The seduction of the second worst

I’m currently hooked on Forged in Fire and The Great British Baking Show.

Forged in Fire is a quick fix. With one person crowned champion in each episode, suspense only has to be maintained for 42 minutes. And midway there’s the spin-chilling promise of Doug Marcaida sliding a blade though a translucent, gelatinous, life-sized torso and pronouncing through lips pulled taut over bared teeth that it “will kill”.

On the other hand, The Great British Baking Show takes some fortitude to get through batter week and bread week, pudding week and patisserie week, and a lot of weird, unfamiliar British baked goods, to see the winner loft their etched glass platter above their head at the end of episode 10.

Short format or long, the formula is the same. Terrified, semi-regular people who are driven to pursue and perfect obscure art forms for which they are unflinchingly passionate are put through grueling, time-starved trials of their skill. Sweating in front of ovens, forges, and glaring judges, they craft, agonize over, and finally present their creations to be mercilessly critiqued.

Sound familiar to any of you?

Sweating in front of ovens, forges, and glaring judges, they craft, agonize over, and finally present their creations to be mercilessly critiqued.

There are many details to marvel at and wonder about, including the petty. How does her lipstick stay so perfect through hours of sweaty baking in a tent without AC? Or, I hope that sweet looking teenage boy forging a samurai sword in his backyard isn’t an outcast with a revenge list.

But what I marvel at most is the participants poise and grace when their creations are torn apart figuratively and often literally by the judges. Someone will be kicked off the show. And I feel (briefly) horribly for them. But I’m most inspired by our glimpse into the humbling power of relief and redemption felt by those who fall second to last.

“I really thought that was it for me.”

“Thank God I get another chance!”

“I’m even more motivated to be the best blacksmith/baker that I can be.”

And then their tenacious climb back from the brink.

But I’m most inspired by our glimpse into the humbling power of relief and redemption felt by those who fall second to last.

The second worst and all of the remaining participants reliably come back for the next challenge, knowing full well the pain and agony that is likely awaiting them at some point in the near future – after all there is only one winner. But they don’t give up and, what’s more, the best, having just looked over the cliff into the oblivion, still stubbornly refuse to play it safe and charge ahead knowing whether it’s now or later, the best go big or end up going home.

It’s the same reason that I always root for the underdog in sports, as long as they show the same persistence and drive.

Now meet the ground hog in my backyard.

My favorite work-at-home spot is on a couch looking through the sliding glass doors to my back patio.

Each afternoon during the warmer months, her golden, loaf-shaped body emerges from under the stump of what used to be a towering 50-foot pine tree. She stares at me through the glass, frozen for a few seconds. But she never is deterred by my furtive glances from her to the swooping hawks that criss-cross over her head and back again. She climbs to her perch on the boulder next to the stump, cleans her head and tail with her paws, and stands in the sun for hours.

I think her baby was taken by one of the hawks a few weeks ago. One day it was there. The next it wasn’t. I’m hoping it just grew up quickly and moved out. But, I’ve seen how those hawks chase down and snatch chipmunks and squirrels with their talons from the lawn. The baby ground hog was only slightly bigger. But her mom still keeps climbing to the top of the rock, tempting her own fate.

I feel a kinship as many of you in creative professions likely do.

In spite of coming out of my burrow time and again to receive an unexpected challenge to my skills, intellect, and instinct, and facing relentless criticism with only the smallest, miracle-sized chance of success, I gladly scramble up the side of my boulder looking for the sun.

Being creative is an inherently optimistic act.

In spite of coming out of my burrow time and again to receive an unexpected challenge to my skills, intellect, and instinct, and facing relentless criticism with only the smallest, miracle-sized chance of success, I gladly scramble up the side of my boulder looking for the sun.

Yes, you constantly see problems that need to be fixed. But you also believe you can fix them, in spite of consistently overwhelming odds. After all, those problems usually have been intractable for some time, hence they now are so unavoidable as to require intervention by a paid expert.

The terror of the blank page is a real thing, but it’s also a thrill like no other.

Launching work into the unknown is harrowing. The metrics are notoriously unsympathetic to your ego.

Losing a pitch after pouring your soul into the work in a series of all nighters is crushing. But when you do win, it feels cumulatively greater than all of the previous loses put together.

The ground hog still went outside the day after her baby was no longer there with her. But, to be honest, I’m not sure how much rational thought is going on in her furry head.

Losing a pitch after pouring your soul into the work in a series of all nighters is crushing. But when you do win, it feels cumulatively greater than all of the previous loses put together.

I am sure when the cameras aren’t rolling the bakers and blacksmiths release at least a few expletives, question the judges’ sanity, and struggle with the crushing weight of their own self-doubt.

And I’m equally sure that no matter when and why the bakers and blacksmiths go home, they face their ovens and forges determined to create something even better the next time. At least that’s what I would do.

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