Chip's Column: Best Supporting Role

by Chip Gaines
Published on March 1, 2020

Here you can read Chip’s thoughts from his column in the spring issue of Magnolia Journal. He reminds us that sometimes purpose looks like saying "yes" to a role you may never thought would be yours to play.

_Illustration by Gary Hovland_

For some it may be winning a championship, for others it’s to parent a child, and for still others it remains one giant question mark. For me, destiny looked like the spotlight. Throughout grade school, I was the popular guy, the athlete, the comedian. I had become a rather impressive chameleon by the time I graduated from high school—always prepared to knock the socks off anyone I encountered. In my dreams, it was me standing at the podium giving the State of the Union address to millions of Americans. Funny. I thought I could actually become the president of the United States one day.

When Joanna and I were asked to be part of a show called Fixer Upper, it seemed like destiny had come calling. We’d be the stars of this new show that hundreds or maybe even thousands of people might watch every week. In a very literal sense, it seemed as though I was going to be the superstar I’d always envisioned myself becoming. Meanwhile, Jo avoided the spotlight like the plague. She couldn’t have been less interested in the status or glory of being in the limelight.
And then . .

We were in the middle of Season 2 of the show when it became pretty evident there was about to be a major plot twist. Every now and then, the network would invite Jo and me to these big meetings with powerful people or companies. You gotta remember, ever since I was a kid I’d been fantasizing about speaking in front of a group just like this—in a big conference room on the top floor of a high-rise building with floor-to-ceiling windows like you see in the movies. Well, these meetings were exactly like that.

And they always had me on the edge of my seat, hanging on every word. Joanna, on the other hand, was practically nodding off next to me because she’d rather be just about anywhere but there. Every so often they’d direct a question to us, and it would be one I’d been rehearsing since birth. So I’d give them my answer in the most articulate way imaginable. I all but expected a standing ovation.

Enter the twilight zone.

Everyone around the table would respond to me with these expressions of amazement and bewilderment, not at how incredible my answer had been but because they had no earthly idea what I was talking about. So I’d nudge Jo, and she’d kind of perk up and say a few words. Immediately, there’d be this eruption of oohs and aahs. One guy would ask: “Did anybody get that?” Another would holler: “Make sure you write that down!”

It went on this way for about a year or so while I kept searching for a logical explanation. Except there was no logical explanation. The reality was, when Jo spoke, it changed the dynamic of our meetings. People would straighten up in their chairs and lean in. Whenever Jo was talking, people were listening.

It took me a minute to wrap my mind around what felt like an out-of-body experience. For the first time in my life, it was me who felt like a fish out of water. The way people were responding to Jo had been the plot of my own life up until that point. But I was slowly realizing that this universe we’d stepped into was actually built for Joanna in the lead role, not for me.

I wrestled with it a bit, and it took me some time to come to terms with what had felt like a complete role reversal. Eventually, though, I figured I had two choices. I could either stay confused and a little frustrated by the fact that things hadn’t panned out like I’d imagined as a young daydreamer, or I could see my purpose as being greater than any one fixed idea. Besides, any fantasy I’d concocted about my own future paled in comparison to the potential I was seeing in Jo.

So, rather than staying fixated on being the star of my own life, I decided to take up the greater purpose of helping her reach her absolute potential.

You see, something is built into the fabric of Joanna’s being that is quietly compelling and meant to be shared with the world. She’s a visionary. She’s captivating. Even though it may not resemble what I thought those qualities were supposed to look like.

Jo still prefers to fly under the radar, and I’m still the life of most parties. That much hasn’t changed. But when I can clear her path, so to speak, and help her get to a place where she feels confident and capable to get after whatever it may be, I get to watch her change the world.

Sometimes that looks like being the doofus who runs through a wall so she can come in and say, “Now I’ve got something to work with.” Or it’s rambling on and on in meetings to give her time to gather her own thoughts. Other times, it’s as straightforward as hearing a dream of hers, taking her charge, and making it happen. It’s being the foundation she can trust to allow her to dream the future she envisions.

I wonder what our lives would look like today if I would’ve stayed laser-focused on seeking the spotlight for myself. I’d be forcing something that was just not meant to be, and Jo may not have come into her own the way she has these past several years. The role I thought I was born to play ended up not being the one intended for me. Instead, I’ve accepted my supporting role, a role I’m actually honored to play. And I gotta tell you, it’s been the absolute joy of my life!

I think it can be a natural inclination for some of us who are so sure of our life’s purpose to neglect, even if by accident, a potentially greater role in the process. If someone had told me 15 years ago that I wouldn’t be living out my own solo show but that I’d actually be more like the guy holding the spotlight for someone else preparing to take center stage, I wouldn’t have wanted to hear it. I probably wouldn’t have believed it.

There’s a good chance that some of us won’t end up living out the thing we think we are destined for. Because somewhere along the way, something unimaginable, possibly even greater, something entirely different from “the plan” will land in our path. We can either say “no thanks” and keep trudging along, waiting for the part we believe is ours, or we can use the time we have on Earth to say “yes” to an even greater purpose—the one actually intended for us.