The Underdog Mentality

One of the most rewarding experiences of my life was playing on my city’s club soccer team. We had two great coaches, Coach Ralph and Coach Mike, who were with us throughout our elementary, junior high school, and early high school years. They were there through every step of our growth from boys to men.

Playing soccer under their mentorship taught us a lot of really important lessons. One important thing I learned was how to really push myself, especially on those tournament weekends where we’d have two full games on Saturday and three full games on Sunday. Another was to push yourself for the purpose of the team. Don’t do it for yourself, but for your team. Suffer for your team. Die for your team. Leave it all out there on the field, whether it’s a normal practice or a State Cup semifinal. But perhaps the most important lesson was the underdog mentality.

We learned it the hard way more times than we can count. For example, we’re ranked first in our league, going up against the lowest ranked team during a season match. We get destroyed. Or we have a really good first half, then get overconfident and lose it all in the second half. Or we just come out of a tournament win, then laze around at practice the following week because we think we’ve made it. Coach Mike and Coach Ralph would be swift and severe in their reprimand, even if it was right after a game, to destroy this tendency to ease up the throttle just because we’re ahead. The underdog mentality is practiced by a group of people or a single person, and it means to never believe that mediocrity is sufficient, no matter how convincing the circumstances may be to that effect.

When our team followed our coaches’ guidance and played as underdogs, we accomplished great things. When we played in this way, we never kicked the ball and ran after it, nor tried to dribble the ball and attempt juking out defenders for personal glory. We adhered to what we learned in practice, passing the ball in a controlled, smart way, emulating drills we learned at practice on the field. When played this kind of way, we won scrimmages, we beat state champions, we won State Cups. When we didn’t, we lost to the worst teams in our brackets and were knocked out of tournaments in the first two rounds. Our coaches’ lessons are burned into my memory with the sweet taste of triumphant victory and the bitter taste of humiliating defeat.

I think this lesson is so important because everything that we do to in order improve ourselves always relates back to this underdog mentality.

Indirectly, they taught us that the core belief of a true underdog is that any misstep will lead him to failure. He is up against an opponent, imaginary or real, who is far better than he is. Only through diligence, strict discipline, and a bit of luck can he overcome it.

While the underdog mentality worked for soccer, it applies to everything we want to get better at in life. Improving a skill. Refining a perspective or mentality. Gaining knowledge. Attaining a higher level of religious/spiritual enlightenment. Anything and everything you think and do is able to be subjected to the underdog mentality, because anything and everything we do can be done in a better way. Always.

“The enemy” is always the state between your current level of skill and your next level of skill, regardless of the level of skill. Believing that you’re always up against this superior enemy cuts your pride and gives you something to work towards. I think that’s why people who are great at something rarely think they are as amazing as we do – their underdog mentality is what brought them there.

Part of the underdog mentality is the strong presence of motivation to get better. Self improvement is constantly on the mind of an ideal underdog. Contained within the mentality of the underdog, then, is the self-regulatory mentality. The constant questioning of even the most deeply held convictions that tell you you’re at a certain level of competence. Your acceptance of the fact that you are not the best means you accept that with improvement, change is certain to be in the future and that that change may necessitate the updating or deletion of even those sacred protected convictions.

This allows one to be open minded, but leaves one to the danger of being swayed easily. So a strict criteria by which you judge what should change a conviction or not is also necessary. And this set of criteria is contained within our minds, completely subconscious and automatic – the filter by which we judge what to change about ourselves only improves with experience.

I think the ideal underdog measures himself by improvement, not absolute performance. It’s more important that he outperformed himself, not someone else. Because there’s always someone out there better than you, working harder than you, better at everything than you, and it’d be an unattainable and ultimately confidence-crushing goal. He’s always thinking, “I am not the best” even if he just set a world record in his skill. It’s so hard yet important to internalize this.

It all sounds so abstract, but it’s so concrete. It’s as concrete as studying hard for the class every upperclassman has told said “Don’t worry about that class, LOL.” It’s as concrete as accepting that you’re simply not as good at something as people tell you are. It’s as concrete as striving for excellence in things as minor as filling out an event form and things as major as college applications.

Coach Ralph and Coach Mike stopped pushing us at soccer practice years ago, but they continue to teach and reteach this lesson in underdoggedness each day of my life. It’s something I struggle with now, but I hope to internalize this one day so deeply that I won’t know what this post means because it’s so natural to me. That’s the dream.

Pre-MHacks Thoughts

I fly out tomorrow at 8am to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for my second major hackathon: MHacks. It’s one of the most hyped up and talked about events in the Hackathon Hackers community on Facebook, which with over 10,000 members is one of the biggest if not the biggest hacking community in existence. But I’m not feeling the excitement – to be honest, I’m scared of failure. And I’m trying to figure out why, so I can change that negative energy into positive motivation.

