In 1983, I started my first job out of college and immediately stood out — in a bad way.
The job market was terrible, even for a chemical engineering graduate with top honors, looking for work in one of America’s largest cities. I had exactly one job offer, from the local electric utility, to work in one of their power plants, 50 miles south of downtown Chicago. I took it.
My assignment was in a nuclear power plant, still under construction, several years from operating. This meant two things:
· 90% of the personnel were unionized construction workers; nearly 3,000 of them, largely welders, electricians and laborers.
· The other 10% were a mix of “Navy nukes” (the term for former staff from Navy nuclear submarines), technicians from other nuclear power plants, female administrative assistants and new college grads, like myself.
Being a woman engineer was odd enough in this environment. Throw in being Asian-American and young and I instantly became the center of attention. I wanted to stand out, by being a competent professional, not by being part of a freak show. Instead, I was walking on concrete floors in my hard hat and steel-toed shoes, surrounded by steam generators, stretching the length of a football field. Everywhere I turned, there were rough-around-the-edges tradesmen watching me.
I clearly did not belong. There were many days when I would walk into my high-rise apartment at the end of the day, crying to my new husband, not knowing exactly why.
A lot has happened since I first walked into that plant nearly 30 years ago. What I took to be a foreign culture in a blue-collar world would be grounds for sexual harassment today. Chemical engineering graduates now go on to become management consultants. Nuclear power construction came to a standstill in the '90s and is only now coming back, with smaller reactors and a more streamlined licensing process.
What has not changed is the human desire to stand out and belong, at the same time. As a career coach, it’s a tension that I’ve seen repeatedly.
The Genius Zone
I believe everyone has a genius zone, the place where they are in the flow, creating something special — whether it’s a way to delight the customer, a new app with elegant code or an innovative marketing strategy. When I talk to someone about stepping into her genius zone, eyes light up. Who wouldn’t want to be brilliant?
But for many people, standing out can feel like I did, standing on that concrete floor three decades ago. Alone. A misfit. The human desire to belong to a group is so strong that people will stay small, just so they will fit — in a company, among their colleagues, on a work team.
At a social gathering in my neighborhood, I met a woman: Jane. She wanted to start her own consulting company, helping kids get into college. It was a natural segue from a job she had retired from, creating programs for students at a major university. Jane had relevant experience working with young adults, solid credentials based on past employers, a graduate degree and a passion for sharing her knowledge and expertise. She had also talked to someone who was established in the field and according to her, charged an exorbitant fee. Jane’s conclusion shocked me: “I don’t want to be that successful.”
This quote, from Marianne Williamson, says it all:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”
Seth Godin wrote a great book: “We Are All Weird.” It’s about how our quirks, the things that make us who we are, are the key to our success. Why? Because when you embrace your strangeness, when you make your uniqueness visible and own it, other people are attracted, because of what we do for them. Like moths to a flame, our light creates lightness in others. These people are kindred spirits.
This is the start of creating your tribe — the people who know, like and trust you, and are willing to tell others about you. I once coached a woman who was drawn to hanging out with quirky people. She was right at home with the introverted developer who loved a good hackathon, even though she was a marketing person and had a talent for hiring staff. When I said to her, “You are all about quirky,” she was surprised. “Really?” While she knew that she was attracted to what I call “crazy brilliant” people, she had little sense of how that connected to who she is.
Here’s what I’ve learned about standing out and belonging, at the same time:
· Don’t expect to hang out with dogs if you are a cat. The urge to fit in means sacrificing who you are. You’ll become a poor imitation of a dog or a misshapen cat. Either way, you lose.
· Your brilliance emerges, once you choose your own path. Trying to conform means what’s beautiful and unique inside of you will stay inside of you.
· There’s a moment in time (or many moments) when you’ve shown up fully, and you are waiting for either deep humiliation or the party to start. Get over yourself.
· The right people will be magnetized by who you are. That’s enough. Ignore the rest.
· When you have your tribe, fitting in no longer has meaning. You belong. Everywhere, everytime, because no one can take away your tribe. Only you can, by not showing up.
Your inner critic would have you believe all of this standing-out stuff is a front for narcissism. Don’t believe it. What I’ve noticed is that the more that I can be comfortable in my own skin, the more I can be of service and the greater impact I can have with others.
Stand out. Belong. Be of service. Impact.
Carol Ross is a Bell Labs engineer turned career coach, speaker, and writer. She helps intelligent, creative professionals move from “struggling to fit in” to “standing out and belonging”, through story-telling and tribe-building. Contact her on LinkedIn or by email.