Being different – The value of not always quite fitting in

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment – Ralph Waldo Emerson.

On the outside, you look the part. You seem competent and at home professionally. But inside, part of you often feels you don’t quite fit in. You’ll never really be a ‘good corporate fit’, and you have always felt that way. If that’s you, you’re not alone. There are actually lots of us.

So says the brilliant Marianne Cantwell in her TED talk. If it resonates with you, read on and watch her video below. This is a blog with a vital message. It’s best to be yourself, to accept yourself and to find your own path. Even if it means carving it out differently from others and even when it involves a great deal of courage and determination on your part. It will be worth it. She says those that feel they never quite fit in are drawn to possibilities and to liminality where the work landscapes are less defined by existing constraints.

Blending in and standing out

Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken – Oscar Wilde

We all need to belong. We need people we care about, and who care for us. Sometimes, especially at work, we hide parts of us we’re not proud of, or we think don’t fit the way we should be or should feel. To an extent, we all compromise to help preserve the natural social glue that holds us together. That is part of being in community and in relationships with others. But when we do it at the expense of our uniqueness, we can suffer. If we feel we are seriously bending ourselves out of shape, then it is time to reflect on what is happening to us.

It’s all too easy, through a desire to fit in, please or belong, to feel like a square peg in a round hole. Many of us do. Over time, when we carry on suppressing parts of us, we can create a misshapen sense of self. We become inauthentic, and ultimately become more and more invisible or act out in ways that are not helpful. Then we suffer the pain of being frequently misunderstood. We can’t see why people can’t see who we really are. This can affect relationships and ultimately make aspects of our life harder than they need to be.

It can be challenging to go against the grain of other people’s expectations. Roles, corporate entities and brands can have very specific expectations of a person. Some have equally specific ideas about how a person they employ should not be.

So is it possible to have a career where we don’t have to squeeze ourselves into an existing box to make the grade, or squash into a wonky shape of our own making to fit in? Take a step back and if the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Why? Because every brilliant innovator, inventor, entrepreneur or movement initiator that you can think of has probably (at one time or other) felt this tension. Like us, they are liminal.

Some people like being liminal

We’re human. Life is never black and white, there are infinite shades of colour. Being liminal is simply being human. For some individuals, always in a state of becoming, drawn to development and variety it is a more pronounced quality. Some of us are drawn to this way of life and need the potential creativity that these different boundaries provide.

Our society doesn’t necessarily quickly endorse liminality though – especially when we are first starting out. We’re often asked to make vital choices about exam subjects and make vital career decisions very early on. We do this at a time when we often don’t really know ourselves well.

Sometimes we apply for roles whose job descriptions force us into unnatural shapes. This can limit us and limit our capabilities. Simply fitting in can cause those who enjoy liminality to dumb themselves down. It can then take time and a number of confusing turns to find a new path. However, there is hope for those who find themselves in this position.

A liberating idea for liminals!

Watch the TEDxNorwichED video and hear her Marianne’s Cantwell ideas of the hidden power of not (always) fitting in.

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I Accept

Marianne suggests a different model, where we forget trying to be the one who fits the mould best, something liminals find challenging anyway. Instead, find a place that’s better. Set up our own island off the main continent and populate it with the best of all worlds, all the different parts of us, whether they fit the mould or not.

Once we do, she suggests we’ll experience greater freedom. In the space we create, things like bridging worlds, not focusing on one idea forever, and having feet in different camps are not odd or wrong. In our new context it’s about becoming an influencer, a change-maker, an innovator, someone whose great ideas come, unexpectedly, from a valuable and valued left-field that doesn’t fit the usual mould.

Movements are created by liminal people. New ideas are inspired by them. Liminals like us can transform businesses from the humdrum to the exceptional. So don’t hide that personality trait, step into it and be different. It’s time to decide where our borders are and harness the creativity that may have been hiding in the shadows.

This isn’t a tool. It just is

As Marianne says, this isn’t a tool. Liminal is simply who some of us really are motivationally. As a liminal person, now is our time. Things are changing so fast that the ability to reach others and straddle borders – to be liminal – is more valuable than ever.

What aspects of your own liminality do you hide at work?

Find out who you are and do it on purpose – Dolly Parton

What aspects of your own liminality do you hide at work? Isn’t that an interesting question? Give it some thought – are you hiding part of yourself that might not fit the usual pattern but could actually change your working life in a profound way? Can we help you discover it?