Why You Should Relish Being an Underdog

It’s a term we’re hearing more and more frequently, not only in the world of psychology, but also in the worlds of business, education, sports, social life, and leadership: a “growth mindset.” Along with embracing the power of emotional intelligence, striving for a growth mindset is integral to personal, social, mental, and professional growth. So, what is a growth mindset?

According to Carol Dweck, “individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset.” On the other hand, those with a primarily fixed mindset tend to “believe their talents are innate gifts” and don’t put as much value in learning from experiences (particularly from their challenges and failures).

It’s the fixed mindset that tells us that our shortcomings reveal some inherent and unrepairable flaw in us—that they represent the threshold of our limits and skills. While we all struggle with this type of thinking to some degree (after all, as Dweck says, no one is completely guided by either a growth mindset or fixed mindset), those who let the fixed mindset dominate are placing unnecessary restrictions on their abilities and their potential, whether they know it or not. If happiness, healthy self-esteem, and personal growth are part of our life goals, this is a mindset we want to avoid.

To be clear, a growth mindset is not always synonymous with being a positive person or having an optimistic worldview. While these characteristics are conducive to cultivating a growth mindset, they aren’t one and the same. Beyond optimism, active and honest self-reflection (as well as initiative and disciplined thinking) are essential—foundational even. In a way, optimism is like the hands on a watch, whereas a growth mindset is more akin to the gears that make the arms move. It is an active, attentive mind in tune—a mind of humility and curiosity. It’s a mind that’s capable of viewing difficulty, and even failure, as an essential gateway to learning.

But what’s going on outside the mind? Why does it matter? It matters because Americans have always loved an underdog story—but it takes doubters to create an underdog.

Engrained in the American conscience is an affection for one who willingly takes on a challenge, despite the risks and regardless of public opinion, to come out victorious on the other side. As much as we celebrate overcoming a challenge, though, what we really love is to see someone proven wrong. There’s an intoxicating allure to wading through the muck and walking away clean right in the face of the naysayers. What can they do but keep quiet?

So, even when it seems the world has written you off as a long-shot, it’s important to keep the focus inward; block out the noise and focus on what your failures and reactions to adversity can teach you about improving. Rather than perceiving failure as a confirmation of inability, embrace it. It is the coarse stone that sharpens the blade of self.