I’m at a point in my life where I really don’t want to be anyone but myself. Expending energy to please people who will never like me for who I am, for people who have judged me to be a lesser being because of how much I weigh, how I dress, and how I choose to live my life, is not a goal of mine. There are too many other important things to do.
At the same time, I am seeing what this path is costing me in terms of opportunities. Whether we like it or not, “fitting in” is an integral part of business and the world in which most of us live our professional lives. Being the odd person out, the “weirdo”, is not an easy position to be in when there are unwritten rules related to speech, dress, and conduct. Because when you’re the “weirdo”, people perceive that they need to exert extra effort to understand you and very few folks are inclined to make their lives harder unless you have some sort of talent they respect or need to further their own goals.
Even if you do have a talent they want or need, you aren’t likely to get very far with it if you’re perceived as a weirdo. In my experience, many people often equate being a weirdo with “being difficult to work with.” I’ve seen that folks who get the most opportunities to advance are the ones who can converse about things that matter to the “in crowd.” (If there are more than two people in a group, there’s an in-crowd folks. Doesn’t matter if it’s your co-workers, the geeks you hang out with at a convention, or a knitting club.) Whether those “cool things” they care about are fashion, babies, the latest issue of X-men, or the newest set of aluminum needles, if you are knowledgeable or enjoy having conversations about these things, then you will garner their respect and trust almost instantly.
If you don’t talk about the cool things, have a different perspective/experience with them, or (heaven forbid) prefer to get actual work done rather than talking all day long, then you have to work harder to earn the same level of respect and opportunities. Let’s be honest here, people with the resources to grant promotions, to invite people to join projects, and to cultivate talent are going to pick people who they are going to have the most fun with rather than the best person for the job. Every time.
From the perspective of the person who doesn’t fit in, a person with dreams, aspirations, and a need to make a living just like everyone else, that’s a very hard reality to live with. In school, we’re taught that merit, hard work, and showing up are things that matter. So it’s hard not to feel bitter when your efforts are valued less by a leader than the efforts of a colleague who they are more friendly with.
If the leader makes special exceptions for that person (such as overlooking poor attendance or persistent tardiness) than it’s even worse. I believe leaders make those exceptions to preserve relationships they value, yet, whether they intend to or not, they are seen as rewarding irresponsibility. For people who already feel judged because they are “different” from the rest of the group, these types of actions are the ultimate betrayal.
But when you don’t fit in, you can’t really do anything about favoritism. Even logical arguments supported by data tend to fall on deaf ears. I’ve found all you can do is continue to work hard while searching for people who appreciate you for who you are, quirks and all, and people who are willing to give you a chance to develop your potential even if you can’t chit chat with them about the latest trends in designer handbags.
Part of being a weirdo is accepting that this search is going to be long and hard. You aren’t going to find people who you connect with right away because you’re a minority. Dating is always going to be harder. Making friends is always going to be harder. Surviving in a corporate environment where the unwritten rules work against you is going to be harder.
I’m still working to find a place where I feel I truly belong. I am fortunate enough to know what it feels like (thanks, Dickinson), so I will recognize it when I see it again. I will get there, and when I do, the people who believed in me will benefit from my work ethic, drive, and passion.
As for people who don’t believe in me, who write me off because they have no desire to put any effort into getting to know someone who is different, or who force me to step outside my comfort zone all the time just because they never want to leave theirs, I want you to know you will never be my first phone call when I have opportunities or resources to share with others. I will remember the folks who were there for me and I will respect the people who are willing to invest in my potential despite my differences.
I don’t have the time or patience for anything else.