I went to my first major hackathon, HackGT, with feelings of being able to accomplish the impossible – unbounded enthusiasm, passion, feeling. I was (and DEFINITELY still am) the typical excited freshman unaware of the true grit and hard work required to ship a finished product – just blissful that I get to fly across the country for free to follow a passion, unobstructed with school or other extracurriculars, that I’ve had for over four years.

I came in with what I thought was an awesome, doable idea – a Google Chrome extension that would add saving functionality to Facebook posts.

Yet the project, while simple enough conceptually, turned out to be far more complicated than the teammate I found there and I expected. Documentation for Chrome extensions turned out to be very unhelpful, and Facebook feeds were an endlessly dynamic flow of content that required advanced Javascript/Chrome-specific software that were beyond the limits of what we could learn in 36 hours.  In the end, we walked out with a Chrome extension that added a save button, minus its functionality, to Facebook posts.

In all honestly though, that was the only downside to the whole experience, if that can even be considered a downside. I made some great friends and caught up with two old ones I hadn’t seen in a long time. I learned what it was like to fly across the country by myself, how to Javascript, how to divide up work between teammates, how to Git, and some ins and outs of how big hackathons work.

After I came back, I was still in high spirits. I had just experienced all these new things and I was still absorbing them. I was still enthusiastic about the Facebook Chrome extension project, telling myself I would finish it in the free time I had left in summer and during my first quarter of college. As time went on, though, life happened and the project never materialize. I became… ambivalent about the whole experience.

I’d like to call myself a hacker – someone who enjoys taking up problems and figuring out an innovative solution using hardware and software. I love computer science and making complicated things come to life on a screen and even in reality, if it’s hardware, by simply entering a couple thousand words into Sublime Text 2 or Vim or whatever IDE and clicking the run button. There’s so much pleasure and satisfaction with having the deep understanding of how a complicated thing functions. All hackers feel this way, to some extent. But here is a fact that bothers me: I don’t have anything to show for it. I’ve done tutorials, I’ve gone to hackathons, but I haven’t fully finished a project, 100%, all the way to completion. I’ve yet to complete a computer science project I’m proud of.

I guess I’m in that stage of my life where I’m trying pretty hard to figure out who I am and who I want to be. Hackathons are opportunities to exhibit this self-perception that’s tied to my career and aspirations and passions and self-respect. So it doesn’t feel right to call myself a hacker before those skills that I tell myself I have manifest themselves through a finished product. Now, it feels like MHacks is a matter of proving that this perception I have of myself is more than an unsubstantiated fancy.

It runs deep. But I think there’s another part of me swimming around here that I haven’t caught yet that runs still deeper.

My attitude towards failure in high school wasn’t so great. Early on in 9th grade, I received sympathy for expressing my sadness about failures, which made me feel better. As the years went by and as I failed and succeeded (just like anyone else who’s had a normal high school life) in more things , my friendships changed and I no longer received that sympathy. I think I started expecting that sympathy from myself, leading some pretty bitter periods of my life that I’m not exactly proud of (read some of my old posts, you may see it 😛 ) I’ve come out on the other side a lot happier, though I’m still picking apart and learning from what happened.

Being a hacker or a programmer is merely a status. At the end of the day, it’s a label for a skill set, and in the grand scheme of life, it’s as transient as the clothes I wear every day. It’s a passion, sure – it’s a potential career, sure – but I think I’m more defined by something more constant: how I approach every general challenge, every general emotional obstacle that may come across my path in the (hopefully) long journey of life.

It’s clearer now why I’m so ambivalent about HackGT. I wasn’t afraid that one experience would define me – I was afraid that the experience was symptomatic of a general inability to commit to something and execute it to completion. Which is definitely something far more serious. Looking at it this way, how I define myself is no longer a question of skills I may or may not possess at this point in time, but a question of willpower. Willpower was what prevented me from ever finishing that Chrome extension, not my lack of knowledge.

So here’s the deal: This weekend, it doesn’t matter whether I believe I’m a hacker or not. It doesn’t matter whether I ship something or not. What does matter is how hard I’m going to try to come up with an idea I’m proud of. What does matter is to what lengths I’m willing to push myself outside of my comfort zone to accomplish this goal. Because how I choose to approach this challenge, and whether I choose to learn from instead of be defined by my failures, is indicative of how I’m going to approach the rest of the challenges waiting for me in life, which outnumber and outsize MHacks 100,000,000,000 to 1.

At the first hackathon I went to, I did Android tutorials for 24 hours. The second, I tried for 36 hours to ultimately fail in finishing my first hackathon-worthy idea. This is my third hackathon. Will I continue this upward trend of improvement? Does it matter? Will I choose to be proud of success, or proud of effort?

I have no idea. I’m about to find out.