My very sports-minded daughter recently sustained a minor injury that sidelined her for a few days and unfortunately a few games. Thankfully it was not serious and she was back at it within the week. However in her almost-13-year-old world it was a significant and unwelcome event. While she recuperated, I insisted that she suit up and show up ready to support her team from the bench. As a starter, she’s lucky to know how good it feels to make immediate impact. She works hard: even at this age she probably puts in about 12-15 hours per week outside of games. So warming the bench was most definitely not in her plans.
A few years ago, warming the bench wasn’t my plan either. But I too suited up and tried it. My stint wasn’t injury-induced but like my daughter’s it was really unwelcome.
When I was younger, I poured every bit of effort into whatever was my chosen pursuit at the time. By the time I started working, I didn’t just work, I lived and breathed my job. Even in my mid-twenties, I was among the last few in the office at night and sometimes went in to “clean up my desk” on Saturdays. (This was pre-Internet/e-mail so impossible to work from home.) The harder I worked, the more compliments I received and eventually I was rewarded.
The more validation I received, the more I wanted and eventually I lost the ability to enjoy the work without it. If I didn’t receive it, I panicked. I left a few really great jobs because I didn’t “feel like anything was happening.” If I couldn’t see the next stepping stone ahead of me then I must be done, right?
Then WHAM, one day seemingly out of the blue I got laid off. I had worked so hard (albeit with blinders on) that I hadn’t seen it coming. Later on, 20/20 hindsight showed obvious clues – the economy was doing poorly and I wasn’t savvy enough to understand the bigger picture about the business. I had been too focused on checking all the boxes and getting the praise for it.
When I found a new position, I got right back on the praise train and spent the next ten years doing the same thing: getting better titles, higher pay, positions closer to the center of the action. Eventually as life changed and I added other responsibilities to it, I found myself at a crossroads between my normal overachiever approach and what I could reasonably accomplish as a single parent with a long commute to a high-stress, often erratic, sometimes toxic and always changing job.
So I left, but after a bit working alone and feeling too isolated, I decided I needed to return to a more traditional work environment which I did, but in a much less visible position.
Although I wanted the role, I wondered “What will I do?” “How will I make this work?” “What if I never make it back to where I was?” Momentary panic set in.
Then something amazing started to happen. I found my creativity again. I designed plans and presentations that I used to envy of others. I started to understand more complicated business concepts that had once eluded me as I focused instead on the impending praise. I found myself offering to help colleagues and finish off projects without worrying about whether I would get the credit.
Like my daughter, I didn’t choose the bench, but life events had shown me there. Her stint on the bench was a successful one. She remained in a good mood and tirelessly supported her teammates. But she was ready to get back.
And me? I’ve learned some really important and good things from being a benchwarmer.
Sometimes it’s a nice spot to be. You can still hone your skills, dial down the pressure, and give someone else a break when they really need it. (And I wish I knew this at 27, but even when you’re the backup, you still get kudos.)
When you’re always gunning for the top position and need to have your hands in everything, that’s when you’re at risk for developing blind spots about how you work and how others perceive you.
When you feel like you’re always the go-to, you lose the ability to truly co-create with colleagues, because you’re too focused on getting the praise and the credit for your way.
Being on the bench gives you a certain amount of flexibility to move, because your role isn’t etched in stone. You may discover new skills and interests, because you’re not focused on doing the right thing at every moment.
I often wonder why I landed here. It wasn’t just by chance; I chose it. Perhaps there’s a second career someday or a side pursuit to explore, or maybe it’s simply that I should enjoy my off-hours more. Regardless of what it is, I’ve learned there’s great honor in being a benchwarmer and not always the star on center court.