We live in a world obsessed with superlatives.

In the world of the job seeker, there never seems to be an end to the advice about how to get ahead. We’re supposed to bring up the awards we’ve won, accomplishments that dazzle and impress, as well as share the instances where we’ve single-handedly made a pivotal difference in the fate of a company or project… all, of course, while being extremely humble, kind, funny, and many other things.

While it’s easier to speak of your best qualities with a future employer when you have a pocket full of accolades from which to refer, what do you do if you don’t have that?

After all, not everyone can say that they’ve worked at a famous company, moved up the corporate ladder by a recent promotion, achieved something brilliant on the job, or graduated with honors from an Ivy League university.

But in a world where companies only want to hire the obvious top dog, what does that mean for the rest of us who identify with being the underdog?

Underdogs find power in the experiences that have significantly influenced their personal and professional narratives.

In many cases, it means that we have to go beyond the traditional ideas of what success looks like. Instead of citing obvious examples of accomplishments, the underdog has to dig deep to find what makes them different from others and their experiences valuable. It’s not likely a characteristic neatly pointed out on a resume, but rather a quality with a rich or interesting story for context. Underdogs often rely on the experiences that others take for granted, or simply overlook, as they may not appear to be buzz-worthy accomplishments at first glance.

When I decided to switch into the field of recruiting years ago, one of the first companies with whom I interviewed was a very successful executive search firm in the Boston area. Though I knew I would make a great recruiter, the owner of the firm expressed the contrary. “You’re smart and personable enough… but you’re definitely not a recruiter”, he said, to my disappointment. “Recruiters are extroverts, very charismatic, and engage with people very easily”, he continued. “You, on the other hand, sit back and listen way too much for this job.”  

Though I recall feeling crushed when I heard his feedback, I recovered within a few minutes, quickly changing my emotion to one of annoyance. Yes, I knew I wasn’t the most outgoing person in the room. But I didn’t quite understand why he seemed to trash the importance of listening skills – a trait that I believed was quite important to being a successful recruiter. Perhaps it was because he was looking for the next rainmaker for his firm – that is, someone who would attract and persuade prospective companies to engage his organization to recruit for high-profile positions. As his company focused on executive search, a key requirement for recruiting was to show the ability to bring in new clients.

Though it took a bit of time after the interview to fully appreciate his feedback, I took his observations to heart. I could have stayed annoyed by his comments, writing it off as a diss to my ability. Rather, I chose to see it more as the chance to get the unfiltered, candid take on the first impression someone with credibility in the field had of me. By being open to the feedback, I learned two extremely valuable things that emerged as key reasons behind my success in this field.

Underdogs look for the silver lining in situations that many others would dismiss.

This disappointing interview gave me the push to genuinely work on the area in my professional background that needed development. Because I wanted to succeed in this field, I took the feedback as the kick in the butt to seek out opportunities to improve my salesmanship and business development abilities. Over the next few years, I scooped up as much education as I could on the topic, from reading as many books and articles, attending training workshops, and volunteering for the hands-on experiences that would make me step out of my comfort zone and really flex my salesmanship muscle in the workplace. It wasn’t easy, nor did it happen overnight. But, it did pay off to put myself in these professional situations where I was uncomfortable. In time, I dramatically improved my skills around business development with this consistent effort, so much that I gained the confidence to start my own recruitment proprietorship and own the responsibility of signing clients six years later.

Underdogs are comfortable showing their value in understated ways; they continue to persevere towards goals without the attention or spotlight.

Though I’m very proud of the strides I’ve made to improve my salesmanship ability, don’t get me wrong – the success I’ve had as a recruiter isn’t because of it.

Just as I knew during my failed interview years ago, my best skills didn’t seem to resonate with the interviewer. Instead of accepting the narrow idea that successful recruiters are extroverts and feeling pressure to change who I was, I stuck to my intuition about the things I did well. I knew I’d go very far in this industry because of my ability to listen and to observe others effectively while being able to slice right to the core of what motivates people. It’s not easy staying true to a path that others might criticize or poke fun, but underdogs view it as just part of the journey as they keep moving forward.

Do you identify with the underdog, as it relates to professional goals or the job search? Share your comments below.

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