Admit it. You aren’t like them. You’re not even close. You may occasionally dress yourself up as one of them, watch the same mindless television shows as they do, maybe even eat the same fast food sometimes. But it seems that the more you try to fit in, the more you feel like an outsider, watching the “normal people” as they go about their automatic existences. For every time you say club passwords like “Have a nice day” and “Weather’s awful today, eh?”, you yearn inside to say forbidden things like “Tell me something that makes you cry” or “What do you think deja vu is for?”. Face it, you even want to talk to that girl in the elevator. But what if that girl in the elevator (and the balding man who walks past your cubicle at work) are thinking the same thing? Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on conversation with a stranger? Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others…” –Timothy Leary
I was first introduced to this quote at a session at the first Yes by Yes Yes in the summer of 2013, and several of us had a great discussion about how to go about finding “the others”. Each of us in the room felt like an outcast in one way or another, having trouble fitting in with “normal” people. We each shared the experiences we had in finding other members of our tribe, whatever tribe that was, and what struck me at the time was the commonality of those experiences. The first step to finding others always seemed to be having the courage to put more of our own particular brand of weirdness on display in the world. Once we did that, then the “others” of our tribe could find us, rather than us feeling like we were each alone in the world.
I was reminded of this discussion this week as I am reading Nilofer Merchant’s book The Power of Onlyness, where her chapter on “Find Your People” includes the quote “knowing how to find “your people” takes a set of particular skills. To find them, you have to know how to both signal your passions and interests and to seek out theirs.” She goes on to note that “indicating [your] interests clearly encouraged others to surface – to rise up and signal their own interest.”
Now that I think about it, my vulnerability as filtering post has a similar theme; be clear about what you want and need, and while that will drive some people away, those people would not have been a good match anyway. Only by being authentic and vulnerable will you find the people that match you, your tribe of “others”.
It all starts with a moment of vulnerability, of risking looking like a fool by sharing something truly meaningful about yourself. That risk is terrifying, and many people will do almost anything to avoid it, because that sharing can lead to social rejection, as Tim Urban memorably describes in his post on Taming the Social Mammoth. But if we all hide behind our socially acceptable masks, we all look the same, and none of us can ever see behind the masks. Somebody has to put down their mask first, and it might have to be you.
Claiming our identity in public also makes it easier for our friends and networks to help us find our “others”. As far back as 2004, I had started to call myself a generalist, admitting that I didn’t want to specialize, but my real breakthrough came in 2006 when I retitled my blog as “Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist”. I even made personal business cards with that title, and handed them out at networking events. And in the New York tech scene, where I lived at the time, I quickly became known as the Generalist guy. People started introducing me to their friends who couldn’t figure out what they wanted to do with their lives, and we would commiserate about being generalists in a world that didn’t appreciate us. By claiming my identity publicly, it went from being something to be ashamed of (“Why can’t I just pick one thing to focus on?”) to something others wanted to emulate (a few people started reaching out to me to learn from my experience).
Another example is my introduction to Overlap, where a friend joined the community, realized it wasn’t for her, and said “Eric, these are totally your people!” and she was right. The key was that I had shared enough of my interests and identity with her that she knew what excited me and inspired me, and that these people shared those interests. Sure enough, the Overlap community is my tribe, and one of the places where I feel at home. And I don’t know if I would have found Overlap if I hadn’t shared enough of myself so that my friend could make the connection for me.
I’m again experiencing the power of sharing my developing story as I move into coaching. Names matter; I feel different now that I am starting to default to introducing myself as a coach (and not a “business strategy guy” or a “coach in training”). And as I tell more people that coaching is my focus, they put me in touch with other coaches, and that community of coaches only reinforces my nascent identity as a coach in a wonderful virtuous circle. One of the best parts of the Immunity to Change workshop was meeting coaches from all over the world (17 countries!) and realizing I belonged with them. Earlier in my life, spending 4 days with a group of 50 people that I didn’t know would have been a socially exhausting nightmare for me. But now that I am more confident in who I am, I showed up as fully myself and fit right in as a coach, making several new friends with whom I would geek out about coaching all day and night.
I find it fascinating that finding the “others” starts with finding yourself. Until you know who you are and what you want to stand up for in public, you will blend in with the masses and there is no way for you to find the “others” or for them to find you. But when you do let your freak flag fly, the possibilities of community and belonging can open up. It’s not about waiting for the “others” to find you, as that may never happen; it’s about you putting yourself out there, taking the risk of social rejection from the people that don’t matter to you, so that you can find the “others” that do.