The Challenges of Being First

​​Do you know anyone who has been “the first” to do or be something? The first person in their family to go to college. The first person to break a record. The first company to cure a disease. The first LGBTQ minister chosen for a church. The first woman appointed CEO for a company.

Firsts still happen with regularity. In 2015, Jennifer Welter was the first female coach in the NFL. In 2019, Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to run a marathon in under 2 hours. Kamala Harris is the first Black and South Asian candidate on a major party presidential ticket. This week, the first flying car was successfully tested in Japan and Jane Fraser became the first female CEO to lead a major US bank.

Behind many firsts is an incredible story. Common themes include: a huge amount of work, lots of attempts and failures, and overcoming significant obstacles. Firsts can be giant accomplishments, prompt huge disruption, trigger backlash, or all three. There is a concept in business called a “first mover advantage.” In other words, the first company to enter a new category has the best chance of winning. It turns out that’s more of a “half truth.” Research shows that pioneers were more successful than later movers in only 15 out of 50 product categories. Many fail. Many will tell you it stunk to be the first. Yet, they play a really important role. They prove something is doable and smooth out the path for the seconds, thirds, and so on.

I was recently reminded that once “the first” is no longer a novelty, it is easy to forget how hard the accomplishment was. The History Channel has put out a short video about Brenda Berkman, who was among the earliest women to join the New York City fire department after leading a federal discrimination lawsuit in 1982. Getting the right to go to the academy was just step one. Surviving the abuse that rained down from some instructors and peers was step two. The new recruits had tools dropped on them and were poisoned with carbon monoxide. They were beat up and sexually assaulted. They had air tanks surreptitiously drained so they had no oxygen at a fire.

In the most recent class, sixteen women graduated from the Academy. A total of 107 women now serve as New York City firefighters. One of the women who graduated lost her father, also a firefighter, on 9-11 and is joining three brothers in the department. It is a tiny fraction of the nearly 11,000 person strong New York City fire department. But it is progress nonetheless.

Brenda wants everyone, particularly younger women, to realize that the opportunities they have today didn’t get handed to them. She says: “We only came through these bad times because good people refused to be silent and they took action. We can do this, but we have to work. We can’t leave it to other people to do.”

This feels like sage advice for anyone who wants to pioneer something or break new ground. There will be good times—and bad times. What matters is taking action and doing the work that being the first requires. It is also rarely an individual accomplishment. Behind most “firsts” is a team of allies and contributors who advocate, push, support, and help.

Who in your life is trying to be the first at something? What action can you take to help them? It can be as simple as sending a quick note of support or making a call to hear more about the obstacles they are encountering and rolling up your sleeves to help.

The firsts in our lives matter. They have an outsized impact on progress. They take on higher risks and often experience the most pain, loneliness, and rejection. While it may not be for you, you can ensure those willing to fight the fight have a team willing to see them through, whatever the outcome.

Quote of the Week: “My mother had a saying: ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.’”

Kamala Harris

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