Outsiders can mean many things. Being outside completely. Being on the margins of something. Being inside but as a square peg at best. Being a gadfly, being that person who doesn’t stop asking “why?”, being the one who gets a lot of blank startes after explaining an idea that doesn’t fit the mold. Or a book by S.E. Hinton that Francis Ford Coppola turned into a film about a gang of Tulsa, OK street toughs in the 1960s (who says street toughs anymore?). It’s my contention that every organization, company, group of friends or even family that is involved in anything great, interesting, unique or passionate has a healthy contingent of outsiders.
I’ve learned from some fantastic outsiders, and had the privilege of being a few of these types myself. For a long stretch of time I was the one inside that didn’t fit the mold. The one who wondered why I was inside in the first place and who struggled to explain my place and purpose to friends who were wholly outside. You know, the ones that say things like, “what are you doing there?” “You don’t fit in there.” “Does anyone at that place really get what you’re talking about?”
I credit the people who brought me inside, knowing that I didn’t really fit. They were the ones who saw that even though I’d struggle and wrestle and become frustrated, that if they could engage, challenge and encourage me enough, that I’d be able to bring something different to the culture that had been missing. They have often been the ones who have reminded me of that when I was an insider. And frankly, aside from some initial feelings of validation, being an insider isn’t that great. You’re constantly defending the rightness of the rituals that have been created, and less able to see which ones have run their courses.
But being a great outsider isn’t all about self-righteousness and “if they’d only listen to me” navel-gazing. Being an outsider is about being able to see opportunities because of who and where you are. When I was part of smaller divisions of larger companies I saw so many things that could be done to make the most of things that the parent company insiders couldn’t. What was a nuisance or disturbance to their pattern of work was, for me, a means of giving life to an inanimate object and making all of the work that I was tasked with that much fuller, richer and more valuable to my team and the entire organization.
The challenges to outsider-dom are twofold:
- To stay the course and not quit. Unless what you’re doing is meaningless, don’t be deterred from speaking out, finding collaborators, and moving things forward. It’s frustrating. But frankly, it’s more frustrating to be an insider with no momentum or mojo, because then you have no idea how to move. Outsiders know how to move. And we all need movers.
Don’t give in and fit in. Most importantly, it’s not honest, and you won’t give your best to anything. It’s also likely that your outsider ideas will catch on and you’ll find others who can help you, support you and find strength in knowing that you are there.
- I have to give credit to Bob Lefsetz for pointing me to yet another great story and lesson, this time from famed music business publicist and author Howard Bloom, who has worked with legends such as Prince, Michael Jackson, Talking Heads, Simon & Garfunkel and dozens more. It’s an edited clip of an interview he gave at a conference, and there are gems throughout. The two things that stick out the most for me are:
- Outsiders Rule
- Nobody is a genius alone – we all need community or collaboration to achieve anything great.
And it’s not so much that we haven’t heard this before, or feel like it’s another version of Outliers, it’s that we need to constantly be reminded that who we are, what we are passionate about, and what we are willing to pour ourselves into matters a great deal, and provides our greatest advantages.
So stay outside. Stay passionate. Stay curious. Ask why things seem to be sacred, and if they’re cows, make burgers. Stay gold.