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Striving for Second… or Maybe Third

I ran for and was elected to one of three open local school board seats earlier this month. The experience was filled with learning… about politics, our community, campaigning, and myself!

As a Type A, highly driven, excellence-oriented achiever, I’m accustomed to setting my sights for the top. The highest A in a class, sales leader, #1 utilization rate, off-the-charts end-of-class ratings. Like so many others (you included, I would imagine), I have spent a lifetime developing an unconscious habit of striving for the top… in all things – those that matter and those that don’t.  School. Work. Words with Friends.

So, imagine my discomfort when earlier this summer, I realized that in this political contest, I could simply not earn the most votes. Two factors were working against me: a very full fall business and travel schedule, and a decision to ask supporters to donate to our schools rather than to my campaign.

With my time and funds greatly limited compared with other candidates, I had to reframe my goal. With three open seats, I didn’t have to be #1… I just had to be in the top three.

As simple as that awareness was, it was also profound, liberating, and challenging. Coming off ‘automatic pilot’ was a daily struggle. Reminding myself that a wider swath of performance could still translate to success became a mantra.  Stepping back to determine where 100% effort was necessary (and where it wasn’t) built a new mental discipline.

What do we lose when success is myopically defined as one point (the highest one) along a continuum of results?

  • The creativity that comes from a mindset of growth versus performance.
  • The ability to savor and celebrate a broader range of successful outcomes.
  • Perspective and the ability to focus on the bigger picture.
  • A full range of experiences that are passed up because of the excessive effort invested in reaching the pinnacle.

So, election night came and supporters gathered to await results. People took turns refreshing and updating the election results site. Finally, the first batch of ballots had been counted… and I was in second place.

At another time, in another context, I would have been devastated, humiliated, and completely dissatisfied. But I wasn’t.  My goal was to be in the top three… and I was right there, right in the middle.  I couldn’t contain myself and happily yelled out “I’m number 2!”  My reaction quickly spread and the celebration was kicked into high gear.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we all become slackers or slugs (not that those of you reading this could ever do that anyway!). But I do find myself wondering about the opportunity cost associated with allowing ourselves to get drawn into the habit of unconsciously striving for the top when there’s a wider corridor of performance that actually could define success. What have you lost out on as a result of that battle (mostly with yourself) for #1? Time with family? Better working relationships? Interesting opportunities and experiences?

As I turn the page on this campaigning and election experience, I take with me several lessons:

  • The democratic process is pretty cool.
  • We need to trade our habitual (sometime lazy) way of thinking about success for greater mindfulness as we define our goals.
  • Broader satisfaction and happiness comes from becoming open to expanding our definitions of success from ‘one point’ at the top to a range, corridor, or swath of performance or results.
  • Sustainable success comes from understanding that time and energy are limited resources that must be consciously invested toward authentic and genuine goals.

And here’s my challenge… that I share with you: How can we bring greater consciousness to our goals and greater mindfulness to their pursuit?  Because I can tell you from personal experience, there’s a certain sweetness in second.

Image: www.istockphoto.com

4 comments on “Striving for Second… or Maybe Third

  1. josh on

    Coming from the start up world, you learn that sometimes being “just good enough” is perfectly acceptable. It is a matter of managing marginal costs vs marginal rewards.

    • Julie Giulioni on

      So well put, Josh. But getting to the point of trusting that good enough really is can be a challenge. I love the idea of managing marginal costs vs. rewards…. and wonder how much the time/effort/etc. that I’ve invested has really yielded an appropriate return. Thanks so much for further framing this important issue!

  2. Jennifer V. Miller on


    First of all, congrats on landing a seat on the board! Now the “fun” begins.

    Second, this is golden: “Stepping back to determine where 100% effort was necessary (and where it wasn’t) built a new mental discipline.” This is so true! Thanks for the excellent thoughts.

    • Julie Giulioni on

      Thanks so much, Jennifer! (I had a feeling that, given how much you do and the level of excellence you bring to all things, this topic might resonate for you!) And thank you for including this post in your Carnival of HR!


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