The Stop-At-Second Manifesto
By Anju Paul
I used to be a winner.
Throughout my school years, I occupied (more often than not) the first place position in class. It was the same in college. Later, during my five-year stint in the corporate world, I was routinely ranked the top-performing executive in my division and promoted every year until I was the youngest assistant manager in my company.
I was also the most miserable assistant manager in my company. I worked fourteen-hour days, returning to the office on weekends to keep up with my ever-expanding workload. I hardly took holidays, never relaxed, and didn't take criticism very well. (I kept bursting into tears, you see.) I stressed over my duties and obsessed about my performance. That's what it was like being me before I gave up the winning life.
In The Psychology of Winning (Berkley Publishing Group, 1992), author Dr Denis Waitley lists the qualities possessed by winners. The ten qualities are Positive Self-Awareness (what I call 'Positive Self-Centeredness'), Positive Self-Esteem (Positive Egotism), Positive Self-Control (Positive Anal-ism, if there is such a word), Positive Self-Motivation (Positively Irritating Upbeatedness), and six more Positives that sound suspiciously like synonyms of the first four. Is that the kind of person you aspire to be?
Truth be told, nobody even likes winners. They are either the "total winners" of Dr Waitley's book: obnoxious, overbearing show-offs who love to tell you how huge a success they are and how huge a success you're not. Or they are insecure, overly anxious paranoid-types who need constant emotional stroking to reassure them that they really are winners. (This second category was me.)
Not that becoming anti-winning means that I am now pro-losing. A celebration of failure just wouldn't sell in this Survivor-spawning-Apprentice-loving country. Which is why Scott Sandage's book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (Harvard University Press, 2005), by all accounts, a well-researched piece of analysis with probing insights into the national psyche, has not exactly been flying off the shelves at Barnes & Noble.
Nobody enjoys being a loser. You become depressed; you spend thousands of dollars on therapy; you obsess about the million stupid things you did that brought you to your current state; you develop a victim complex; you contemplate suicide; you cry a lot. It's morbid and not something I enjoy watching or going through myself.
I wish it was as simple as outlawing all forms of competition to force people off the never-ending hamster wheel of striving to win, not succeeding and then feeling like failures. In American Mania: When More Is Not Enough (W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), Dr. Peter C. Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues that Americans more than other nationalities are genetically predisposed toward the relentless pursuit of status. All human beings are hardwired to want more -- more power, more money, more pleasure -- but living in an interdependent community usually helps temper people's self-interested ambitions. America, however, as a nation of immigrants, is full of people "genetically self-selected to favor individualism" to the point where winning becomes a national mania, says Dr. Whybrow.
Dr. Whybrow's book has received critical praise in academic circles but it has been pointed out that the good doctor does not offer a way out of the mess in which he finds Americans.
Which is where I come in.
Because, between first place and last, I have discovered a Golden Mean -- a middle ground of social respectability and personal contentment -- and that is Second Place.
Stopping at Second is not as far out as you might imagine. There are plenty of well-documented examples in Life, the Universe and Everything, that prove that 'Second' is the place to be.
In the business world, for instance, where everything boils down to risk and return, there has been a long-established Stop-At-Second strategy that recommends companies aim to be 'leading edge' rather than 'bleeding edge'. Bleeding edge companies are the ones who invest heavily in risky research and development efforts, all for the sake of being considered the top-of-the-line movers and shakers within the industry, but with the potential downside of going bust if they put their eggs in the wrong basket. Leading edge companies, on the other hand, consciously stay one step behind bleeding edge companies. Leading edge companies allow industry frontrunners to make all the costly this-way-or-that investment decisions, waiting to see whether or not the choice made was the right one, and then make their own move at a greatly reduced risk.
And then there are geese.
In the fall, when thousands of geese fly south in V-shaped formations, do you ever see any of them jockey for pole position at the front-tip of the V? No. That's because geese know that the V's front man faces the highest amount of wind resistance as it flies. Geese flying just behind the front man's wingtips however expend less energy because they are flying in its slipstream. Among geese, the leadership position is periodically rotated so no one goose has to bear the burden of being first alone. Geese have long been aware that flying in first can make one a dead duck.
And what about second kisses? Everyone knows that your first kiss is always going to go awry. It's only by your second kiss (if you're lucky enough to get that far) that you'll have figured out how far to tilt your head; where your nose should go; how much pressure to apply; whether to focus on only one lip or both; whether to bite, smother or peck: all those tricky questions that you're sure to get wrong the first time around. Ditto for second marriages (though the questions are trickier).
