Calling All Outliers: What Makes You Different May Change The World
Does finding a job that’s a natural fit for you seem utterly impossible?
Do you envy those who get constant recognition for their work, while your contributions remain mysteriously invisible to others?
Does frustration haunt you, because you know you’re not achieving what you could be?
I spent nearly twenty years of my professional life completely confused as to where I belonged, and frustrated because I knew I wasn’t living my potential. I’m a creative person, yet I wasn’t using my creativity to create my reality.
Professionally, I was stuck.
Now that I’ve changed my reality, I look back and I can clearly see how I interpreted my experiences, the myths I believed, and how I stopped myself from creating what I most wanted.
The mistakes I made are common, and human, and I don’t want you to limit yourself by making them, too. There’s a very good reason why I don’t want you to do this, which I’ll get to further down.
If you’re at all stuck in life, and wish you were living more of your potential, please read this post to the end. (And sign up for my email course when it launches soon.)
This post is dedicated to all Outliers, which is anyone with the human capacity to feel rejected because of difference. But it’s especially for those whose difference-based rejection has informed their identity.
It’s for those whose quirky, disruptive, or off-the-charts gifts are yet to be fully realized and seen by others or even themselves.
THE PURPOSE OF THIS POST
In 2011, when I picked up a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, I remember feeling disappointed.
I’d assumed the term Outlier referred to someone who lay outside the norm, because of something that made them different. I’d expected to hear stories of people who succeed despite (or because of) the challenges inherent in being an outsider.
That wasn’t the subject of Gladwell’s book. Instead, Gladwell de-mystified how some people grow different from others by becoming masters of their craft, which is also an interesting subject. (It turned out to be a great read, and you can find it here.)
But today my purpose is to tell the story I’d wanted to hear about six years ago.
I’ll be using Outlier to describe the status of someone experiencing human difference or exclusion, and the journey sometimes required for an Outlier to be successful.
I’ll explore traps we fall into when we perceive our differences, and how they prevent us from achieving success that is inherently possible for us as Outliers. I’ll also talk about the positive (if not revolutionary) outcomes we could be creating, as long as we choose to stay aware of the pitfalls and avoid them.
By reading this post, you’ll come away with clarity on stories you may have made up about yourself that now hold you back. You’ll see the opportunity you’re missing by telling yourself these stories, and clarify how to build a life where you get to flourish and make an impact without changing who you are.
WHAT IS AN OUTLIER?
This is a simplified picture of an Outlier and a System.
You can see what’s happening: there’s a main group of parts, held together, while one part lies outside the pack. This describes inclusion (what happens inside the circle) and exclusion (what happens outside the circle).
Now, those parts inside the bigger circle aren’t exactly the same, but they’re held together by some trait (or traits) that make them the same. This can be:
- a value they hold
- a belief
- common interest
- socioeconomic status
- geographic origin
- gender identity
- skin color
- career focus
- health status
- sexual preference
- a specific life experience
…and the list goes on.
Any given situation or context can create an Outlier, and an Outlier in one context can be part of the included pack in another.
This is important to point out, because outliers are everywhere. Everyone experiences being an Outlier from time to time. It’s part of our human nature to create packs, to foster inclusion and exclusion, as humans. (It is, for many reasons, in our best interest to grow to include the excluded, which I’ll explain further down).
Today, the Outlier I’m talking about is the one who lives with a pervasive, underlying feeling of being an Outlier. It is such a part of her inner experience that she’s come up with interpretations of why she earned this status, which then helped her to create stories about what she is and is not capable of. Being an Outlier has informed her identity and perceived potential.
Her Outlier status may be obvious, but it may also be something she experiences privately, or may never speaks about. It may or may not be detectable from the outside.
In fact, this Outlier may be perceived by others to be included. What makes an person and Outlier is their perception of being “outside” the norm, or group.
Outliers may not even have a word for the trait that informs so much of their frustration or experience of life. They may not even be aware of what makes them different.
