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What this racehorse can teach us about owning your story…

Last Updated:

May 13, 2024

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Welcome to Edition #51 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? Your story is stronger when it’s imperfect.

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Seabiscuit (a racehorse) and his jockey were the underdogs of the horse racing world. Their partnership became a symbol of hope for Americans during The Great Depression.

The year is 1936—the middle of The Great Depression in America—and 15 million Americans were unemployed. Tom Smith, a racehorse trainer, decided to take a chance on a 3-year-old red-brown horse to improve his winnings.

Named Seabiscuit, the horse was described by others as “weak and undersized… [he] slept too long and ate too much.” But where many saw hopelessness, Smith saw potential.

Like Seabiscuit, the jockey Red Pollard didn’t seem like a winner. After 12 years of racing and a traumatic brain injury from falling off a horse that led to him being blind in one eye, he had an “unremarkable record” of riding the “worst” horses on the “worst” tracks.

But, in the face of adversity, Pollard also found opportunity: He “had come to understand troubled horses… [who] often responded to his gentleness by running hard.”

Smith needed a jockey and Pollard needed a horse. By chance, the two met. When Pollard offered the horse a sugar cube during their first meeting, the horse—called “mean and ragged” by former riders—nuzzled Pollard in return. “As Smith saw it, Seabiscuit had chosen his jockey.”

At the same time, the American government funneled money into horse racing to improve the economy. Racehorse locations increased by 70%. Meanwhile, prizes equivalent to $7,000,000 USD today “drew the horses, and the horses drew the fans.”

So, when Pollard and Seabiscuit—the underdogs of the horse racing world—began winning in 1937, the American people were captivated. "Out of nowhere, Seabiscuit inspired hope at a time in our history when people were really struggling.”

“40 million people — one out of every three Americans — tuned in their radios to listen” in 1938 when Seabiscuit raced at a “highly anticipated one-on-one match.”

Then, both Seabiscuit and Pollard faced career-ending injuries—and everyone thought it was the end.

But their story wasn’t over.

In 1940, after a year of recovering together, the pair returned to the race track. The odds were low: Seabiscuit was already seven years old, “ancient by racing standards.” And Pollard was still fragile from his leg injury.

But being an underdog was a relatable experience for the American people. With “78,000 fans, about the size of a current Super Bowl crowd” squeezing into the racetrack to watch, Seabiscuit and Pollard won their last race together—clocking the “second-fastest time ever run for a [mile-and-a-quarter] distance on an American track.”

Today, their legendary return is memorialized with Seabiscuit appearing in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame and Pollard appearing in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

So, the next time you find yourself wanting to bury your past, remember Seabiscuit and Pollard, who became successful not just in spite of being underdogs, but because they were underdogs.

Seabiscuit and Red Pollard, date unknown, via PBS.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Don’t hide your past!

Think back to the last person you wanted to see succeed, whether it was a mentee or someone on a reality TV show. Chances are, you were rooting for them because you were rooting for the “little guy.” Seabiscuit and Pollard drew crowds for that same reason: They weren’t the fastest duo in history, they were the most relatable.

Those of you who’ve read my book The Unspoken Rules or my story on how José M. Hernández went from son of a migrant farming family to NASA astronaut will know The Three C’s of Competence, Commitment, and Compatibility.

In short, it’s not just about being good (being competent)

It’s also about being hungry (being committed) and being relatable (being compatible).

Having read hundreds of successful (and unsuccessful) college and graduate school applications and overheard even more backroom discussions that decided the fate of someone’s promotion (or firing), I’ve seen the same outcome time and time again:

Someone had an amazing personal story—but they speak or write about themselves like a corporate robot. What do they not realize? That the admissions or promotions committee is made of humans—and humans like a good story.

Have you overcome something? You may very well have!

In your next conversation, try sharing your…*

  1. UPBRINGING: “I grew up in _______ where I was _______.”
  1. HARDSHIPS: “I always wanted to _______, but _______.”
  1. CONSTRAINTS: “I never had access to _______, So I _______.”
  1. GOALS: “Ever since _______, I've always wanted to _______.”

*Like this fill in the blank? This one appears in my “How to Say It” flashcards in “The Ultimate Bundle"!

Humans like underdogs, yes, but humans also dislike whiners—and there’s a thin line between sharing your story and airing your grievances, as I learned from the head of admissions of one of the world’s top 10 law schools.

So, when in doubt, share what you’ve accomplished (as the former CEO of Burberry did), then follow up with how unlikely your success was, rather than the other way around. That way, you leave people thinking, Wow… you did all of this… in spite of all of this?? And not Wow… what a bitter crybaby (someone else’s words! Not mine).

I know it because I’ve experienced it: Towards the end of writing The Unspoken Rules, I needed endorsements from recognizable names. So, I sent over 100 cold emails in search of someone who’d back my work. My first round of emails all went unanswered, while my second round of emails kept getting responses, even if it was a “no.”

The difference? My first round led with the resume: “I’m a Harvard grad, BCG consultant, MBA.” The second round? “I’m a fellow first-gen on a mission to…”

Own your story!


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