The adage goes “Second place is the first loser.” I have two stories to indicate otherwise.
This is the 20th anniversary of me starring as Jan in the Seneca East High School production of Grease. I auditioned in December and was cast as a Pink Lady. This was a bit disappointing to me, as I was hoping to be one of the named characters. Fast forward to our first rehearsal in January and the girl who was cast as Jan wasn’t there. She moved away during Christmas break, leaving an opening in our cast. I can’t remember how they decided to cast the part, but I quickly raised my hand and read lines and sang songs to vie for the role. I got the part and had the best time playing a character that couldn’t be farther from my true self.
I played the slovenly, awkward, junk-food eating comic of the cast. I’ve never had more fun playing a part in my life. In addition to sewing my costumes, my mom had to prepare an assortment of prop food for each practice – mainly spaghetti and brownies. I formed an alliance with the kid who played Eugene and he would eat the leftover food after the scenes were done.
The show sold out and we had to add more performances to meet demand. I’m sure I would have had a great time as a cast member, but taking my bow during the curtain call was always highly satisfying knowing that I wasn’t even supposed to be playing that part.
Later in life, coming in second involved my husband, Rob. He applied for a faculty job at our alma mater in his final year of graduate school. He went straight from his PhD defense to the airport and spent the next three days being grilled on why he was the best candidate for the job. We felt confident that this was his job. He was a fresh face and the “hometown hero” who understood campus culture. He had a strong research and teaching record at a world class graduate school.
A few weeks later, he donned his graduation robes and marched through the Stanford Stadium, still waiting to hear back about the job. (This was the same graduation ceremony that Steve Jobs gave one of the most poignant and memorable commencement addresses of all time). The day after graduation, Rob called me at work to tell me he didn’t get the job. I think I was more upset than he was. I had visions of coming home and taking the next step in our lives together.
We had a trip to Hawaii to celebrate his graduation planned a month later and agreed after we returned that we would get out the US map and put a pin in Columbus, Ohio and determine where we would start the next round of the job search. It turns out we didn’t need to get out the map. As we were preparing for our last evening on the Big Island, Rob checked his cell phone messages. He had a message from the chair of the department at Ohio State telling him that the guy they offered the job to turned it down and would Rob be interested in the job. I screamed. I jumped on the bed. We must have replayed that voicemail a dozen times. The rest of that vacation was a blur. We spent the next day at the airport calling around with the good news. We were coming home.
Small Town Leadership Lesson: Don’t feel bad telling someone they came in second place. They will likely jump to the front of the line if the situation changes. Sometimes it takes defeat to make you appreciate victory. The universe is unfolding as it should, and these two stories always remind me of that.