October 25, 2018

The Benefits of Being An Outsider

I learn much from observing my teenage daughters navigate adolescence.  While the times have certainly evolved since I was in high school (Why send a note in class when you can send a Snap?) there are elements which remain decidedly intact. There continues to be an “in-crowd” and an “out crowd.”

We all remember the in-crowd being that group of “cool” kids who seemed to glide through high school with ease. They made friends easily and always had a group to share the lunch table with. Perhaps they played sports, were enviably fashionable, and seemingly avoided the obvious perils of adolescence like acne and awkwardness. Even if these kids were really nice, they seemed to ignore the fact there was anyone existing outside of their crowd. Let’s be honest...though it might be painful to admit, many people felt like Bella Swan in high school, hoping that the good-looking Cullens would invite us to their lunch table. (Don’t pretend you are too cool to have seen Twilight. We all have.)

It stings to feel excluded. We learn from an early age that when we fail to conform, we might receive disapproval from our teachers and peers. We are often motivated and praised to act like everyone else. Should you fail to blend in, you may start to believe something is wrong with you, and often insecurities build. And while this is a completely normal part of growing up, if you begin to believe this negative thinking, it can follow you straight into adulthood. That’s not productive.

For those who continue to struggle with feelings of self-doubt, I challenge you to shift your thinking: being an outsider is the new cool.

At work, it’s important to contribute meaningful, impactful work. It’s also important to understand the norms and values of the company and embrace them as your own. After that, however, it’s just as important to showcase your individuality. Being an “outsider” provides you with a perspective others don’t have.  It allows you to challenge the status quo, and identify new opportunities. If we consider people of vision, like Van Gogh, Oprah, or Steve Jobs, they are described as having played by their own rules, without regard for others supporting their ideas.

Colin Wilson, a British writer, presented a hypothesis in his 1956 book The Outsider that suggested that social rejection may both be the result of, as well as that which fuels our creativity.  “Outsiders” find inspiration in playing and succeeding against the odds. And while the need for belonging is still high on humanity’s list of necessary needs, so is the need for uniqueness and individuality. Stated in another way, as we age, we move from truly caring about fitting in, and begin embracing what makes us different.  For those with more creative minds, however, they may find a greater need to share their uniqueness. They embrace their non-conformity.

Of course, no one benefits from being rejected. And whether you were in the inside or outside crowd in high school, any rejection can take a toll on your psyche and self-esteem.  When we experience it, each person finds their own method of coping and means to find their own sense of belonging. However, for those who are capable of embracing their uniqueness and truly don’t pay much credence to how others perceive them, they buffer themselves from that rejection. This can fuel their creativity. Want to fire Steve Jobs from the company he started? Just look how he responded.  

Feeling as though you are an outsider can come with some baggage significant baggage; especially when we carry that with us from our formative years.  However, it can also be seen as a tremendous gift. When an individual has the ability to think differently than the norm and marries that with a healthy dose of passion, that independent mind can offer more autonomy, creativity and space to flourish in the work world, as well as life. These outsiders have become some of our most celebrated and successful entrepreneurs, thinkers and innovators.

There is a fine line separating “outsider” from just plain crazy, but simply stated, those people who believe they are crazy enough to change the world are usually the ones who do.

Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator