Why Revenge and ‘Proving Someone Wrong’ Are Bad Motivators

Shortly after my high school beau and I finally ended our on again, off again relationship, he said he’d always underestimated me.

I immediately assumed it was because I wanted to be a writer and do something creative with my life, but he said that wasn’t it. In fact, most people our age don’t even know which career path is right for them and it was amazing that I’d been sure of mine since childhood. It was something he’d never been able to pinpoint, but the result remained: he had low expectations of me. A week later, I landed a columnist position at my college newspaper and decided that would be my place to shine. I would become the best writer possible and floor my supposed first love with what I could do. In short, I’d prove him wrong.

I spent the new couple of years writing like crazy for the student publication, my blog and half a dozen new media outlets. I won awards, found jobs and garnered a decent following online. So when we met up for coffee 5.5 years after he’d made that life-changing remark, it should have been equally life-changing when he said he was impressed with everything I’d done over the years. As I’d secretly hoped, he’d watched me from afar.

“I never saw it in you, but you have this grit and work insanely hard,” he admitted. “It’s awesome.”

Though I thanked my former flame, he had no idea how long I’d been waiting for him to confess he’d been wrong about me. I’d done so much since our testy conversation that I thought I’d be happy to hear him say I was worthwhile and not simply his flighty, inept ex-girlfriend. But I was unmoved, because revenge or “proving someone wrong” aren’t healthy motivators after all. Think of Elle in Legally Blonde — she goes to Harvard Law to show her ex-boyfriend that she’s smart and serious enough for him, but when that still won’t cut it, she sets out to be the top student in their class.

Yes, she achieves great things because of it, but along the way she forgets about Warner, and his apology at the end of the film means nothing. By then, she wants to be a solid lawyer for herself, and that’s the best place to be in.

Mahatma Ghandi famously said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” He was one of the greatest people to have ever walked this earth, and while I agree that everyone wins when they receive the attention they deserve, the real win is fulfillment, not getting a rise out of others.

We’ve all been mistreated, underestimated, let down and told we weren’t enough, even by people who really do care about us. It’s especially common to be criticized on the Internet, even from friends and acquaintances on Facebook and other social media platforms. If you’re a writer, someone might only come up to criticize your work or team up with people that are making fun of you. If you’re a performer, some may try to convince you that you’re a horrible, talentless actor. It’s cruel and meant to bring you to an unhappy individual’s level, because miserable people feel better when they’re not alone in their sadness. You can remember the fact that it’s not about you, or you can start a mission to show him/her what you’re made of. But aiming to do well merely to put someone else in his/her place isn’t going to help you do your best work long term.

While I agree negativity of any kind can be an effective motivator, it’s only temporary, and a positive motivator goes a long way. Some people are capable of working extra hard out of fear or stress. Others, like my old self, keep plugging away because they’ve got something to prove. These motivators might work for a while, but ultimately the desire to thrive for your own sake is going to take you to better places.

Chances are, there’s a lingering negative force in your life, whether through a Facebook friend who wasn’t all that nice to you in school and only pops up to mock you, a family member who thinks you’re in over your head, a boss or co-worker who tears apart everything you do, etc. It’s tempting to work hard at something to prove those people wrong — I’ve certainly fallen into that trap. The greatest motivator of all, however, is to succeed for yourself. It’s your life.

What are your thoughts on vengeful motivators? Share in the comments section.

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