They may only know on some level that there are core experiences of life that they don’t appear to share with others.
That’s all it takes for someone to become an Outlier.
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO BE AN OUTLIER?
We all know what it feels like to be the odd-one-out in a group setting.
We may find it interesting, or amusing, and be relatively unaffected by it (especially if we experience solid safety or inclusion within another group).
But if we’re negatively affected by the experience, or we’ll find we don’t easily relate to the group, and it will take work to engage. We may seek out someone who looks like we might enjoy talking t. We may decide to retreat, or feel bored. We may choose to cover up our differences for a chance to blend in more. Or, we may silently reject the group.
All of these experiences create feelings of separation. They plant the seed of isolation or social disharmony. This is part of the human condition, and we all experience it from time to time.
And for some people, it isn’t just the party that makes them feel temporary left out. Their experience is more ongoing; it’s that there is a fundamental aspect of who they are that is different from the rest, which can be unsettling (especially when the experience starts at a young age).
Our emotions can range from feeling vulnerable, uncertain, or even unsafe, to feeling alone, lonely, or even isolated, to hurt, disappointed, sad or even depressed.
Whether the Outlier’s experience of separation or exclusion is fleeting and temporary, or deep and ongoing, the impact is stress and discomfort.
Researcher of the social brain, Matthew Lieberman, discusses how the brain interprets this experience in the book Social; Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect. He says: ”Social and physical pain are more similar than we imagine…We don’t expect someone with a broken leg to ‘just get over it.’ Yet when it comes to the pain of social loss, this is a common — and mistaken — response.”
There’s a very real basis to the pain of exclusion, yet it’s invisible. It’s not something we can always point to, which can make it all the more confusing.
Operating with this underlying state of confusion can be taxing. It’s frustrating, to say the least, to live with repeated or ongoing disconnection, especially when our suffering seems amorphous, invisible and even invalid.
At this point we’ll probably be struck by a (survival-based) notion that “Something’s wrong.”
WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN?
When the idea that “something’s wrong” suddenly alerts us, our biology is at work.
We’re wired to connect and stay part of the pack for our own safety and wellbeing. All this disconnection is supposed to feel crumby.
To our biology and our brains, something really is wrong. And it needs to be fixed.
And as it turns out, research reveals how our health suffers when we fail to connect. Loneliness is a legitimate threat to our health, as much as other threats, like obesity. And in some countries (like ours), it’s epidemic. When we feel a visceral message that “something’s wrong” because we’re feeling excluded, that’s our brain acting on our behalf.
We’re seeing not just how this plays out in our physical health, but also in realm of performance. Research by Deloitte shows how teams rich in diverse talents, skills and perspectives won’t convert those assets into high performance until they create authentic inclusion. Only when each team member feels their value is seen, appreciated and incorporated by the group, does perceived performance accelerate.
TED speaker and author Margaret Heffernan also shows, more generally, how the marker of future success for teams isn’t (as we previously assumed) the number of gifted or highly talented individuals. It’s how well they get along.
When we feel excluded, the signal that “something’s wrong” isn’t just an irrational fear we should ‘get over’. There’s evolutionary reason for us to heed it.
Being part of a tribe is not only a matter of evolutionary survival, but also a matter of health and longevity, as well as optimal performance.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE OUTLIER?
Regardless of what we can now validate with research, the experience of being an Outlier is, first and foremost, a private one. When we get the signal that “Something’s wrong”, we’re personally called to interpret it: what does it mean?
Humans make meaning of everything, although we don’t always do it consciously. And the meaning we make of reality greatly influences how we experience it.
And while we’re able to consciously choose how to interpret what’s wrong and what to do next, it’s also true that our brains, by default, will immediately look to others’ opinions to make sense of what is happening. Lieberman’s research shows that when we are at rest and not actively trying to connect, the brain continues this work in the background, making meaning for us in order to create social cohesion.
