Still I Rise: Why Being an Underdog is Better than Being Born into Privilege

America loves underdogs.

Think about your favorite films and consider what you loved most about those stories. For many of us, our favorite movies embody Joseph Campbell’s template of the hero’s journey, wherein some kid from some part of town becomes special by his own resolve. I’ve written about underdogs in the past, exploring why I love the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and professional wrestling. Fundamentally, most of us see ourselves in them. Because the elite, by definition, leave the majority out of their inner-circle, we love fantasizing about being in it. Thus, so many of us struggle with jealousy.

I often ask my clients if it’s more impressive to become successful after attending Harvard or a state college. Most of them say it’s the latter. And the reason why is that most of us perceive the Ivy League schools as discriminatory institutions. Sure, some are there due to merit, but most of those kids are what are called “legacies,” thereby making their graduates appear less impressive. When a client tells me that they cant overcome some form of envy, we consider the people whom they believe are superior to them, asking if it’s possible that she’s comparing her negatives to another’s positives.

Before you understand the world, you tend to idealize portions of it. I struggled with jealousy when I thought of how amazing life must have been like for the brilliant and beautiful. Having never attended Harvard or Yale, I was jealous of those who did. In my naive understanding, I simply blamed my limited intelligence, wondering why I couldn’t have just been born a little bit smarter. My journey was full of starts and stops. I attended community college, then dropped out two weeks later. I attended again and had mediocre grades. Then, when I finally felt somewhat more confident, I was able to thrive in most of my classes. My family life was fucked up, I was depressed and had low self-esteem, and didn’t believe that I could even perform well in an entry-level position. Looking back, it astounds me to think that I graduated from community college. And even now, I still feel ashamed when I tell people that, at that time, attending a four year college just wasn’t an option.

We’re born into a culture where everyone looks down on others. So, we hide away our embarrassing histories. I didn’t want anyone else to know how much of a fuck-up I was in school. I didn’t want them to know that I graduated with a B average. And, I cringed when I revealed that I was rejected by most of the graduate programs I applied for, except for the one that wait-listed me. There isn’t much beauty to be found in my academic career; I just survived it.

But, when my clients share their own underdog stories, more often than not, I’m really impressed. On the one hand, they bemoan not having graduated from a top-tier university; on the other, their tales betray a level of fortitude seldom seen among mortals. A client will tell me how upset they are about their “trailer-trash” family or ashamed of not having a lucrative job, but a phenomenal story hides beneath all the pain. As a culture, we love underdogs because we secretly hope that our own triumphs merit that title. And we share our stories, desperately yearning to astound our chosen audience. When sharing my saga, I, concurrently, flip the proverbial coin, hoping to awe and inspire while accepting the possibility of being rejected.

When my clients learn to see themselves as exceptional people, rejection, for the most part, no longer fits their core self-conceptions. So, if they’re rejected for their family background or their career, they recall newly formed narratives, or their own underdog stories. Their lives are much more beautiful and enchanting than those of whom were afforded unearned opportunities. These people weren’t supposed to make it this far, and while sitting in my office, some of them finally realize how incredible it is that they did.

“I was born not make it but I did, the tribulations of a ghetto kid, still I rise” -2Pac

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