And notice how silver is more popular than gold these days? Gold is so yesterday. It's vulgar and ostentatious. Silver, on the other hand, is genteel and tasteful. Gold is being transformed into 'white' gold to resemble silver because its yellow luster no longer has mass market appeal. Mark my words, the day is not far when athletes and sportspeople will be competing for Second Place Silver rather than First Place Gold.
Ask Dick Cheney if he wants the top job in the country. Without a doubt and with good reason, Vice President Cheney believes that he's the one with the best job in the White House. As the No.2 guy in the country, he has the President's ear, incredible influence over national policy, and a swanky office address, without the attendant worries brought on by potential assassination attempts, drafting state-of-the-union addresses, and reporters asking embarrassing questions about the number of vacation days he takes each year.
Even John Kerry probably agrees that it was a good thing he came in Second in last year's presidential elections. (He didn't come in last. That particular honor went to Ralph Nader, remember?) As Mr. Runner Up, Kerry gets to sit back and watch while Bush Jr. struggles with the climbing death toll in Iraq and the ballooning federal budget deficit. He can now say 'I told you so' to all the people who didn't vote for him; he can make funny faces without the media lampooning him for it; he can admit to speaking French fluently; he can spend some quality downtime with Teresa without people calling him a kept man; and he can go windsurfing as often as he likes without being accused of being gay.
John Kerry is going to be the Spokesperson of the Stop-At-Second Movement since he is currently available and looking for speaking gigs.
Bill Murray is going to be the movement's Poster Child. Murray has always acted the cool, somewhere-in-the-middle kind of guy and that's what we need now to convince Americans that it's hip to be Second. Nothing speaks to twenty-first century Americans like a movie, so the plan is to produce a Second-Is-Best movie and screen it for free in theatres and church halls around the country à la Mel Gibson. In the movie, Murray will play this laid-back dude who's the second biggest personality in a particular field, say underwater exploration. The Number One guy in the field will be all that is terrible about champions-over-confident, narcissistic, fascist - I'm thinking Jeff Goldblum. Then there'll be a younger guy who will be Murray's disciple, learning from him that it's alright being only Second. Or maybe it will be the other way round... Maybe, it will be Murray who will be obsessed with beating Goldblum, and the younger guy - some new, Hollywood hotshot who's also laugh-out-loud funny; I'm thinking Owen Wilson - who will teach Murray that there's more to life than the Pursuit of First Place. That life is about having fun adventures and the journey being more than the destination and that Second Place is where it's at. It's going to be an awesome movie, I tell you.
After the Stop-At-Second movie conquers the box office, the next area of focus will be the nation's airwaves. The movement needs a jingle to broadcast over the radio and make available for download from Apple iTunes and I have just the thing:
First is worst.
Second is best.
Third's the one with the hairy chest.
(Remember that old schoolyard verse? From the mouths of babes and all that, you know?)
Movies and songs are only the first part in the movement's propaganda campaign: the second is the building of an alluring rhetoric. All existing symbols that portray being in first place in a good light need to be identified and weeded out. Phrases like 'love at first sight', 'first come first serve', and 'winner takes all' must be purged out of our discourse. In their place, we will advertise the many benefits of Second Place: 'second sight', 'having a second wind', and 'getting to second base'.
It sounds easy enough but victory will not come easy, comrades. Conspiracy theorists are sure to accuse the Stop-At-Second Movement of being an establishment plot to preserve the status quo and keep the competition at bay. For decades, women and people of color have been struggling against invisible ceilings, workplace discrimination and lower-paying jobs. The Stop-At-Second Manifesto will be twisted around until it sounds as if we're telling minority groups everywhere to give up the fight. "You wouldn't like it at the top; it's not so great up here. Leave First Place for white men. Don't rock the boat." That's what the naysayers will say we're saying.
But you know that that's not what we're saying at all. We believe that the woman in Second Place has already got it good. We believe that Second Place is as good as it gets. Like Joan of Arc, I hear a voice and it sounds like Karl Marx (not Donald Trump) saying he's sorry he got it wrong the first time round but it's time for another revolution.
The Stop-At-Second Manifesto is a call to arms for dissatisfied, overstressed Second-Placed People around the World today slogging away in their misguided attempts to reach First Place. It's time to make a paradigm shift, my fellow-sufferers. It's time to turn our lives around.
So put up that 'Out for Lunch' sign, make that cup of coffee, put your feet up and get comfy. The revolution has begun.