Triumph of the Underdog — and Why You Want Them on Your Team

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Jan 7, 2014

Who among us hasn’t felt like an underdog at some point in our career?

Dig beneath the surface of any professional success and you’ll often find harrowing tales of failed pursuits, repeated rejection, and various roadblocks encountered and eventually overcome.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, he argues that being the underdog and experiencing disadvantages breeds “desirable difficulties.”

But challenges don’t improve us merely because they exist —  have to reflect on them and proactively adapt their lessons into our life and work habits.

Dr. Anna Akbari is a sociologist and self-proclaimed underdog, who believes the immense potential of these “desirable difficulties” is especially salient in the workplace. Here’s why she believes we should all seek out, hire, and celebrate the underdogs on our teams:

1. They’re less likely to take things (and people) for granted

Once you’ve felt the pangs of struggle, you don’t easily forget it. When you have a desire for something better, you develop an inherent optimism and immunity to complacency.

This means underdogs are more likely to notice the little things and demonstrate appreciation. Gratitude makes people happier, and since happiness is contagious, it also positively affects their co-workers.

2. They have rich imaginations

Learning to do without demands creativity.

Underdogs are well-versed in the art of improvisation and they’re scrappy. Everyday improvisation leads to large-scale innovation, which transforms how we work and what we collectively produce.

If all other qualifications are relatively equal, you may want to choose the underdog to take a project over the finish line. Underdogs spend their lives imagining ‘more,’ which is invaluable in business.

3. They’re hyper-observant

When you’re an outsider, you vigilantly pay attention to what it takes to fit in.

Details and differences aren’t lost on underdogs — they quickly size up situations and analyze how to optimize them. Obliviousness is difficult to correct, and underdogs are aware by necessity.

Underdogs often find their way into more fortunate circles by becoming intimately familiar with the nuances of the rules to get there, which makes them competitive players to watch.

4. They’re not risk averse

Underdogs aren’t inherently reckless, but they are prone to taking calculated risks. And it’s their perseverance, resilience, tenacity, and general strength of character that drives their success.

Underdogs don’t take no for an answer and, perhaps counter-intuitively, tend to be very confident; it takes a pretty serious belief in yourself to rise above undesirable circumstances.

5. They’re very hungry

If there’s one thing underdogs know how to do, it’s hustle. Obstacles often have the power to nurture significant and surprisingly positive traits.

With underdogs, the default answer is yes. More often than not, that inner drive and hunger to excel means they’re willing to acquire new skills, push themselves out of their comfort zone, and work toward goals with laser-sharp focus.

Underdog status is what you make of it. Being an underdog shouldn’t be a plea for sympathy. It should be an invitation to triumph.

What have been your underdog moments and how have you triumphed over adversity?

This was originally published on the OC Tanner blog.