Our brain, he shows, uses other’s opinions to form opinions of ourselves, in order to keep us tied to the pack. This happens naturally and unconsciously.
Here’s where Outliers get into trouble.
From experiences of disharmony, loneliness and moments of self-doubt, Outliers can misinterpret what the “problem” is.
When we experience something that feels dramatic in a negative way- where we’re on some level afraid for our survival- the story we make up a story about ourselves from that event, starts innocently or even unconsciously.
But if the event is traumatic, the belief is likely to get lodged pretty deep. It can quickly grow into a truth we don’t question.
The problem is, even though this story can be fiction, we’ll end up using it to perceive our identity.
For example, one can decide: “I’m too loud.” “I’m too quiet.” “I’m not that smart.” “I’m not creative.” “I’m too creative.” “I’m not good enough.” It can be anything, really, that seems to explain a problem of exclusion, and lead to an answer. And having an answer is so alluring, because it puts us back in the driver seat, giving us a sense of control.
It can even feel like a relief to have an actionable next step to forge connection: just be a quiet person, or be more of an extrovert, or don’t try things you think you’ll never be good at.
In my opinion, this isn’t all bad. It does keep us connected and safe (especially when we’re young), and this detour can force us to develop a whole new set of skills. When it comes to learning new ways of being, it’s great to bravely stretch our range. I believe that’s the whole fun of life, and we should keep doing it… forever!
But when an Outlier (or anyone) takes on self-definitions that are ultimately self-limiting (as opposed to self-expanding), you can guess what happens.
An Outlier’s entire life can be organized to fit into the new self-limiting belief system. Unintentionally, Outliers can severely handicap themselves for good, unnecessarily limiting their growth, self-expression and ability to flourish in life.
Even more painful is the reality that “people who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject it or change it.” (Originals; How Nonconformists Move the World, page 6)
Once a belief is organized around a status quo, it is perceived as fixed, and justified.
CHOOSING THE WAY FORWARD
A single interpretation of an unhappy event can cause limiting beliefs that set her on a life path she never would have chosen had that events or those events gone differently.
To be sure, this is part of the human condition. When it comes to the business of making anyone- including ourselves- feel included or excluded, we all play our part.
Large-scale exclusion or oppression aside, on one level this isn’t all bad. Life works in mysterious ways, and I believe the (potentially long-term) detour an Outlier can take in life also gives her just the skills and experiences she will need to uncover and fulfill her purpose (or purposes).
But at a certain point, the Outlier needs to come home to herself, and here’s why:
Just as there’s a purpose behind the ups and downs of our journey, there’s also a purpose to being born with our unique combination of talents and traits in the first place… even (or especially) if they make us different, and rumple the greater system of harmony and inclusion.
It’s not uncommon for someone to sense -or even know– that on some level they’re meant to be doing something different, or are neglecting their true potential. If we’re in touch with this loss, of we feel fragmented or like something is missing, we’ll will long for a different experience of life.
It’s the Outlier’s opportunity, and perhaps even her destiny, to recover back to her self, heal, and integrate her experiences into a new definition of herself and her purpose or focus in life.
Here is what makes this important: if she doesn’t find a way to see, accept, and relish the value of her differences, then she’ll have no way to offer them to others. The deep sense of purpose or calling inside her will stay asleep like a cat curled up in a warm corner of her consciousness.
She may continue to feel out of place, and endlessly look for the right job, the right partner, or the right set of friends. She may find success or satisfaction at work elusive. Or, she may experience disappointment at the shape of her life, with an unshakable feeling that something isn’t complete.
Given what is actually possible for the Outlier, this would be a great loss.
IMPACT ON THE SYSTEM
When an Outlier accepts the limitations of the status quo, she’s not the only one who misses out.
We all do.
Outliers are natural disrupters. The disruption their differences bring can be dramatic or subtle, but owning their differences and brining them into the System will challenge the system to shift.
