In a world driven by being the best, it takes a hell of a lot of resilience to be second. To be second best, but not give up. To be second in command, advising on big decisions but not aim for the top rung. To be the backing vocalist, never sing the lead and still sing, anyway.
I remember being 20 years old and driving home from a band practice with a girlfriend. It had been a particularly rough session where I wasn't on top of my game. I asked her, being a musician and vocalist I really respected, if she thought I was actually talented at all. She said bravely, 'Well, I think you're good at what you do but you'll never record an album or anything.'
Fifteen years later and I remember it clearly – the crisp smell of a cold spring night creeping into the car and trying not to let the pain show. If I'd had a dream to record any songs of my own, it was stripped in that moment and took years to return. It's the same feeling I had when I missed out on creative writing awards every year at school. Always good, but never the best – therefore unrecognised and out of mind.
If you were to ask me at high school, 'what are your defining talents?' I would have replied – writing and music. Years on, an old school friend said to me, 'I never knew you were a singer.' I was never good enough to make it onto her radar of class talents.
The thing is, I didn't want to be better than anybody else. I just wanted to be who I thought I was. But we live through talent competitions that determine talent and ability through ever decreasing circles, competing against one another instead of ourselves.
It takes a lot of resilience to live as second, or Number Two without feeling like you're only second best or not good enough. The self-awareness required to understand yourself and your ability to be confident in your own talent is typically not nurtured early in our development, rather left to emerge as a result of character-building experiences. Those experiences might teach you your place in the natural order of things, but they don't always result in a stronger sense of your own voice.
The more competitive your work environment, the harder it will be to do the work required to establish strong, healthy identity. People love stars, as long as they are delivering big wins. To be good at anything requires consistent effort in a series of habits that are grounded in your unique talents. You might call this finding your voice.
Why is it so hard?
Because our culture largely does not understand what talent is. It confuses talent with winning a competition to be the best of many, versus being the best of one. Embracing your talent and your unique identity is embracing the strength to be second to some, second to many but entirely yourself. To know your voice and speak out loud, clearly. Philosophers have expressed this as 'Know Thyself'. But we need to find spaces to do this work without the competitive element overtaking.
The Importance of Being Second
Business leaders talk often about the power of cohesive and supportive relationship between a Number One and a Number Two. Just the other day, I had this conversation with a Managing Director who talked about the value of his Number Two. Cohesive supportive and encouraging relationships that are also commercially successful require shared mutual outlook, mutual benefit and a clear understanding of mutual strength and weakness. One is not better; both have unique responsibilities required for wise decision making and management.
Very few great leaders exist without a plethora of Number Twos'. We make fatal errors if we forget that Number Ones need Number Twos, or that Number Twos are not equally as important or valuable as Number Ones.
I've had a chance to be a Number Two several times. They have been enriching, rewarding experiences and once, it was harrowing and soul-destroying. It's not just how you think of yourself, or how a Number One thinks of you – but it's also how the World perceives the value of the Kingmaker, versus the King. Yet, kingmakers are sought after by the wisest of those in positions of power. Those would surround themselves with people more talented empower and enjoy the success of the cohesive whole.
To Be Second in the Church
In my life, there is no place I've needed the resilience to be second more than the Church. Is it that we misinterpret the requirements of our message and our audience – that we insist that only the best of the best gain the pulpit or the stage? We embrace and accept celebrity or recognition as achievement itself, where often celebrity and renown is the result of achievement, a by-product of it. The cult of Cool, the infatuation with Influence – I've written on this obsession with mainstream here.
The Church embraces the arts because we sense they make us better storytellers – the more we dance, act, sing, write songs and make art. But then we fail, because we try to always look for the most successful rather than a mosaic of many talents.
I'm looking for a convergence of voices. Not a singular idea and execution but the ability to embrace and express many creative ideas. Yet, in her commitment to patron the arts, the Church begins to deconstruct the natural order of creativity into the competitive structure of commercial gain. Our intention is good: we want to put our best foot forward especially at a time when the 'shopfront window' is most on display.
As someone who works with people in a leadership position, I am convinced that our job should be refinement of talent, not establishing talent. Those who encourage and lead others should give significant portions of their time and effort to helping people find their voice and unique expression and this is most necessary in the Church.
Where else in society do the unpaid thousands do weekly to serve in a multitude of tasks where only 9 or 10 musicians, speakers, artists receive regular recognition and encouragement? We've made volunteering a talent quest instead of a talent showcase.
Our investment in people's voice should be a commitment to fostering identity formation and growth. In giving people the resilience, confidence and self-awareness to be Second.
Tash McGill is a professional writer and communications consultant who has been involved in youth ministry for 15 years, working in local churches as a volunteer and bi-vocational youth pastor. She is passionate about adolescent development, community formation and hospitality.
Tash McGill's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/tash-mcgill.html