As a kid I loved watching the Superman movies with Christopher Reeve, but one thing always bothered me about the mild-mannered super hero: his dorky alter ego, Clark Kent. If all it took to protect Superman’s identity was a pair of glasses, some hair gel, and a little bronzer, why did Clark have to feign social ineptitude and endure the taunts of his idiot co-workers? And how did he resist the temptation to rip open his shirt, brandish the Superman logo, and cackle, “Who’s the loser now, dipwads?” (Or whatever foul name people called each other in the 1970s.)
I sympathize with Clark Kent. Ever since my admission to USC Marshall, I’ve yearned to reveal my secret identity for two reasons: to finally talk openly about the exciting next phase of my life, and to shove it in the faces of people who underestimated me. Perhaps that second one isn’t very noble, but it’s the truth.
Have you ever crossed paths with someone who, without saying much, managed to make you doubt yourself and your accomplishments? You could call these people elitist jerks, and you would be right, but that doesn’t change the fact that elitist jerks populate the highest echelons of business and society. To get in with the jerks, you must become one. As long as I am seen as less experienced, less powerful, and less educated, I will not be treated as an equal. I will be overlooked at the best of times and belittled at the worst of times. I’ve always lived by the mantra that working hard and being a good person will get you far in life, but that only works when the high mucky-mucks think they can get something out of you.
Case in point: At a private dinner one night, I found myself sitting next to a highly educated researcher at a top university. She very politely asked me where I went to college and what I did for a living, and when I told her, her manner toward me visibly changed. She quickly moved on to ask the person next to me the same question and didn’t speak to me for the rest of the dinner.
I was angry and mortified. I had never been self-conscious about my accomplishments until that moment when I realized that my worth in this woman’s eyes boiled down to two things: my job and my degree. I was angry at the shortsightedness of any person who could make me feel that way, but also angry at myself for having spent so much time and effort earning credentials that other people didn’t respect.
A lot of non-traditional students experience the realization that they hold a useless degree. Often the introspection stops there and they go running back to earn a Masters in the same field, or simply whine to anyone who will listen about how unfair the world is. For me, it was the moment I knew I wanted to earn my MBA and get a job where people would respect my abilities and contributions.
When people underestimate me because of my degree, my job, or my non-traditional background, I remind myself that the day is coming when my resume will reflect my true potential. When someone brushes me off in a networking situation, it gives me that extra push to develop the outward trappings of success. When a higher level manager treats me like their personal secretary, I push up my metaphorical glasses and smile. Today I wear my costume underneath my clothes, but one day soon I’ll step into that phone booth, spin around really fast, and transform myself into that superhero that’s hiding inside.