I always had an eye toward medical school, even though I majored in psychology in college. I didn’t have the fortitude for rigorous science courses, and I preferred to party on campus rather than study. After all, this was the early 1970s. Entering my junior year with an overall 3.4 GPA (lower for the science courses), my pre-med adviser said I’d never get into medical school. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that she may be right. I buckled down, but not in time to reverse the damage of two years of mediocre scholastic performance. All medical schools rejected me.
My adviser's comment stuck in my head, and I was determined to prove her wrong. I spent a year taking additional science courses, studying to retake the MCATs, and working part-time at a Harvard-affiliated hospital. I figured it couldn’t hurt to have a recommendation or two written on Harvard University letterhead.
The combination of hard work and determination paved my way into medical school. Compared to many of my peers of that era, who either went to medical school abroad and languished for several years before they were accepted to a U.S. school, or abandoned their dreams of becoming a doctor, I suppose I was fortunate.
The need to prove people wrong became a source of motivation for me. It helped me excel in medical school, residency, and beyond. By continually displaying my skills, I was able to disprove my critics. However, trying to prove people wrong all the time was exhausting, and it spurred me into academic and professional competitions so intense that I lost friendships and relationships.
I can say I truly wanted to become a doctor, which was not the case for other clinicians. Some were motivated to attend medical school simply because others told them they couldn’t cut it, a family member looked down on them because they didn’t want to follow tradition, or maybe they wanted to become a nurse.
Think about it: in the excitement of proving people wrong, acting out of revenge becomes a total waste of time and resources if you become a doctor without having a genuine interest in medicine. You will regret your career choice and may not treat your patients well. Here is yet another reason for someone to prove you wrong and demoralize you. Nevertheless, seeking revenge on doubters and non-believers is constantly played up in the media and songs and movies.
Where does the desire to prove people wrong originate? Most experts agree it’s during the school years — experiences with difficult teachers and interactions with peers who tease and taunt. I endured hurtful name-calling in high school due to my weight. It’s no wonder the dour outlook proffered by my pre-med adviser rekindled painful memories and shaped a future in which I felt destined to prove everyone wrong. My professor’s pronouncement was my main drive to succeed, and it worked.
The important question, however, is whether the end justifies the means? Is proving other people wrong healthy or harmful to your psyche? My training in psychiatry suggests you shouldn’t get your energy from negative people, because it’s easier to use other people’s negativity as fuel than it is to search within yourself and hone your native abilities. It’s more difficult to overcome feelings of insecurity and build confidence from a foundation of strength than it is to want people to like you for what you’ve achieved.
Over time, I gained confidence by writing and publishing books and articles, speaking at professional organizations, and being elected to leadership roles in medical societies. I rose to the rank of professor. As I became surer of my talents, abilities, and accomplishments, other people’s opinions didn’t matter that much to me, and the need to prove them wrong dissipated.
I’d like to think I’ve paid it forward to students and residents by mentoring them and furthering their self-actualization, thus sparing them the anguish I suffered early in my career. I advise them that if they simply exist to negate others’ opinions, it serves as a vital clue that they probably have some work to do in terms of valuing their self-worth.
Chances are, there is (or was) a lingering negative force in your life. It may be human nature to want to prove people wrong, but making someone else wrong doesn’t necessarily make you right. Perhaps the greatest motivator of all is to succeed for yourself on your own terms. Prove to yourself — not to others — that people are wrong about you and in the process help them find their own motivation to change.
Have you felt the drive to prove others wrong? How did you deal with it? Share your experiences below.
Arthur Lazarus, MD, MBA was a 2019-2020 Doximity Community Fellow. He is a member of the Physician Leadership Journal editorial board and an adjunct professor of psychiatry in the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz