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Revenge success: Why being told you’d amount to nothing is the secret to smashing your goals and ambitions

‘If it was going to happen for you, don’t you think it would have happened by now?’ These were the words of an editor of mine, very early on in my career, when I asked her advice on ‘making it’ as a journalist. I don’t think I will ever forget them. Something hardened within me at that moment. It wasn’t anger, or hatred, it was undiluted resolve. The next morning, on my way to work, it was as though fate was nudging me when I saw, in a small card shop, a cheesy, motivational postcard. I bought it and I stuck it on my desk.

It read: I can. I will. Watch me.

This feeling may be familiar to many people. And the interesting fact is, having an early detractor, or even many, can be a shot of pure ambition to your bloodstream; the ultimate motivation. Just look at Elon Musk who, dastardly though we may find him, is still undeniably successful. He credits this to his father telling him ‘he would never amount to anything’ or just look at Coco Gauff, recent winner of the US Open, who, in her acceptance speech, thanked everyone who ever doubted her. ‘To those who thought they were putting water in my fire,’ she said. ‘You were really adding gas to it and now it's really burning so bright right now.’

‘Paradoxically, for some people, being told that they will fail can motivate them to succeed,’ explains Clinical Psychologist Dr Roberta Babb. ‘Being told you will fail can evoke powerful emotions which can motivate you to succeed by asserting your autonomy, protecting your self-esteem, and fostering a competitive spirit. This is due to the psychological phenomenon - "reactance." Reactance occurs when we perceive or experience threats to our freedom and autonomy. When someone tells you that you cannot do something or that you will fail, it can be seen as a challenge and an opportunity to test your resilience and determination as well as increase your motivation and determination to prove them wrong.’

In writing this piece, I reached out to successful people, to see if anyone in their past had ever actively doubted them. For bestselling author Claire Kohda, whose debut novel Woman, Eating was a huge hit and is currently being made into a TV series, it was, interestingly enough, the UK government which proved her biggest accidental motivator.

‘Remember the awful ballerina advert? Fatima's next job could be in Cyber. (She just doesn't know it yet). I saw that when I was struggling to be a writer and did that quiz that was meant to tell me what I could do instead, and it came back with the most random career options: boxer, fishing boat deck assistant... And weirdly it gave me focus,’ she says. ‘I wrote Woman, Eating after that. It was a bit like a f**k you to the government campaign: Fatima is going to remain a ballerina (the government just doesn't know it yet).’

One influencer, ‘P,’ who is at the top of her game in a specific field, also sees her career status as a triumph over earlier naysayers. ‘When I was starting out, I was spoken to in that very condescending and superior ‘trust me I know, little child’ sort of way: “oh you don’t want to be doing that,”’ she tells me. Now she has a following of over 20k on Instagram, has a hugely successful franchise and gets paid handsomely to headline events in her specific field of interest. ‘Because these people work in my wider industry, and can see quite obviously the success I’ve had (by doing the exact opposite they ‘warned’ me of) I don’t have to say anything,’ she says. ‘It all there in plain sight as a silent ‘How’d d’ya like them paycheque apples’, elegantly-raised middle-finger.’

For entrepreneur Maryam Meddin, CEO and founder of The Soke, a revolutionary private mental health and wellness centre in London, she found it was less the lack of support for her idea she was when she was starting out, than, like ‘P’ the condescension with which this discouragement was dispensed.

‘I remember two conversations with older men in the industry, both of whom were very rude,’ Meddin tells me. ‘One literally interrupted me within minutes and was uninterested, told me The Soke wouldn’t work and the other was so patronising. The success of The Soke after that felt incredible, but I don't know if it's about revenge so much as just vindication.’ I ask her if she felt she was treated in such a condescending way on account of her gender. ‘I have two older brothers, so that feeling of being sort of slightly patted on the head is familiar to me,’ she agrees. ‘Any moment when I'm treated that way, sparks a very familiar feeling in me, where I say listen to me, I have something worthwhile to say.’

Whilst ‘P’ and Meddin took what others had said as a catalyst for achievement, this is actually a remarkable feat of resilience.

‘Many people are actually very susceptible to the demotivating effects of such feedback,’ says Dr Babb, who frequently sees negative commentary on someone’s prospects become a depressingly self-fulfilling prophecy. ‘To counteract the negative impact of being told that you will fail, it is important to develop strategies for maintaining self-confidence, managing stress, seeking support, setting realistic goals, and reframing negative feedback as an opportunity for growth and learning. Additionally, surrounding yourself with a supportive network of people who believe in your abilities and can constructively challenge you when you do not, can be a significant factor in overcoming the demoralising effects of such comments.’

Harriet Hastings, founder of the brilliantly successful brand Biscuiteers, found that any early criticism of her idea was fuel to her own ambition because of her innate characteristics. ‘I’m competitive and I have confidence in my abilities and my work,’ she tells me. ‘These are things you have to have to be an entrepreneur, and so anyone saying the opposite is really only going to activate my desire to succeed.’

Indeed, psychologist Natasha Tiwari notes that ‘revenge success’ is more likely to work with people who already have ‘a primal need to show themselves as capable and powerful.’ ‘It can trigger a competitive spirit, enabling us to tap into untapped potential and strengths that we might not have realised otherwise,’ she says, but adds that no one is immune to the judgements of others. ‘Our sensitivity to others' negative opinions is natural given our nature as social animals, but by understanding these dynamics and working on our self-esteem and resilience, we can mitigate their impact.’

Dr Babb agrees, and her choice piece of advice is something which I think hits at the heart of revenge success: ‘Find motivation from within, driven by your personal values, passions, and goals, rather than seeking external validation’ I think back to my own experience with this and wonder what would have happened if I had judged my potential by that editor’s metric and not my own. I suppose you would not be reading this right now if I had.

This article was originally published on Glamour UK.

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