Learning to punch above one’s weight

November 24, 2022 09:06
Photo: Reuters

To undertake tasks for which one may not be viewed as sufficiently equipped.

To be asked to step up to challenges that are above one’s “pay grade”, “age range”, and out of one’s comfort zone.

These three are interchangeable – yet also fundamentally congruent statements. They reflect scenarios in life where we find ourselves pressed to do something for which we have long been told, we cannot do. We cannot do, for we are “not yet ready.” We cannot do, for we are “not mature enough”. We cannot do, for there are limits to our knowledge, and it is obvious that the only things we should do in life are those for which we are wholly and fully prepared.

Ain’t that right?

I beg to differ. Life throws all sorts of opportunities and challenges at us. If we run away from them at first glance, on grounds that we are not purportedly qualified for them, then we would never cultivate that sense of urgency that presses us to become truly ready – indeed, over-qualified – for such gargantuan tasks. Baptism by fire is what drives innovation and adaptation. Not living perennially within one’s comfort zone.

The pressure cooker that draws together need, necessity, irresistible offer, and raw and new insights, produces the pathways towards our falling upwards. Falling – not failing – upwards: for those who dare seize upon the opportunity, the unknown is due for full reaping, if and only if you see every mistake, every error, and every new datum of information as a valuable lesson, and as the key to unlocking more lucid and focussed self-reflection.

There will be those who put you down for you are too cautious; or too audacious. Let those who pick at the bones continue to do so, as you rise above them. I have often told myself and others that we must dare to dream bold and aim even higher. Implementation obviously does matter, for the Devil rests with the details; yet without a radical vision there could be no use or value in the talk of doing. Dreaming comes first – it forces you to narrow down your aspirations, define the scope of project, tease out the feasibility constraints and room in relation to the objectives, and then see to its execution. Designing how the dream operates comes second – and this is where you must listen to all voices, including the chorus of constructive critics or sardonic detractors, the latter of whom would view your success as antithetical to their engrained identities: they want you to fail, they want you to trip up.

The process will by no means be easy, especially if you’re taking on incumbent and entrenched power structures and interests. It could be embarrassing, even. You’d be put down, chastised, and dismissed by those who view you as a lightweight, on grounds of preformulated conceptions of your abilities, beliefs, and backgrounds. After all, what would you know – given your young age, inexperience, and fundamentally pollyannish worldviews?

Yet to these naysayers, you must not bow, you must not cave into your impulses to acquiesce. Indeed, you must prove them wrong – doubly wrong – by figuring out your flaws, plugging your loopholes and defects, and attacking the problems bit by bit. Deconstruct, as opposed to collectivise; distribute, as opposed to centralise; delegate to those who know better than you, as opposed to framing everything around the “Me”, “I”, and “My”. Only then, could you come to harness the skills and resilience needed – the thick skin, so to speak – to handle your critics.

For far too long we’re told to wait and see, watch and learn – it’s always one passive act followed by another passive gesture. As Alexander Hamilton crows in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s epic number My Shot, “I'm past patiently waitin'//I'm passionately smashin' every expectation//Every action's an act of creation.” With every act you must learn to disprove your naysayers, not through caustic rebuking, but through carefully planned success that exceeds their expectations and conforms with your expectations. You’re in control; not them. This is your show; this is your peers’ show – this is not the show of those who see the stage as having space for only one, buried behind their self-congratulating veils of ignorance.

So next time you feel that you’re working at a level that’s above your paygrade – ask not, “What does my pay require me to do?”, but “What is the pay I ought to aspire towards, given what I can, and will succeed in so doing?”

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review