On Being Different

There is a certain frisson in being different. Most of us really don’t want to be. We want to think we are different, but not actually be different. Different enough to still be interesting, maybe eccentric, but not stand-alone different. There is fear in having to explain ourselves—and failing.

When communication is too different, it requires a lot of translation.

There was a recent uptick in “be different and proud” quotes on Twitter and it set me to thinking. As an artist, there is a certain threat level to being different. There are fads in supplies and techniques.  Several years ago, anyone who could push a thread through a bead became a “jewelry designer;” those with more patience and talent made amulet bags. If you didn’t make them, your talent was suspect—as if you hadn’t reached an expected artistic developmental stage.  In the collage world, there was a huge surge in illustrations of big eyed women with bent necks. Adding a bird somewhere in the collage was close to a requirement. . The bird was first a sign of individuality and moved to cliche, with defenders and detractors.

“Different” varies from “early adopter” to “outsider artist. It’s hard to feel connected to your path when you are alone and a large group of successful others are pouring out the fad of the minute.

Being different in the corporate world doesn’t often win awards, either. I once refused to fire a writer who was labeled as different. He was serious, bright, and had a talent for concise, image-rich, clear prose that drove home a point.  He was also an introvert and overweight. The department head pointed it out as “not fitting in with our image” and urged me to fire the writer. I refused, pointing to the employee’s serious talent. Suddenly I was the one who didn’t fit in, Within six months, I was called in for a review and told, “You are different and seem to enjoy it.” It wasn’t a compliment, and I was pushed out of the company. To my satisfaction, the good writer remained.

It’s hard being different if it affects your livelihood or your ethics. It’s easier to go along to get along. Being different isn’t a label; it’s is a daily decision-making process that balances providing for your family, being accepted by your friends, and standing up for what you believe. Sometimes that can be quite lonely. It can cost you a client or friends. You doubt yourself. You struggle with the possibility that you are simply wrong.

We live in a world of image, driven by consumer values. There is huge pressure to be accepted, to fit in, to have supporters, successful Facebook “Like” pages, Re-tweets. Do you express your opinion if it is different from your client’s and she is expressing hers as the right opinion? Do you stay silent? What about a friend’s veiled slur against a religion?  What if it is your religion? What about a snarky remark about looks? Weight? Who do you defend, except yourself? We make small decisions every day, and they shape our character, our jobs, our lives. Be careful of the little ones. They change the shape of your soul.

–Quinn McDonaldis a writer, artist, and life- and certified creativity coach. She is the happy author of Raw Art Journaling, Making Meaning, Making Art.

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15 thoughts on “On Being Different

  1. What a fabulous, freeing post. I, too, am still snorking about the Da3ve – where the 3 is silent – comment. I almost shot coffee out of my nose.
    I love you posts, but this one really hit home and made me feel really good about the odd little person that I am. Thank you.

  2. A fine line between different and socially acceptable vs different and too weird, too intense, too outspoken, too crazy. And the line moves depending on who you know, who your family is, where you live, how loudly you express your differences, how much money you own.

  3. I absolutely love this post! Thank you so much for sharing. This internal struggle that we have to be ourselves yet to conform to societies norms, yet to be authentic, yet to be not “too” anything can be maddening. I have started a movement- of people committed to living naked life: honest in their thoughts, actions and words. Today-you are a naked hero! Get naked…..www.thenakedexecutive.com: a girl that decided to tell everyone how she felt! (oh the shock!)

  4. I think it’s different in software companies. I’ve worked with:
    – male engineer who wore cocktail dresses to work
    – guy who shaved exactly half his head (I think it was the left side)
    – couple of people who wore roller blades at work (not TO work, AT work)
    – lots of very different color hair; bright blue, neon pink, that sort of thing
    – 16-year-old emancipated minor
    – innumerable people who decorated their offices and workspaces in unusual and extreme ways: antique toys, wiccan symbols and objects, a parachute hung from the ceiling, etc.
    – guy with a number in his name. I can’t recall exactly, but it was something like Da3ve or similar. The 3 was silent.

    In most cases these people are the smartest and most productive, and they’re actively recruited (and at this point many of them have become quite wealthy). There is something different about software, although I’m not sure exactly what it is.

    • Software doesn’t have a lot of baggage of “how it should be,” and the majority of software engineers are aware that they create their own reality. That’s not the traditional business model. Not at all. I love the Da3ve in whose name “the 3 is silent.” Perfect! I’m still grinning. And I wonder if the cocktail-dress wearing engineer made his own clothes. For a perfect fit.

      • Oh there are CONSTANT wars about “how it should be”!

        Oh, and I forgot a more subtle “difference” — there were some people who declined to participate in performance reviews, citing (pretty reasonably) Deming. (W. Edwards Deming, who said something like “Any system of measuring employee performance inevitably reduces that performance”)

  5. Hi, I had to write you to let you know that I have been receiving your emails for several months, and this last one is for me the best. It made me feel very wonderful and strong. I have felt different from all others since I was a very young child (when I was taught by my mother not to trust anyone!) – so even though I am in therapy I still find it difficult to keep friends, etc. etc. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and thoughts. I find them very important!

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