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May 12, 2016 11:15 AM EDT

There are a lot of reasons Donald Trump is now the Republican party’s presumptive presidential nominee, and if you want to know a few of them, just ask, well, Donald Trump.

“My life has been about winning,” he says.

“My IQ is one of the highest,” he’s also said.

And then there’s: “I think the only difference between me and the other candidates is that I’m more honest and my women are more beautiful.”

That’s not a C.V. the Founding Fathers might not have had in mind, but hey, you can’t argue with The Donald’s success. Still, there’s something else that surely didn’t hurt his candidacy—something that Trump might not boast about so much: Low expectations—really, really low expectations.

Trump may be a successful showman and real estate billionaire, but when it comes to politics and policy, he has shown only the faintest acumen. And his temperament on the stump has been—how best to put this?—unconventional. That was supposed to make him electoral roadkill, somebody who would be an entertaining distraction like 2012’s Herman Cain, but only until the voters got serious and actually started to cast ballots, at which point he’d be sent packing. It was for that reason that the serious candidates like Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, John Kasich and Marco Rubio—smart, thoughtful guys all, whatever you might think of their ideas—decided to train their fire on one another, leave Trump alone and be there to gather up his supporters when he inevitably crashed and burned.

So, how’d that work out, fellas?

The Trump phenomenon is not exclusively a result of his rivals’ underestimating him, but it’s played a big part, and it’s part, too, of a rich history in politics and plenty of other fields. George W. Bush, so the early thinking went, was an affable, pleasingly unpolished candidate, but, let’s face it, not the deepest thinker in the Presidential field. Those low expectations, however, were part of the tactical power of his campaign. Toward the end of the 2000 race, he malapropped brilliantly about that very thing, boasting that his opponents had “misunderestimated” him. Maybe the mangled word choice was deliberate, maybe not. Either way, it was one more reason for rivals to keep on misunderestimating—until it was too late.

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Athletes—especially young athletes—are beneficiaries of the low expectations game too. There are few things that thrill baseball fans more than a young pitcher for the home team blowing away opposing batters in his very first season. But by his second season—or even the last couple months of his first—the hitters start to connect. That’s partly because they’ve had a chance to watch him work and figure out his weak spots, but it’s also because they’ve started to take him seriously and no longer come to the plate assuming they’re facing an easy mark.

Something similar is true in the entertainment field. Hollywood producers inevitably get nervous when an upcoming film is talked about as a cinch for Best Picture. From that high-expectations perch, there’s nowhere to go but down. When expectations are low, however, films can actually benefit.

Easily the best historic example of this was Kevin Costner’s perfectly atrocious 1995 movie Waterworld—about a post-apocalyptic Earth in which the ice caps have melted, the continents have flooded, people have gills in their necks and…never mind. It had every ingredient necessary for a big-budget bomb, but the advance gossip about it was so blistering that, by the time it was actually released and people went to see it, the consensus was, “Hey, this isn’t so bad.” Actually, it was every bit that bad, but audiences and critics graded it on such a low-expectations curve that it actually wound up breaking even at the box office.

Of course, most of us aren’t Hollywood producers, big-league athletes or presidential nominees. So the question the is: How can you best leverage the low-expectations game in your work, school or social life? And the short answer is: Don’t. If you’re smart, adept and personable, you get nowhere pretending to be dim, inept and surly and then—surprise!—overachieving.

Read more: The World’s Most Successful Women Share Their Personal Mottos

Rather, the strategy, to the extent that there is one, is not to sweat being underestimated. Newcomers to any job, school or social circle are, by definition, unknown quantities. While some appear more extroverted and confident, none have yet proven themselves—which is why your boss doesn’t give you a multi-million dollar account the first day you show up for work and a college dorm-mate doesn’t suggest you take a summer share together the first time you shake hands.

You reveal yourself slowly—through your work, through your decency, through innate and particular gifts. If you dazzle from the start, that doesn’t mean you’ll disappoint; the professional or social superstar—the person who stands out immediately and lives up to that first impression—is a very real thing.

But much more common is the blank human page, the person whose qualities are, at first, a mystery. That, in some ways, is an opportunity. You have only so many chances to wow people, only so many chances to exceed what doubters think you can do. Soon enough, your native abilities will be known and an even tougher challenge—meeting high expectations—will begin. Enjoy the chance to surprise while you can.

Write to Jeffrey Kluger at

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