Prove Them Right or Prove Them Wrong
Think of all the nice things people have said about you that you consider as you frame your sense of self. Now replace all those good things with bad things. How would that change your perspective about yourself and your ability to live up to those things?
When I was in high school, the head of my youth group said if he could sum me up in one word, it’s “balance”. That made me feel incredibly proud, and I’ve tried to live up to that assessment ever since. The older I get, however, the more I realize he was just one guy who said one nice thing about me. I’ve been indexing on that forever and shaping my behavior accordingly.
Nothing is inherently wrong with this, but what if we think about the flip side? The same impulses that keep me coming back to that statement for reassurance might have the opposite effect for someone who had a rough past and is trying to turn things around. If I was labeled as a “problem” when I was younger, would I always believe that? Would that lead to me make questionable decisions, and justify them according to the same fleeting judgments of others?
The way to approach this most effectively comes down to behaving in a manner that either proves someone right or proves them wrong. The former gives credence to those who had your back while the latter chucks a firm middle finger in the general direction of those who doubted your ability to be great.
Two examples of the middle finger approach come to mind immediately from the world of American sports: Michael Jordan and Tom Brady. MJ famously invented others’ negative opinions of himself and used them as fuel to quite literally dunk on the haters. Brady, similarly, used the fact that he was drafted 199th (behind six other quarterbacks, no less) as a continuous source of motivation to rise above his perceived value and prove that every GM who passed on him was an imbecile.
I’m an optimistic person by nature, so I don’t find much willingness to utilize this tactic. Instead, I imagine all the disappointing glances of my former professors and peers watching me fail to live up to my potential. Their inability to look me in the eye for disappointment is a decent motivator, though I will say it’s probably less effective than feeling spurned and “rubbing it in their faces” when I rise up and succeed anyway. Maybe I can spend some time this year inventing enemies and see how that works out.