Second Place Rules

Long term, second place can pay off in spades. I see second place more as a second chance than a loss. Watching someone else cross the finish line ahead can empower you with the drive to improve and an insight into the victor’s foundational success strategy. Knowledge and motivation in hand, you have the key ingredients to better yourself against the competition.

On several occasions, I’ve had the pleasure of following the first in line. I was the second graduating class of my high school, so I watched an entire group of kids go through the ropes before me (always being an upperclassman definitely had its perks). We had the opportunity to fix their mistakes and build on their accomplishments. It was a great deal.

I’ve seen companies beat my ideas to the market. A sad day turns happy when you start to find all the flaws in their approach and the opportunity to perform differently or better. You can refocus your efforts and take more informed strategic bets in the space. Also a great deal.

No, you did not cross the finish line first this time. I’m sorry. But next time, you can win the race and break records in brilliant form. All great athletes lose every once in a while. If they didn’t, they would get bored with winning and have no room to grow. Growth is important. A challenge is a great thing. Competition makes the world go round.

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Don’t Ignore the Past

We have explicit memory for a reason. Where most animals only have implicit memory for motor skills, human beings have a declarative memory that helps us record autobiographical, semantic and episodic information. We can remember how to do more than just walk and eat. We developed these skills to gain a competitive advantage against other species and humans who could not share our memories and experiences past. Simply put: “I learned things through experience that you do not know and that makes me better than you.” In a gnarly world of job applications and qualifications, “experience” means everything.

Experience does not end in employment land. Street smarts come from street experiences. Book smarts come from book experiences. We consume life and literature everyday, and much of what we consume gets logged in our brains.

Individuals often resist dwelling or revisiting bad experiences or periods of shame. They block episodes from memory, drink them away or refuse to share them with others. That’s a waste. While I understand that mistakes are not necessarily glamorous things to share with the public, you have an opportunity to help close friends and family learn from your mistakes. You can contribute to a collective memory and help the species last. We have memories for a reason – do not waste them. And do not let them die with you. Do not run from the past; embrace it as a gift. Any memory, good or bad, makes you the character that you are and gives you a competitive advantage in some way. Learn to stop hiding and love the past.

What or Who Are You Competing Against?

Do you even know? No one can genuinely create a sense of urgency without cause or reason. Everyone is competing against the clock (we’re mortals, after all), but why? For what reason? Is it a race? Against whom?

If you have a clear opponent to beat, that’s easy. Wave the enemy’s flag in spite and embrace competition as a positive energy in your organization or life. Move forward and fast, as if it were a fun game.

If you are a startup or non-profit without grasp of a market, what are you competing against? Most small organizations compete against sinking bank accounts. Young companies not yet cash-flow positive must sweat their burn rates and execute on their vision before running out of money. If the money drain is your greatest enemy, make a big deal about that, too. Don’t hide it from your people; share the bank statement with managers if you want them to understand that particular sense of urgency. They will understand.

You cannot motivate people from scratch. You can only give them the tools, information and environment to hopefully inspire them to motivate themselves. As a leader, you must know what you are competing against. And do not forget to share that information with your people who suffer the whip every day.

Early Bird Gets the Attention

If you are first in line, there will be more water in the pool to make a bigger splash. If you hit the market first, it will be much easier to make some noise. Get in people’s queues first, and you will be read before the next guy. I have seen a direct correlation to the number of people who read my blog per day and the time of day I post – the earlier, the better. The early bird gets the worm. Or in this case, the attention.

There is a flip side to being first: a responsibility to quality. While you may secure for yourself a smash hit opening weekend by launching first, sustaining that hit overtime is a completely different story. In journalism, it’s always a race to publish first. But if the accuracy of an article doesn’t check out, the premature launch could adversely effect the organization’s credibility. To build a sustainable hit, you must keep quality high and consistently beat everyone else to the punch.

While my blog has little at stake to post “first,” I doubt I could have earned your readership if I published daily nonsensical poop jokes. Without question, quality counts in the long term. But if all you want is attention and immediate gratification, you better cross the finish line in first place.

Collaboration, Not Compromise

To repatriate, rebuild, and rekindle our nation, we need to set aside partisanship and find common ground. To do that, I urge a small tweak to our political lexicon: replace “compromise” with “collaboration.” Compromise implies two sides with disparate interests; collaboration suggests multiple specialized parties on the same team. No one should ever surrender beliefs, but it is important to first discover a platform of common agreement to move forward together under the same banner. At the heart of every issue lies at least a sliver of mutual consent and values everyone can share. Identify that first, and we can move forward together. Easier said than done, but it’s worth a morning shout.

Pick Your Battles

Let’s face it: you are not proficient or informed about hundreds of thousands of things. No single person knows everything or masters every skill on the planet. There are countless battles you cannot win. That’s difficult for many people to hear, especially me; I am as competitive as they come. But you must face the facts and learn to let go. I am not very athletic or musical; I tip my hat to and tap out of matches with people who are. Choose your battles wisely. Know what battles are worth fighting. Know what battles you stand a chance to win. Invest yourself completely. Focus on meaningful, personal battles. Discard and ignore the rest. It’s far less stressful and humiliating to accept failure before you actually fail.

The School of Different

Competition drives innovation. Duh. It sent us to the moon, after all. You can compete in one of two ways: 1) approach a problem from the same angle, trying to execute better than the next guy; or 2) approach the same problem differently. Both tactics have risks. By going head to head with another group wielding similar solutions, you risk falling behind in the race. By approaching a problem differently, there’s a chance your solution may not work at all. That said, there’s always a chance that two groups using similar solutions may fail to solve the problem as well. Two wrongs do not necessarily make a right.

Redundant solutions are a waste of resources, time, and marketplace space. What do you have to gain by trying to do the same thing better than the next guy? The chances that you will make a competitive impression are few and far between. Why not try something different altogether? Identify a problem or need, list the solutions available now, and brainstorm opportunities divergent from (or completely counter-intuitive to) other trends. Sure, you may fail to solve the problem. But you may also outperform the next guy with your unique approach. You’ll never know unless you try.

Remember what Henry Ford said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Embrace different.

Perhaps education could spend more time teaching students about what not to do. We should impart to students a fundamental understanding of what has been done already, and inspire them to approach things differently.

Through a culture of experimentation and differentiation, we will solve more problems faster and with more certainty.