It could be a subtle and harmonious shift, or it could be a temporarily calamitous one, depending on how all players decide to create with one another.
This shift unlocks a door to change.
If Outliers never get the chance to disrupt, the System will never be challenged to change. This change holds the possibility of growth, healing, innovation, integration, perspective shifting, redemption, or any number of outcomes.
If the System is never challenged, it will never be incited to change, re-evaluate, or re-organize itself in response. It may never grow, heal or innovate in the ways it might have.
It may never meet its own limits and evolve beyond them. It may never become more than it is.
When the impact of exclusion limits the Outlier, it limits the System, too.
It isn’t hard to find of examples of this in our history. Just think of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Where would we be- and who would we be- now, without that very needed and necessary disruption?
THE REAL PURPOSE OF OUTLIERS
This brings us to the purpose of Outliers.
If they choose to seize it, Outliers have an opportunity to bring the disruption, healing or change that is needed into the world, for the sake of our collective growth and evolution.
When you’re an Outlier, you get to spark change, for yourself but also for others. You see things from the outside, and you may actually have a clearer view of what’s happening on the inside than the insiders. Or at least, you’ll have an alternate point of view that could be very useful or new. You have something unique to offer.
In the book Originals; How Non-Conformists Move the World, author Adam Grant discusses how people whose range of experiences are both deep and broad bring more to their creative endeavors. People who aren’t steeped in the mindset of the status quo are free to create beyond it. This is the Outlier’s asset.
When an Outlier brings that different point of view into the System, for the sake some improvement or shared benefit, she has the opportunity to create something truly new.
She may bring new thinking into the fold. She may show us what we haven’t been seeing. She may point to opportunities we were blind to. She may even reveal parts of ourselves we hadn’t noticed.
If the System sees and incorporates the gifts of the Outlier long enough for transformation and growth to take place, together they will create a new -and better- reality.
This is human evolution.
And so, where the Outlier may have thought she had no purpose to the System because she existed outside of it, she necessarily does.
It’s not to figure out how to blend in or seek acceptance. It’s much bigger. And, it requires courage.
THE REAL WORK OF THE OUTLIER
The work of the Outlier doesn’t fit between the hours of 9am and 5pm. The Outlier’s work isn’t only to learn, adapt, improve, excel and earn within the boundaries of the state quo.
The Outlier’s work is to find the true purpose of her journey, connect with her inner resources and discover what all this is for, so she can experience the full expression of herself while also leading others.
She must open that pandora’s box and look at what’s inside. She’ll need to learn to trust herself (if she doesn’t already), manage and interpret her emotional responses, and access her inner guidance system, along with her natural capacity to heal.
She must courageously open herself to possibility, and be willing to dream beyond her current reality.
The Outlier’s journey challenges her to see through the mistaken interpretations of herself and others, overcome the limited thinking she’s adopted, and come home to her true value.
Her real work is to heal, find positive meaning in her experiences, and use her newfound strength and courage to create beacon futures. It is to dare to break the mold, to move beyond what is known and the status quo, to courageously decide to write the story of what happens next, from scratch.
It is to embark upon changes of which she doesn’t yet know she is capable, but is willing to find out.
She can do this for herself, and she can do it knowing that her work is ultimately for the sake of everyone.
When Outliers make this choice, they leave behind their victim identities to become visionaries, change-agents, influencers, innovators, bridge-builders, healers, activists, artists, light-workers, advocates, founders…
The fully realized Outlier uses her experience as fuel to grow, overcome shared limiting beliefs, change her life and change the world around her.
When she’s healed her wounds, returned to her value, and clarified her purpose, she’s in her power. From there, if she discerns that the masses aren’t ready for her idea, she can choose to modify her approach, adjust her timing, and conscientiously co-create with others. She’ll be acting from power, not powerlessness.
In other words, the Outlier’s journey will make her into a leader.