The motivation of being in second place

Today I woke up to about 15 notifications on a Twitter thread discussing the latest leaderboard stats in the location check-in game, Swarm that I play every week. Turns out that I wasn’t actually in first place.

While my personal leaderboard placed me on top, I learned there’s another player who was nearly 600 points ahead of me this week. We aren’t “friends’ on the app so I was unaware of this added challenger.

But in a matter of seconds, I frame-shifted from “comfortably in first place” to “angrily in second place.”

The game, I told myself, has just begun.

For anyone unfamiliar with this game, I’ll explain. The rules of Swarm are simple: You get points for “checking in” at different places all over the world. It could be a restaurant, a cafe, a bar, a park, or a museum. You get extra points for checking in with friends, for including photos, and for continuing “streaks,” where you check into the same place more than once.

If you check into a place more times than anyone else in a 30-day period, you become the “Mayor” of that place. (Just to give you a sense of how important this is, I’ll point out that I’m currently the Mayor of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Uncle Charly’s Ice Cream shop in Cap May, New Jersey, and LF Store in Venice Beach, CA. Watch out, world.)

The game resets each week, so on Monday morning, everybody finds out who won last week’s game. And then it begins again.

To be clear, Swarm points are just like the points in the old gameshow, Whose Line is it Anyway? (See video clip.)

AKA: They mean nothing.

You can’t win prizes or redeem them for cash. The only thing at stake week after week is pride, honor, and bragging rights. But some people (myself included) take this very seriously.

As soon as I read this Twitter thread, I shook my husband awake: “Hey, I’m leaving,” I told him. “I’m going for a walk for coffee. And for check-ins. I just found out I’m only in second place.”

He stared at me, dumbfounded. But to his credit, he didn’t dissuade me. He’s seen it before, and he knows what I’m like when I get in competition mode. Which is what I really wanted to write about today — the motivation of being in second place.

Being in second place isn’t a signal of defeat: It’s a challenge to work even harder.

For me, if I’m at the top of the leaderboard of any activity week after week, I lose interest. The game loses its fun, and I’m more tempted to move onto to something new. Being constantly in first place feels like I hitting the top of the growth curve or maxing out at the 100th percentile. Where do you go from there?

Yes, it’s certainly difficult in itself to hold your victory status. But I find maintaining a first-place slot to be far less interesting than breaking through from below. When you’re in first place, you have to sustain. When you’re in second place, you have to fight. And that’s where the real creativity comes out. I find this process to be incredibly motivating.

If you’re not winning (and want to win), you might ask yourself, “What am I doing now that is keeping me from the top?” It forces self-reflection and analysis. You might identify certain weak areas from your performance. For instance, in Swarm this week, I forgot to check in at Union Square Ventures every day. Had I done so, I might be the mayor by now, and I that streak might have given me a few hundred more points.

Trailing behind the victor may also prompt you to ask the question: “What can I do differently from what I’m doing today to win?” This, in turn, unlocks innovative problem-solving skills. In the game of Swarm, for instance, I’m going to attend a college football game later today. If I wanted to be really certain about propelling myself to victory, I might take a walk through campus and check in at a dozen or more buildings and residence halls. Or I might decide to encourage all of my friends to go bar-hopping in Wrigleyville tonight. The more choices you consider, the more creativity you practice.

Finally, if you’re not winning, you may feel compelled to learn more about what the pros are doing so that you might learn from them. Through that, you may learn, for instance, that one of the biggest pro moves of Swarm is the streak. You’ll notice people who get 100+ points every time they check in at the same coffee shop. And so you’ll study your own streaks, looking for opportunities to maximize your personal streaks and unlock some bonus points that just might push you over the edge.

In any activity that I participate in or job that I work on, I find it incredibly motivating to look up and see people, companies, or teams that are just crushing it. This isn’t to say that I like to be reminded of how weak I am at certain activities, but exposure to “the best of the best” gives me a stretch goal to reach toward. Even if I don’t actually want to be first place, knowing that I’m playing in the same league often pushes me to work a little bit harder and more creatively than I might do otherwise.

So if you’re looking for a little extra motivation, check out the peer group from your vantage point and ask who’s challenging you to push a little harder. If you’re not seeing this (or you’re finding that you’re always at the top), you may need to add a few more heavy-hitters to your leaderboard too.

And to all of my Swarm friends out there…game on.

The motivation of being in second place

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