There are many contests in life that only have a prize for first place. When two teams go to the Super Bowl, only one gets the ring. When you watch the first place runner cross the finish line fractions of an inch ahead of you, it can feel pretty demoralizing.
There may only be an official prize for first place in many contests. But there is an unofficial – yet very important – prize for second in all contests: the knowledge that you rule.
Consider for a moment the gap in ability between Usain Bolt (who won the Gold Medal in the men’s 100-meter dash in the 2016 Olympics) and Justin Gatlin (who won the Silver Medal). Their speeds were 9.81 seconds and 9.89 seconds, respectively. A gap of eight one-hundredths of a second. Now think about the gap between Gatlin’s time, and your best time running one hundred meters. My guess is that the gap between Gatlin’s time and yours is much much larger than the gap between Gatlin’s time and Bolt’s.
Which means Gatlin might have been stinging right after the race. He might have had a strong desire to work on improving himself to close that gap. He may even have felt discouraged that all that work didn’t get him the gold. But he would be wildly, incredibly foolish to think that he wasn’t a good athlete.
I mean, he was literally faster than every human on Earth except one. He rules.
And so do you. Getting so close the finish line and not getting first place might be a gut punch. But it’s also an incredibly strong signal that you should race again, and soon. For you to have come all that way was not wasted time nor effort – it was a trial run that showed you that you are absolutely capable.
Now let’s step away from the Olympics for a moment, and look at the world the rest of us live in. The Olympics are WAY higher-stakes than what you or I did recently that landed us in second place. Come in second at the Olympics, and you can’t compete again for years – and many don’t compete again at all. But if you miss your shot at a job you were interviewing for, a contract you were trying to land, a person you were trying to ask out – you can have a dozen more chances this month. And remember that you’ve already proven that you’re of incredibly high skill; 99th percentile stuff.
If you try out for contest after contest after contest in a particular sphere and you consistently land in 175th place, then maybe that thing isn’t for you. But if you’re landing in #2? You’re right there! Just do it a few more times – maybe even once – and you’ve got it. People who are bad at things don’t win silver medals for them.
Now, let me add a bit of tactics onto my mentality lesson here: responding to your silver is how you get your gold. When I was a teenager and played video games with other teenagers, a common phrase was “almost had it.” That’s what you’d say when you were so close to beating that last boss, he had a millimeter left on his health bar, and then you slipped and he got you. You’d say “almost had it.” Only there were two ways to say it: one kid would smash their controller on the ground and stomp their foot and say “almost had it” like the universe cheated them out of something they deserved. The other kid tightened their grip and grinned, eyes boring into the screen as they restarted, leaning forward into their next round as they said “almost had it,” like another man in another time said “Eureka.”
Guess which kid won on their next play through?
The person who doesn’t get the job reaches out, has great conversations anyway with those people, stays connected, suggests ways to collaborate in the future, builds a relationship that will create referrals and contacts well down the line (and hey, even potentially another swing in the future). The person who loses a contract bid to another rep studies everything about that rep’s style and their company’s offering to improve their own. The person who strikes out on the date request is charming and gracious about it, impressing other people with their poise and setting up future interest. You don’t lose, you get closer.
If you approach your Silver performance with the keen eye of a student, humble and willing to take every opportunity to learn, to advance, to still find advantage in the scenario you created instead of treating it as a binary, all-or-nothing situation – if you do all of that, do you really think you can’t find eight one-hundredths of a second worth of improvement in there? That’s all it takes to get the Gold next time.