I recently found myself exploring career options at 40 and, while discussing my options with someone, they told me to go deliver pizzas. This got under my skin. It’s not the pizza delivery itself that set me off; work is work and pizza delivery persons can make great tips! It was their condescending tone is what did the trick.
My initial reaction was anger. A few days later, their comment and tone turned to hurt. Fast-forward to the present day; the anger and hurt have turned into hell-bent resolve. Knowing myself and my reactions, however, this will serve me well—they did me a favour.
Five years ago, I was lacking the confidence but managed to talk myself into signing up for my first AU course. I was also considering a part-time undergrad program, so I disclosed my thoughts and my excitement to a friend at that time. They laughed in my face and told me to be realistic—I hadn’t been in school for over 15 years, and they thought I should act my age rather than play “teenager.” The same sentiment came over me then as did now; I was initially angry, then hurt, and, soon enough, so determined to prove them wrong that I became obsessed. So, thanks, friend.
I was too young back then to understand that your biggest haters just might be your closest friends. We’ve all been there. We disclose our deepest, most embarrassing aspirations to someone, who then turns around and bursts our bubble. They do this consciously or subconsciously, maybe out of spite or out of concern; but they do this regardless. This is outside of our control, it’s not a reflection of you, but a reflection of how they feel about themselves.
Freud called this “projection” which is just a quick way to note unconsciously taking unwanted emotions or traits you don’t like about yourself and handing them over to someone else. Ornstein and Ganzer (2005) explain how projection is, in essence, a defense mechanism. By projecting an undesired trait onto someone else, the bully disowns that trait in their own subconscious. Psychology always fascinated me and freaked me out a bit at the same time; nevertheless, it’s comforting to know that throwing negativity unto others is just a power play—something to sooth a wounded ego. Now, what is within our control is how we react to these naysayers.
So when someone tries to shame you or make you feel incompetent, this is where you get to prove them wrong and come out on top; it all depends on how you look at it.
First, don’t be afraid to break the rules. Being the underdog can be your secret weapon. If you’re reading this, you’re either an AU student or considering AU—unconventional by typical standards. You aren’t afraid to try something outside the norm to get where you need to. You make your own path. In contrast, most folks don’t take any path at all. Those that do take a path and make it through to the other side, tend choose the path already laid out in front of them. The few obstacles that do exist on these paths are easy for them to get through, since these individuals will either have the skill set or the help to do so, including the cheerleaders. These marathoners will get to the finish line faster and with less effort, there is no doubt in that.
On the other hand, if the underdog plays by the same rules and takes that same path, you can bet your bottom they may not even make it to the end. The odds are stacked against them. This is similar to a cartoon I’ve come across in the past where some type of coordinator tests the IQ of a crow, a monkey, a penguin, an elephant, and a dolphin, by asking them all to reach the top of a tree! Does this mean monkeys have a higher IQ than dolphins? I’ll let you answer that question.
What I do know is that, aside from the crow and the monkey, if any of the others want to succeed they have to be unconventional and embrace divergent thinking. It is terrifying to ignore everyone and follow your dreams but deciding to not play by the rules can open a whole new world for you. History has plenty of unconventional leaders we can borrow examples from, all of whom, during their struggles, were either ridiculed or shunned for daring to not do what most did.
Second, despite being an overused cliché, if you’ve reached the bottom, cheer up! There’s no other way but up. It’s much easier to take risks and chase your dreams when you have nothing to lose. Believe it or not, you now have the upper hand. As Gracián (1982) put it, “Never contend with a Man who has nothing to Lose; for thereby you enter into an unequal conflict.” If you prefer plain English:
Why don’t people with money and power realize that when they screw around with the little guy when they don’t have to—especially when it’s a little guy like me with not a damn thing to lose—sometimes the little guy is just going to get pissed off and stubborn up? (Anderson, 2016, p. 128)
I’m certain you’ve all lived through a situation where someone didn’t expect you to come out on top or cheer for you. Maybe your significant other doesn’t think you can quit smoking after the 17th billion try. Maybe your parents don’t believe you will follow through on that undergrad or MBA. Maybe your colleagues don’t believe in you when you tell them you will bring a critical project to successful completion. Whatever the low expectation, it is disheartening.
But don’t fret! Samir Nurmohamed, an assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that “underdog expectations” tend to have the opposite effect (2020). To find out why anyone who is undermined performs better than their projected performance, he ran multiple experiments—in work settings, online settings, and lab settings. The results showed that, “as opposed to having greater self-confidence or being more assertive, the desire to prove others wrong was what explained why those experiencing underdog expectations performed better.”
There was a catch to what Nurmohamed found, though, so beware. It turns out that we tend to only perform better than expected when we don’t think very highly of the person critiquing us. Plain English, we don’t give a rat’s ass about their opinion. Something to perhaps make you want to reconsider your relationship with the friend giving the opinion. When we do, however, value and respect that person’s opinion, be careful. Being undermined and trying to turn the rage into fire can backfire. It can cause anxiety, pressure, and perhaps even a lower sense of self-esteem.
At the end day, remember what you’re made of and why you’re here. Remember why you’re doing another job than what you’d dreamed of, as well as what you’re getting out of it. Remember there’s a reason for it all, whether that’s to pay the bills or gain the experience. Whether you’re a cleaner, a fast-food worker, or whatever else you decide to do while you work on your dreams, realize that you are also a planner, an achiever, and are courageous enough to do what has to be done to make sure your dreams don’t stay dreams but turn into reality. Unlike others. Be grateful for this grit. Many lack it and stick to complaining. Life is too short to sit there crying over the hand you were dealt. Deal with it; embrace the cards; and reshuffle them.