Jonathan Plucker’s Tips on How to Succeed in College #7: Make Every Obstacle an Opportunity

This haiku may be a little fatalistic, but I think of it more as realistic:

Nothing’s worse than someone

raining on your parade; that

said, get used to it

The Impulse to Discourage

In my research, I study talented people. Sometimes they are talented children, or creative teenagers, or highly successful adults, among many other groups, yet despite their differences in age, interests, and talents, they generally have two things in common: They run into naysayers — those who discourage and undermine your efforts — on a regular basis, and they seek to prove those people wrong.

One of the best examples of this type of research is a study of highly creative people by the Harvard psychologist and educator, Howard Gardner. In his examination of creativity titled Creating Minds, Gardner talks in detail about how each of the seven profiled creators, from Einstein to Picasso to Gandhi, responded to skeptics — and there are always skeptics — and persuaded people that their work was indeed creative and worthwhile.

The tendency for people to discourage others is one aspect of human nature that I don’t really understand. Part of it is about competitiveness, part of it is a misguided, old school approach to motivation, part of it is people just being “tools,” and part of it is … well, I have no idea. But I’ve spoken to colleagues and students in China, South Korea, The Netherlands, Germany, and the UK, among many other countries, who have experienced the same naysaying attitudes – in the end, the discouragement of others is a universal aspect of the human condition.

Use naysaying as a motivator.

Matthew McConaughey once gave an interview in which he was asked to comment on another actor’s career choices. He immediately deflected the question and said, not in so many words, that the world has too much negativity and that he preferred to focus on all the good things the other person had done. Exactly! But most people don’t have that enlightened perspective.

If someone says that you can’t or shouldn’t do something, and the reasoning appears to be based on her lack of faith in your abilities or motivation, don’t accept her logic as being accurate. When we study talented people and ask them what happened in their lives that made them successful, almost every person tells us about a challenge she faced when she didn’t give up as things got rocky and exceeded the expectations of her naysayers.

I hate when I see students fold like a chair if an advisor talks down to them, or an instructor tells them they don’t have the ability to do something. I’m occasionally asked for advice on how to handle these situations. This is tough advice to give, because every situation is a little different, and context is everything when dealing with interpersonal issues. That said, I did look at what researchers recommend, and I have to say that the advice struck me as off-key: Much of it comes from business literature, and it doesn’t do a great job addressing how to respond when the naysayer is in a position of status, prestige, or power that is significantly different than your own (such as if an advisor or instructor tries to discourage you).

So I thought back to my experiences and those of my students and recognized that we generally navigate such situations by figuring out the extent to which the naysayer can be disregarded. For example, I once overheard an advisor tell a student she should avoid a certain math class because it “may be too tough on you.” The student politely acknowledged the advice, moved the conversation to other topics, then circled back to the math class about five minutes later, and said something along the lines of, “On second thought, I’d like to try that class. Let’s see what happens.” I remember being quite impressed at her non-confrontational approach, but I was even more struck that she had realized that her advisor could not prevent her from taking the class. She stood up for herself, but in a professional and civil way that avoided a negative interaction.

Turning naysaying into an opportunity to try something difficult is a good long-term habit to develop.

Social media isn’t always helpful.

That said, I worry that the combination of social media’s perceived anonymity and (some of) humanity’s general mean-spiritedness is making it more difficult to avoid naysayers, and time will only tell if this is the case. I’ve seen students put themselves out there on the Internet, sharing their talents and creativity, only to be devastated by trolls. Sometimes the best way to avoid roadblocks is to avoid people who like to build them for you.


  • Accept that you’re going to be around naysayers. Build up your psychological armor to the point where the implied or direct criticisms don’t prevent you from trying important things. If you can, use the skepticism as motivation to prove people wrong.

  • If you can avoid naysayers, then do. In general, if you find yourself in a circle of friends who expect failure more than success from you, you may need a new group of friends. And I can’t imagine justifying a personal relationship where one partner naysays another on a regular basis — the whole idea of partnerships, whether personal or professional, is to make each person better.

  • Don’t be someone else’s roadblock. Another person’s success says nothing about your personal worth. If you hear somebody praise a friend or acquaintance in her absence, be sure to pass the compliment on to your friend. The world can use more Matthew McConaugheys. Awright, awright, awright!

Read Jonathan Plucker's introductory article on How to Succeed in College, as well as his two most recent posts, Accept Responsibility and Change Is Coming. You can also check out new installments each weekday through January 15, 2016.

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