From underdog to winner of a $10,000 career award

Feb 16, 2023
Find Your Superpower newsletter #001 - From underdog to winner of a $10,000 career award

Find Your Superpower newsletter 001 

Read time: 5 minutes

Topics covered: Professional branding, overcoming rejection, cover letter


During the pandemic, I received a WhatsApp text requesting for my help.

Some background about me: I used to be an academic for 15 years and I worked in the UK and the US for nearly a decade.

Since leaving my faculty position, I have started helping former colleagues in the STEM industry with my newfound skills in digital communication and professional branding. 


Here’s the problem

As per the WhatsApp text, Jane (not her real name, story shared with her permission) had been rejected for an international career award. The award was not only prestigious and career defining, it also came along with $10,000 in cash. Not too shabby.

Jane asked me what she should do next. Should she apply for the second time or throw in the towel, she wondered.

A more urgent problem was that Jane would age out of the eligible age bracket that year. It would be her last shot, and the shot had to be right on target.

I called Jane. I figured that she already wanted to try again, but something was holding her back.

Jane said that if they had rejected her once before, why would they give her the award this time? I acknowledged her concerns.

I asked a clarifying question, “Assuming you do this, what would be your strategy this time around?”

She said that she planned on revising her application statement and CV to include a few paragraphs on her work updates in the 12-month interim period since her last application.


No, we gotta flip the table

“Jane, no no, we gotta flip the table,” I said without thinking.

In poker, flipping the table is an action you take when you become so frustrated with your performance that you mess up the table to end the game.

To put it plainly, we needed a hard reset. Why?

If what we had done before didn’t work, it would probably fail again. We needed to curate this application differently from past attempts.

I told Jane that I would be happy to suggest something if she was willing to try a new approach.

I couldn’t promise her that it would work, but she had nothing to lose anyway.

She agreed to give it a try. 


Step 1: Be a proud underdog

I knew that Jane was an excellent candidate for the award, if not a shoo in. I felt that the committee had made a myopic decision to let her slip through once.

Regardless, it would do neither of us any good to play the victim card. For instance, I figured that Jane was also partially responsible for not pitching herself correctly.

I asked Jane if she was going to mention the past rejection. She told me that she wasn’t going to—not by her own volition, at least. Perhaps the judging committee which refreshes annually would not be aware of this information.

I said, “No, we will do just the opposite.”

After reviewing her personal statement, I recommended that she address the elephant in the room by proactively revealing unfavorable information about herself so that she doesn't appear to be covering anything up.

We agreed on the strategy that she would open her personal statement stating that she had been rejected before. We would then follow up with an account of how much she has grown during this period. It went something like this:


Before I provide further details about my proposal, I would like to let the judging committee know that I was rejected from this award in 20##. A lot has changed since then:

  1. Positive update showing new achievements and growth
  2. Positive update showing new achievements and growth
  3. Positive update showing new achievements and growth


Step 2: Think like a judge

I’ve served as a judge for many competitions, ranging from youth to STEM.

In general, judges (who contribute their time pro bono) feel a great responsibility to pick the correct winners. Good picks are winners who go on to succeed in their professional careers and champion the organization that conferred them the award.

Here’s two ways we could make a wrong pick:

  1. First, the award winner could choose to do absolutely nothing. From a corporate branding perspective, it would be a missed opportunity as the effort to launch and execute a successful award program isn’t trivial.
  2. Second, the award winner could go completely rogue. From engaging in poor professional behavior to doing something entirely unexpected, we could end up with a crisis situation on our hands.

Therefore, to be absolutely conservative, we would also take cues from past committees and respect the decisions they’ve made previously. If Jane had been rejected before, all it takes is for one judge to cast doubt on her application for the entire panel to nod in agreement and move on.

Jane would have to work harder than a fresh candidate with a clean slate.

I suggested to Jane that she control the narrative here by telling the judges what she would do if she won the career award, instead of making them guess:


I understand that this career award is a flagship event for <organization name>, which has the mission of <insert organization’s mission, which can be found on their website>.

If I were to win this career award, this is what I commit to doing over the next 12 months in support of this mission:

  1. Commitment to action
  2. Commitment to action
  3. Commitment to action


Jane was going to take all of the guesswork out of the picture. They would be guaranteed a great ambassador for their brand, if they would only say yes to her.


Step 3: A professional brand audit

I have been auditing brand strategy formally for clients, and informally for friends and people that I’ve never met before on LinkedIn.

I enjoy it because I like meeting new people and learning about them, and as a journalist I like searching for new angles to tell my stories.

I quickly scanned Jane’s name on the internet and reviewed her LinkedIn profile. While academic and industry profiles look very different, all of them require the same basic hygiene, such as:

  • a professional cover photo
  • a relevant and useful headline
  • a properly written “About” section
  • a complete work experience and educational record (especially for academics)

Once all of that checked out, I said that we were good to go.

And yes, she won. Would you believe it?

I couldn’t tell you how happy I was. It was better than winning the award myself.

Thank you for reading the inaugural issue of my Find Your Superpower weekly newsletter.

I’ll be back next week. 



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