Many Successful People Are Driven by a Quality No One Likes to Admit

Even Barbara Corcoran was told she'd never make it, but this is the trait that helped her persevere.

 Mike Coppola/Getty Images 

By Shana Lebowitz 

  • Success may be partly a result of insecurity, say entrepreneurs and researchers.
  • People who have a chip on their shoulder may be more motivated to prove their worth.
  • However, if you're constantly whining about your disadvantages, you may be less inclined to succeed.

Real-estate mogul and "Shark Tank" investor Barbara Corcoran was told she'd never make it.

After dumping her for her secretary in the 1970s, Corcoran's ex-boyfriend and ex-business partner Ramone Simone told her explicitly: "You'll never succeed without me."

On an episode of Business Insider's podcast, "Success! How I Did It," Corcoran told US editor-in-chief Alyson Shontell that Simone's words "just hit me in the gut and I felt that fever in my body like, 'I'll be damned if you ever see me not succeed.' I felt like I would kill not to let that thing happen."

Fast-forward to 2001, when Corcoran sold her real-estate company, The Corcoran Group, for $66 million.

Corcoran's experience having a chip on her shoulder is just one example of a phenomenon that's common among successful people, especially entrepreneurs. A little bit of insecurity appears to light a fire under them, motivating them to achieve their goals.

Entrepreneurs with a chip on their shoulder want to prove themselves to everyone who has doubted them

Betty Liu, the founder and CEO of media-education company Radiate, wrote on Inc. that one key trait of successful people is that they have a chip on their shoulder. She wrote: "I know many warm, engaging, optimistic entrepreneurs who are partly motivated by a common chip on their shoulders — the need to prove someone or something wrong. In its simplest terms, it's turning the proverbial lemon into lemonade."

Gary Vaynerchuk, founder of VaynerMedia, alluded to something similar when he told Inc. that many successful entrepreneurs have a chip on their shoulder: "Either you were born with nothing, zero, and you're just hungrier than the average human. Or, it's the reverse: You born into a lot of wealth and opportunity and you want to prove that you don't need it, and can do it on your own."

In fact, venture capitalist Mark Suster wrote in a blog post that he actively looks for entrepreneurs with a chip on their shoulder. "That they have something to prove. That they're not afraid to stick their noses up to the establishment," Suster wrote.

Why should insecurity and resentment contribute to professional success? It may come down to your level of confidence.

As psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote for the Harvard Business Review, "lower self-confidence can motivate you to work harder and prepare more: If you are serious about your goals, you will have more incentive to work hard when you lack confidence in your abilities."

Having a chip on your shoulder isn't always a good thing

To be sure, having a chip on your shoulder isn't inherently a good thing — it matters how you channel that lingering resentment. In the blog post, Suster distinguished between the good kind of chip on your shoulder, which makes you say, "I'm going to change the world, just try and stop me," and the bad kind which makes you say, "Investors are all lemmings and I'll prove it."

And Chris Heivly, a cofounder of MapQuest and an entrepreneur in residence at Techstars, wrote on Inc. that while having a chip on your shoulder can boost an entrepreneur's motivation, "there are those whose personal version of their chip takes a negative or counter-productive turn to the detriment of the company or themselves."

Heivly gave an example of a founder who whines and makes excuses about why they can't raise as much money as other, more fortunate entrepreneurs.

Interestingly, having a chip on your shoulder isn't something that's typically lauded in American culture.

Amy Chua (the "Tiger Mom") and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, both professors at Yale Law School, wrote a book called "The Triple Package," in which they cite insecurity as a key contributor to success. (The other two are believing that you're exceptional and having impulse control).

Chua and Rubenfeld write, in an excerpt for The New York Times: "That insecurity should be a lever of success is another anathema in American culture. Feelings of inadequacy are cause for concern or even therapy; parents deliberately instilling insecurity in their children is almost unthinkable."

And yet kids who feel like they're at some kind of disadvantage — say, if they're the children of immigrants — may be more motivated to prove their worth.

Still, Chamorro-Premuzic points out in HBR that relatively low self-confidence isn't always a good thing. If you're "not serious about your goals," low confidence can be demotivating, he says. If, however, like Corcoran and other entrepreneurs before her, you have a clear goal in mind, that chip on your shoulder may be just the push you need to persevere when obstacles arise.

Originally published at www.businessinsider.com

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