It’s become somewhat popular lately to list self-awareness as a key driver of career success (as seen in this NY Times article titled Secret Ingredient for Success).  I’ve always thought that self-examination was a little bit of a funny trick because the instrument (your mind) that examines is part of the same entity (yourself) that’s being evaluated.  There is unavoidable bias, and it can also be quite unsettling and uncomfortable to take a critical eye to your own actions.

Although it can be challenging and painful, I’ve always considered it better to know your faults and improve upon them than to live in blissful ignorance.

That being said, here we go.

Everyone has their neuroses, and mine is always needing to prove myself.  It runs pretty deep.  Growing up in Baltimore, which at the time was the lacrosse capital of the world, I played lacrosse in the MIAA “B” Conference.  I was a very good player, but I always knew that there were much better players out there in the “A” conference.

After high school I attended a very good college, but my school was not top tier.  I was a very good student, but I always knew there were much smarter students at schools like Princeton, Yale, and MIT.

Again in college I played lacrosse, but my team was part of the NCAA Division III.  I was very good, but I always knew there were better players out there playing Division I.

Entering the working world, my first job was in media planning at an ad agency.  There are certainly some very smart people in media and many of my colleagues were very intelligent – but overall, agencies are not widely known as a hotbed of talent.  I did very well at my agency, but I always knew there were smarter people out there working in higher profile fields like consulting and investment banking.

Throughout my life, whether on the athletic field, in the classroom, or in the office, I have always performed very well, but I have always been in the second tier.  A strong performer, but second best.  I carry those experiences with me and they are the roots of my neurosis.

I realize that my feelings here are not entirely rational.  Many of the smartest people I know did not attend Ivy League schools – in fact over the course of my career I haven’t seen much correlation at all between tier of schooling and ability to succeed.  Also, not all of the best athletes have always played at the highest level.  Heck, the current quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens (Joe Flacco) played in the second tier Division I-AA in college (not to mention that Tom Brady spent half his college career sitting on the bench behind someone that no one has ever heard of).  However, despite my rational knowledge, these feelings persist.

The output of this complex is the insatiable need to prove myself.

Every day when I step into the office, every meeting, and every project: I’m there to prove I’m good enough.  So far, no amount of professional success, tangible wins or accolades have allowed me to shake this need.

In a lot of ways it’s been a good thing.  It’s allowed me to work very well with others and has made me very coachable.  There’s nothing like a little inferiority to make it easy to accept the opinions and coaching of others.  It’s also given me a very high level of drive, discipline, and focus.  Every single day I start the day with a full head of steam – ready to take on the day.

Although my inferiority complex is certainly a shortcoming and an area for improvement I don’t know what scares me more: figuring out that I’ll never play at the top level, or figuring out that I’ve already made it.

The Need to Prove Myself
  • So… care for a discussion about the trade-off of feeling inferior? This all sounds very positive, and I’d be interested to hear what the potential (or realized) downsides are, or if they’re apparent at all.

  • Thanks the the comment Michael – i actually got a few similar comments offline this week. One person even said that my post read like the answer to the interview question “what’s your greatest weakness” – because it was spun like a positive.

    In my mind the drawbacks go without saying:
    – Occasional lack of confidence, particularly in stressful situations
    – Hesitation to really drive home my own ideas (rather than promote the ideas of others)
    – More often than not assuming that my lack of understanding is my fault rather than the explainer’s fault

    There are others, but these are all very real feelings to me – and i imagine others too.