Great American Think-Off invites success and failure

What are you thinking, America? New York Mills, Minnesota, is about to get a lively earful, and one thing is certain: the spotlight will focus on success and failure.

The 26th Annual Great American Think-Off will take center stage on June 9, as a civil-exchange live debate ensues between finalists chosen from a 750-word essay contest answering the 2018 question: “Which plays a larger role in shaping one’s life: success or failure?”

Farmers and Merchants State Bank in New York Mills, a rural farming and manufacturing town located about a three hour’s drive northwest of Minneapolis, is a charter sponsor of the annual Great American Think-Off. The event is the signature fundraiser for the local Cultural Center, a primary provider-promoter of arts that draw visitors to the rural area. Bank President Allan Berube said the arts offerings of the Cultural Center (along with Lund Boat manufacturing) are key to the community thriving. One bank employee serves on the Center’s board, and all are encouraged to be involved in that event and other local civic organizations, Berube said.

In short, the contest is “a classic philosophical quandary meant to inspire thinkers from all walks of life,” according to the Culture Center. If that seems a little heady, Midwest pragmatism, apparently, is intended to rule the day more than the ivory tower. From the get-go, contestants are encouraged to provide answers that are “grounded in personal experience rather than abstract philosophy.” That helps open the playing field to both teenagers and adults. Finalists have come from various states and have included a farmer, a CEO and a high school cheerleader.

This year, Great American Think-Off essayists were prompted to consider their personal experiences: “Did winning push you harder to be your best? Or did losing motivate continued growth to overcome?”

Every year a different question is selected by the Culture Center’s volunteers, themselves in a vigorous debate about potential topics. In 2017, the Presidential election gave rise to this current-event question: “Has the 2016 election changed our perception of truth?” The Culture Center said the audience voted “yes.”

In last year’s final round, Pamela Lewis distilled her debate performance and won the majority of audience votes with a paraphrase of John F. Kennedy and her own exposition from his quotation: “‘We cannot be a fully free society, and we cannot be fully human, unless we protect our need and our quest for the truth.’” Lewis hadn’t traveled much beyond her home state of New York, but found herself the winner in New York Mills.

Ethics was the topic in 2013: “Which is more ethical: sticking to principle or being willing to compromise?” Compromise won the decision. Paul Terry, a CEO of StayWell Health Management, “won the hearts of the audience with his argument that compromise is more ethical than sticking to principle,” the center reported on its website. Compromise is hard work, Terry told his opponent in the final round. “Achieving a compromise is actually the best way to stick to my principles,” the winner said.

The 2018 live debate, followed by audience voting, begins at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 9 at the James W. Mann Center for Performing Arts in New York Mills, Minn. Admission is charged as a benefit for the Culture Center. Tickets are available at [email protected]

A motorcycle ride fundraiser is happening the same weekend in town.