What to Do if You Were the Runner-Up

When you talk to folk about their career aspirations you end up engaging frequently in the world of goals achieved and deferred. Success and failure can be definitive. You either were selected for the opportunity you wanted - the job, promotion, fellowship, top XX list or funding or you weren’t. You shouldn’t necessarily be surprised when the opportunity you found exciting was also attractive to others. When it comes to opportunities, we humans can be rather like antelopes in the Serengeti moving in packs towards the same watering holes. We need to fill up on hope, but in doing so we can end up with not a small amount of disappointment. 

Runner up_In Article

Here’s how to handle being the runner up, and how to learn and get better from the experience. I’ve told myself that hearing no is useful sometimes. It does keep you (more) humble. It is hard though to focus on emotional growth in the face of not being selected for that which you hoped for, but there is still so much you can take away from the process. I’ve also seen many occasions where the spurned party ended up on the radar of the party who said no and was funded, hired, or selected subsequently. Take what you can from every process to be better for the next one.   

As someone who plays a part in fellowship selection, hiring and funding with institutions on the one hand and simultaneously, has conversations with opportunity seekers who are filled with joy, disappointment, or bitterness my days are filled with an understanding of both perspectives. 

A friend & colleague wrote to me recently about being the runner-up in a recent hiring process. I’ve been a runner up in my life and also called people who’ve been a runner-up, to let them know. No matter how kind or affirming you are, people usually process a bit of loss, and the conversations are quick. I’m always opened to having a follow-up conversation with them. On occasion there may have been a grievous error they made, but typically the other person smashed an exercise or had skill or knowledge at some profound and greater level. 

The pain of rejection earlier in a process is different. The further along you go the more you see yourself living in that new experience and imagining what your life will be like and the opportunities that may come as a result. The earlier rejection where you are ignored entirely or receive the “we had so many qualified candidates” form email or have a quick initial screening or a first interview where you don’t go further doesn’t feel better, but it often feels different. Your hopes dashed earlier so the dream didn’t have time to get quite as elaborate and depending upon whether you saw this as a ‘stretch’ or something that you were ‘clearly perfect for’ may well determine how you suffer the loss.  

Given the sting of not getting what you hoped for I want to make that case for how important it is to celebrate the wins. Again, full transparency, that this is one of my worst things. I prefer to do the work quietly or work with a few trusted partners and move on to the next piece of work. I’ve had to learn to take a breath and enjoy when the good things happen. I have many natural tendencies that have formed who I am. I’ve had to develop practices that I build on when natural tendencies don’t serve me well. This doesn’t mean that you need to post a “I’m humbled to share…” not on social media, but it could mean sitting with how you are feeling in that moment, writing down reflections or speaking with your favorite people. We want the store of good things fresh for the unpredictable periods of drought.  

Also, ask yourself did I choose the correct opportunity and do my best work? I hope you’ve heard that being a 100% match for what many employers want is not a prerequisite. In particular, if you are in a location with lots of employers seeking your skill set and where they may be paying under norms for wages you’ve got a shot to take. However, if you are pivoting from dental hygienist to forensic accountant or from Zamboni driver to jet pilot you need to make a compelling case and be sure that you are meeting some of the key criteria. Same thing when you seek to be chosen for a competitive program, mention, or funding. Have you made that thoughtful, compelling case about your candidacy?

Aside from choosing well, have you put yourself in a position by doing your best work as a candidate? Here are some important ways to figure that out.

  • Did you review the best practices for applicant tracking systems to ensure you will be seen? 
  • Did you get feedback from friends or colleagues about how you described your accomplishments? Did you not wait until that last minute so your desired person for feedback could respond to you thoughtfully?
  • Did you prepare for the interview with your questions? Did it come across like you wanted this and would be honored for the opportunity?
  • Did you search through your network to see if anyone had a way of helping you get chosen? This might be insight about the process or questions to ask. It might also be lobbying for you as a candidate or ensuring that someone even sees that you are in the pool.
  • Did you write the thank you notes? Did you ask for feedback or incorporate what you heard earlier in later conversations?

Nobody says being the runner up is easy. But it helps if you know you gave it your best shot. I hope this post helps you process the experience differently and make the best of it. 

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.

Search for your next job now:


Back to listing

The Washington Post Jobs Newsletter

Subscribe to the latest news about DC's jobs market