I know a thing or two about being in last place. 

I was picked on constantly as a kid because I had crooked teeth, huge glasses, and couldn't catch a ball to save my life. I'm convinced that my hand eye coordination never developed properly because I was born with terrible vision. I needed a heavy prescription in my glasses from a very young age. Maybe I was just clumsy, who knows.

I was also physically the smallest person in my class for a long time because my late summer birthday made me one of the youngest kids in class. Most of the bullies that would pick on me had early fall birthdays, making them about a year older than me. 

Here's what I had to work with around the first grade:

I forgot about my dorky haircut.  

I forgot about my dorky haircut.  

I was goofy looking, not good at playground sports, smaller than everyone, and really into quoting my grandpa's science books. If you want a formula for getting beat up often at school, that's more or less it.

Growing up looking like this and getting made fun of helped me to grow a thick skin. It was rough at the time, but the grit that it took to keep my chin up became an asset later in life when more substantial challenges came my way. 

If you got picked on or are in the middle of that right now, don't let it get you down.

One day you're going to wake up and realize that nobody can fuck with you. 

Being last makes you gritty and tough. It gives you the ability to stick to things when other people want to wuss out and quit. 

It is a huge advantage. It's such an asset that psychologists are trying to figure out how teach this quality to people. 

 

Being last is a great way to learn too 

One constant in my musical life was I consistently put myself in situations where I was the worst player with the least experience and quickly improved.

My undergraduate professor, Mike Richmond, encouraged me a lot here. Mike is one of the most determned people I've ever met. When I came in to a lesson after my first orchestra rehearsal (which was a mess) he went on about how great it is to be the last chair in an orchestra section. Why? You play the same music as the first person in the section, except you learn more.

I'm convinced that the best people at a lot of things (music, business, etc) got that way because they are humble enough and tough enough to willingly put themselves in situations where they struggle often. Getting in way over your head isn't always a good thing—that can be crushing—but it certainly shouldn't feel easy at first. 

 

Being last now is an advantage for the future

Obviously, being in last place right now doesn't feel good but I've seen how being willing to struggle at the back of the pack for a while (rather than exit) can be a launching pad to the front. 

Just keep reminding yourself that the misery is temporary. If you really want to hammer this in, check out Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It is one of my favorite books from the stoic school of philosophy because it does a great job at emphasizing the temporariness of everything

 

Actionable Steps

If you're really killing it at whatever you're doing—your music, your business, anything—get involved with something that challenges you again. Feel failure and make mistakes often because they are part of the learning process.

While it's great to be on top of your game and experience the rewards that come along with that, you don't want to lose your edge either. If you aren't making mistakes somewhere, you aren't pushing yourself. 

If you are at the back of the pack and trying to claw your way forward, look for the next little victory. If you try to look too far ahead in a stressful situation it is easy to get overwhelmed and want to give up.

Remember when I was saying how terrible I was at sports? My clumsiness applied to anything involving a ball. Once I had my growth spurts and hit the teenage years, I turned out to be a great wrestler and enjoyed training in the weight room.

These activities taught me a lot because they're all about fighting for little victories. I had to always focus on pushing that last repetition, getting control of one wrist, or push through exhaustion for a few more seconds. You can probably find some parallel experience in your life. 

If you can't, go out for a run today. When you feel out of energy, look at something in the distance like a sign or other landmark. Then, tell yourself that no matter what the hell happens, you're at least going to make it to that thing you're staring at. 

I'll bet you can probably repeat that process at least few more times because we have a lot more in us than we realize. 

Do that today and you'll fall asleep more prepared to push for the crucial little victories.

Over time, this is how you bring everything you learn at the back of the pack to the front. 

 

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If you want even more advice and stories like this, you're going to dig Make It. The story about Paul Wittgenstein is worth the read alone. He was maybe the grittiest piano player to ever live.