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Superhero Series: Suceeding as an Underdog like Batman

Did you expect Batman to beat Superman in the 2016 blockbuster movie? I certainly did not. Here is an essay that follows the theme of that fight - setting yourself up to win as an underdog.

Happy reading!


I admit I am not the most naturally talented in physical activity, academics, or even social situations. My nicknames among my family members are “san pi pa” and “lam-eh” – translated as “thin as a stick” and the “weak one.” In academics, my parents always considered me the least mentally sharp, setting expectations lower for me on multiple occasions. For as long as I can remember, I have had hyperhidrosis and hyperacusia. Imagine having to shake hands with sweaty palms all the time plus being unable to go to concerts and loud bars, having a hearing range of 15 decibels below average – effectively changing a pianissimo to a fortissimo!

In Angela Duckworth’s Ted Talk, she discusses the greatest predictor of success – grit – might be inversely related to natural talent. The greatest predictor of success is not social intelligence, physical health, stunning looks, or even a high IQ. Grit, according to her, translates to having stamina, working really hard day-in and day-out, and keeping motivation. The key building block of grit is something she calls the “growth mindset” – the belief that the ability to learn is not immutable, but can be changed. Those with grit do not believe that failure is permanent and are willing to fail.

I have always practiced the growth mindset. To physically improve, I took Chinese medicine (boiled essence of batwing, worms, and bitter herbs) and vitamins regularly on my own since grade school, bulked up in high school by eating over 4000 calories a day to fuel my consistent lifting, and trained in Krav Maga for added mental toughness. I was the worst badminton player in 4th grade PE, but I played “backyard badminton” to improve. Waking up at 6:30AM, playing on concrete floors, and windy conditions forced me to build powerful legs and dynamic footwork. I eventually trained under two former national champions in the Philippines and with the national team, becoming the MVP and captain of our varsity team in high school, and even an assistant coach in college. Academically, I started tutoring sessions, making detailed to-do lists, and proactively formed collaborative study groups. Internalizing these study habits helped me do well in college. For my hyper-conditions, I have learned how to accept and adjust to them, diffusing the social landmines they bring about through humor and levity.

While I may not have realized I was applying the growth mindset growing up, I have come to understand it better. There are 2 parts to my application of the growth mindset. The first is effective planning, and the second is understanding my motivations. I always set up metrics to track and measure improvement in the tasks I carry out to reach my objective – whether it is increasing weights by 5 pounds every month, pushing myself to go to office hours more times a week as a final exam approaches, or making sure to ask for feedback after every project at work – so that I can digest and act on constructive criticism. I know that sometimes I am motivated by external recognition and the challenge to prove people wrong, and other times I am simply motivated by raw passion and enthusiasm. I’ve learned that it is essential to balance these motivational sources so that my motivation does not burn out and remains sustained.

People are celebrating 2016 as the year of the underdog. Batman beat Superman, newly promoted Leicester city won the Premier league for the 1st time, and Portugal found an unlikely hero in Eder, whose career had been going downhill before his European-Championship winning goal. In these cases, those who succeeded were not the most favored, but those who showed grit. Winning, losing, and improving are all part of the same process. People have often doubted my ability to reach the finish line, and rightly so. Yet these failures taught me to keep pushing myself, to challenge others’ perceptions of me, and to remain motivated. I was the underdog in graduating with 3 degrees in 4 years, landing a TAS job as the youngest member in our group, and founding the Berkeley Club of the Philippines as a recent graduate. Perhaps I was not born with natural talents, but my “growth mindset” has gotten me a long way.

Today whenever someone calls me “san pi pa,” it evokes a different emotional response. It is a personal reminder to me that what I do not have naturally, I can more than make up for through grit.

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