First is different from second. First place in line. First chosen for the kickball team. First through the door. Coming in first, even in small ways, has served as proof of merit for leaders and their organizations. The more you come in first, the better you must be. Fastest, smartest, strongest, most popular, most resourceful, and even meanest – all of these get their own forms of medals in our halls of heroes. And, this passion for first place starts young. Two quick examples reminded me of this fact:
- Last Friday, I went down to the playground to line students up for recess. One boy started the scramble to be first in line. Then that scrambling spread to others. In an instant I had twelve students dashing across the cafeteria to get to that line at the door. A few of the boys showed remarkable skills with cutting from the side, shoving-and-cutting, or the old sneak-behind-the-principal-and-out-the-door cut. I sent them back to their seats and we started over.
- On Saturday, I watched my own boys’ soccer game – a quarter final so the stakes were higher. I took note of one boy whose name had come up in the parents’ pre-game chatter. This kid was a top player. “Mark him,” we heard the coach say. Sure enough, the kid was fast. In a bit of a twist, the number 2 was embossed on his game jersey. And he was skilled! He dribbled the ball around the fullbacks, took out our players with slide tackles, and showed on-field ruthlessness that some call the competitive instinct. After one flagrant foul that cut the legs out from one of our team’s forwards, even his father couldn’t take it. He stepped onto the field and shouted at his son to ‘cut that shit out.’ But the boy did not change his tactics. He continued to outrun? and shove his way around. His team won, 5 to 0. For this thirteen year old, the scoreboard held all of the required information.
So, what’s this first-at-all-costs thing about when you break it down? About being the best? And isn’t the best always first? Well, it’s a common belief, but is this assumption really true? Do those who claw and slash their ways to the top do so out of respect for top quality and optimum performance? What if I suggested that the hunger for first place came from the fear of getting left behind, out flanked, and ignored? What if someone were to pull aside the aforementioned young soccer champion and suggest that the long (and better) game was in learning how to navigate second? How laughable would that sound?
I would suggest to the thirteen year old in all of us that we do some math together. When we add it up, most of us are second in most ways throughout the bulk of our lives. And not only is second not such a bad place to be, it has distinct advantages as well. We learn about ourselves when we endure standing behind that jerk who cut in on us in line. We grow when we reach for the top but miss. When we ask kids to be civil to others, and teach them to share or to say sorry we are asking them to practice second-place skills. Leaders, for example, learn from practicing graceful transitions from first to second place. When they come back a second time, they are wiser, more intuitive, and maybe even more valuable to the rest of us.
Second is where the real deal happens, in that second chair, embraced without judging, when we release the need to be first (reword). And if this much is true, may I suggest an unbridled celebration of second place – a position that demands skill and requires art to sustain? Let it begin by claiming victory over inside voices that tell us we’re not good enough. Think of how strong you (we) get by losing! Fall down. Get up. Move on. Be second and be strong!
Let the games begin!