that’s something that I really have a passion for.

If somebody completely devotes themselves to something they really like to do, they can become one of the best in the world at it. That’s how I feel about it.

Learn more about Cole’s journey on his WordPress.com Business site, The Spelling Champ.

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