You Don’t Need to Take First Place to Win

Cheetah licking her chops!

The first time I wrestled a cheetah, I ended up pinned to the floor with a hundred pound cat drooling on my face. Let me just note—eau de rotting antelope is not my favorite perfume.

The second time, it nearly tore off my head. I crawled into a hole and strapped my right hand in a brace. The cheetah loped into the woods behind my house. I thought I’d seen the last of it.

But no.

The next time I opened my laptop, it was staring at me, a dare in its golden eyes. We wrestled again. Up and down stairs. Out onto the African savanna where tribal drums echoed in the distance.

I wrote them closer.

Water plinked through the umbrella trees. A girl smeared her body with paint. Neither she nor the cheetah would obey me. They tore through the graveyard and into the village. The cheetah knocked me into the jungle.

I slunk back to my room. They haunted me for many moons, their wild hearts calling me across continents. When I finally wrote them again, they leapt off the page and into my readers’ lives.

My experience is no different. The seeds of my story, The Soul of a Cheetah, sprang from a single image—a tribal girl sharpening her nails on tombstones. But it took me more than a year to hone that image into an evocative tale. Some stories come fast. Others take their own sweet time. Even as I finished, I felt the story wasn’t complete, wasn’t perfect.

You don't need to take first place to win: Pitch Perfect 2 poster

Last weekend, my family saw Pitch Perfect 2. It was a playful romp through the a capella culture that left me feeling buoyant, empowered. Near the end of the movie (no spoilers, don’t worry!), a character watches rival performers with a wistful expression on her face. She’s happy for the chance to perform but clearly believes she cannot do what they’ve done.

Her expression captured the way I felt at the last Oklahoma Writer’s Federation, Inc. (OWFI) awards banquet. I’ve done well in years past, but wasn’t expecting much this year. Hope, yes, but expectations? No way.

When the announcer read through the honorable mentions, third place, and second place in the Juvenile Short Story category without saying my name, my spirits sank. Then, he said, “and first place, The Soul of a Cheetah, by Renee Roberts.”

Needless to say, I felt stunned. Later, when they announced the Crème de la Crème winner, I almost wasn’t listening. I was so buzzed about winning my category and never dreamed my story had a chance of winning the grand prize.

OWFI Creme de la Creme

I am not sharing this so I can impress you with my humility. Nor am I sharing this so you can be awed that I won (although I obviously am). The point is, most of us struggle to believe in ourselves. We are more critical of ourselves and the work we produce than we ever would be of someone else.

In Pitch Perfect 2, the wistful girl felt the same way. She could’ve given up. Who wants to perform when you’re not going to win, right?


You don't need to take first place to win: Drake with Math Bee certificate

Proud Math Bee Participant

My son, Drake, recently competed in the Math Bee at school. The night before, he expressed his fear that he wouldn’t win. I told him he was already a winner, just for being in the bee. My son, Jose, piped up. He’s pretty focused on winning, so I was surprised when he agreed with me.

“I’m running at state next week,” he told Drake. “I’m gonna do my best. But a lot of the guys I’m competing with have better times than me. I don’t have to get first place to win. I’m a freshman and I’m going to state. I’m already a winner. Just like you.”

You don't need to take first place to win: Jose running state

Already a winner

I loved that insight into Jose’s mind, the belief in himself, and the tenderness he showed toward Drake. Drake didn’t win the Math Bee, but he knew he was still a winner. In part because of what I said. But it was even better coming from his big brother.

When we focus so much on winning a race or a contest or getting published asap, we lose something in the process. We lose the joy of running, the joy of writing, the joy of learning. You get what I’m trying to say.

This time, I won. My life is not always that easy. No one’s is. But if we give up when it’s hard or when we doubt ourselves, we can never succeed and we miss out on the joy that inspired us from the start.

What hobbies or work bring you joy? How do you overcome discouragement or self-doubt?

Cheetah photo credit: Tambako The Jaguar, flickr creative commons.