What I Learned from a Childhood of Being Picked Last

Let me start by sharing the positive things my mother has said about me in my presence most frequently. I am smart, I fold laundry very well, I am handsome, I have nice legs and I am sweet. She always picked me first. 


Outside my mother’s presence, as a young man, I tended to get picked last quite often. When it came to locating a partner in class, or being chosen during gym to being on a team? It was a familiar experience. For a brief period, I was able to skate by on the reputation of my far more athletic older brother. Then I had to engage in the sport itself. 

It is true that I did not have the gifts needed to shoot, swing, throw or catch. I lacked speed. I lacked stamina. I lacked the drive to win or sacrifice my body. I probably would not have picked me to be on a team either.

Given the choice to do it all over I would of course want to be the oft-chosen captain. However, being picked last in gym class repeatedly did share with me some useful lessons that served me in the workplace. 

Popularity or charisma often beats ability. Being the most skilled person or the best leader of others does not ensure that you will be selected early for a team or picked to be captain. The social connection between individuals based on other factors, or even the notion that someone looks like the internal image that someone holds in their head of a leader often carries enormous weight.  

Others don’t/won’t/cannot see you as you see yourself. As I stood there waiting to be chosen for a team there was an inner dialogue that emerged each school year that would go something like, “I’ve gotten much better/taller this year and I think people will see that and want me to contribute to their team.” I may have seen growth and improvement, but no one else had taken any notice.  

Gym class heroes do not rule the world. There was a time when the ‘public’ perception as an athlete meant something to me. Being chosen last in an area of your life can give you permission to invest in other parts of yourself. I’ve a brother who played high school & college football, married his college sweetheart, raised a family and has been successful in several corporate roles. I appreciate that his narrative and mine, even growing up in the same family, have been quite different. I had to learn that the dominant culture narrative, starting with gym class, would not ever let me feel good about myself and to see value in the things that others might be quick to dismiss. Adding further complexity to this is that success at work, like gym class, does not mean that you will have a happy or fulfilling life.  

Sometimes being thought so little of enables you to surprise people. Whether it is my tendency to dress informally or introduce myself humbly, people are often incredibly surprised when they encounter me outside of a warm introduction. I remember once doing the most pull-ups in my class as part of the Presidential Fitness Test. (When your highlights are limited, you remember the tiniest of victories!) The others in my class were shocked and at least for a short while regarded me in a different way.

The gift of being believed-in matters. One day in tenth grade, out of the blue, Mr. Sherman, our physical education teacher, selected me to be the captain. In a sea of awful sports, I was closest to being average at volleyball. However, as I am writing about it now, you see that it mattered. That simple act of being chosen and given an opportunity to lead mattered to me and made me think a bit better of myself. I do not know that anyone saw me differently, but it showed me that someone found me worthy to lead.  

The chance to lead matters. In my captaincy I chose lots of people who were friends unaccustomed to getting selected early and relegated many of those who thought they were super skilled to being picked much later. Giving new people the chance to lead gives new people a chance to feel valued and may let others experience what it is like to feel insignificant.  

Overall, being chosen last over the course of many years made me more open to understanding others who were accustomed to being dismissed for a variety of reasons, many of them unfounded. That has made me a better person, both friend and professional colleague. Now I get to make choices and I do not stay in places or around people that would relegate me to the bench. Warm encouragement and affirming selection in all aspects of my life, and yours. Is ultimately key to what will make it fulfilling. 

Russ Finkelstein [linkedin.com] is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor.  A career coach, social entrepreneur, and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship, and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and was chosen as a Generation Z Influencer by LinkedIn.

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