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What Can We Learn From Coming in 2nd?

Amanda Sollman

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If you've spent more than two minutes in the capitalistic, competitive American culture, you know at least one thing to be true: coming in 2nd place = BAD.

"Second place is just the first loser."

"If you aren't first, you're last!"

"No one remembers the guy who comes in second."

Our vernacular is littered with sayings like this. And the key message for each of them is that winning is all that counts.

But what if there's more to it than that?

A few months ago, I had the chance to attend my state's FFA convention. During that week, I observed the experiences of two FFA members that were a) eerily similar, and b) made me really think about what it means to come in second place.

The two FFA members I took note of were girls from totally different parts of the state. However, they both competed in speaking contests – one in prepared public speaking, the other in extemporaneous – and were running for state FFA office. There's no question that they are both very talented. I'd recognized their names from other contests, activities and offices over the years. High performers to be sure.

But they both came in second in their respective contests.

Then neither made the state FFA officer team. 

And I was left to wonder, if winning is all that matters, what does that mean for these two clearly talented, up-and-coming young women?

In reality, we all know that not everyone can be the winner – it's sort of a statistical impossibility. So then we have to ask ourselves: what can we learn from coming in 2nd? Or put another way, what lessons can we glean from the experience of losing?

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Hard Work and Dedication is a Requirement

This past year, I competed in the American Farm Bureau discussion meet and, thoughout the course of my preparation, had numerous people joke about how much effort I was spending on getting. After all, I was trying to read about issues facing agriculture at least an hour a day. I had multiple study sessions and practice discussions with my state Farm Bureau staff. I watched past discussions and created strategy for my approach. It was a lot!

But whenever someone would ask me why I was doing it all or was suprised when they heard about my approach, I had only one response: "I'm not showing up just to be there. I came to compete. And NO ONE will out prepare me."

Where did that get me? Well, I won my state contest. And then I made it to the national final four. No, I didn't win the whole thing. But I also had no disappointment in my performance, either. Why? Because I did exactly what I set out to do – and on that day, the judges just believed that someone else did it better.

Now, contrast that with a friend of mine who made it to the finals in our state contest. They'll be pretty up front with you about the fact that they did pretty much no prep. And, while they had enough working knowledge to get them through the preliminary and semi-final rounds, their lack of deeper knowledge is what knocked them out in the finals. They hadn't put in the work – and they knew it.

Talent is good. But, in most situations, it's only going to get you so far.

Even in professional athletics, which is what I most often think of as the area most definitely needing talent, you see athlete after athlete piss away their potential and their success because they aren't willing to put in the work

So, ask yourself: if I came in 2nd, did I put in the work required to win?

There's definitely a chance that you did. Just like my experience in the discussion meet and the experience of the two FFA members I mentioned earlier, it's very possible that you did everything in your power to prepare and it just wasn't your day. After all, as we've already acknowledged, there's usually only one winner.

But, there's also a chance that you didn't. There's a possibility that you lost or didn't reach your goal because you...

  • ...didn't make that last farm call of the day.
  • ...were too afraid to have the tough conversation.
  • ...got complacent in your relationship.
  • ...avoided that workout.
  • ...thought being talented would get you far enough.

When we don't put in the work – either because we're too scared, think it might be painful, or don't believe the possible outcome is worth it – 2nd place (or lower) is where we're going to live.

But when we choose to go the extra mile, to do the work that others won't – our chances of success are much greater.

The Universe Sends Messages

Now, let's say that you put in the hard work – the hours, the blood, sweat and tears – and you still lose or fall short of your goal. Then what?

I truly do believe that, sometimes, we come in second or lose because that's the lesson we need to learn at that moment.

I'll never know for sure, but, for the two girls who fell short of making the state FFA officer team, maybe they needed to have some more life experiences and grow in their maturity/leadership abilities (not uncommon for 18 year olds). Or maybe they had been so used to winning and everything coming easily – as many high performers are – that they needed to be "knocked down a few pegs," as the saying goes, and discover what it's like to fall before you rise. Or maybe they needed to discover that, even though they'd put in a ton of work, there was another level to preparation that they'd never realized.

It could be all or none of those, but you can see where it's possible that the Universe was stepping in to say, "You're not ready for this."

Each of us probably has an experience like this. We fall short of our goals and are disappointed. But, in hindsight, realize, "Oh, wow. I needed that extra experience/time/maturity/challenge/etc. to get to where I am today. I wasn't ready for it at that point."

Caveat #1 – You Choose to Settle

Clearly, the ability to win is not a black and white issue. There's no magical formula that says, "If I do X, Y and Z, I will always win and/or achieve my goals." It's not that easy. There are human beings and emotions and so much more involved. You can't control everything.

But, you do get to choose where to go next.

In all of the examples above, the person in question could choose to get angry or disappointed, and let that eat at them. They could choose to throw their own "pity party" and stay in that negative mindset.

Or they could choose to level up. To study more. To build a broader network. To put in the extra hour of practice. To make just one more farm call. To run just 10 minutes more. To analyze what went wrong and find ways to address it.

Yes, you're going to come in second, lose or fall short of your goal every now and again. The bigger question, though, is this: do you dust yourself off and get back up again? Or do you choose to just hang out in the dirt?

Caveat #2 – You Define Your goals 

In a culture that's obsessed with winning, we sometimes need to remind ourselves that we get to define our goals – not the other way around.

Let me give you an example: I'm running my first 5K this weekend. I am NOT a runner, so focusing on winning would be silly. Instead, I have two very simple goals:

  1. Cross the finish line.
  2. Don't stop running.

Sure, those may seem like insignificant objectives (especially for seasoned runners who keep reminding me that 5K isn't that far). But they're my goals. And if I achieve them, I will be very proud of myself. 

What does success look like for you?

Sure, it could be something big like running a marathon or being the top sales person in your company.

But, it might also be something seemingly small to other people. Maybe it's just cutting soda or alcohol out of your diet. Maybe it's turning off the TV one night a week for family game night. Maybe it's making it to church every Sunday for one month.

The point is, no one else gets to decide what "winning" looks like for you. You are in charge of defining your own success.

Thoughts to Ponder...

Sometimes losing is a sign we didn't work hard enough or we didn't know how much we needed to uplevel to succeed.

But sometimes it's a sign that we need to learn a few more lessons before we're ready for what success provides.

Either way, you're in charge of creating your own definition of what it means to win – and making sure you don't get complacent along the way.

Back to you – what are the best lessons you've learned from losing? Share them in the comments!

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