Being an outlier can be difficult. It can work for you, or against you.
An outlier is defined as someone who is ‘situated away or detached from the main body or system’. Yesterday they died. Today, fitting-in can kill.
The difficulty stems back to when our ancestors lived in caves under the survival threats of wild animals, adverse weather and lack of a nearby grocery store. Surviving required us to belong to a group. The alternative was to get kicked out of the cave and be at the mercy of those elements. As a result, we still have this ancient survival instinct – to belong, to be accepted and to fit in – which means speaking and acting so as to gain the approval of others.
Depending on the context, this can be a good thing, or not.
In a modern-day business or a sports team, there is generally a set destination or direction in which that “ship“ moves (vision or goal), a course it needs to navigate (strategy), and an agreed way and set of rules according to which the crew needs to operate (culture, values).
Within this context, a healthy outlier or maverick is one who is unconstrained by group thinking and traditional ways of operating. They see the same things in different ways, see new things others don’t and are comfortable operating outside-the-box.
They are an asset to the group when they can help to see an even better vision of the future, maybe help plot an even smarter, quicker or more affective path ahead, or find ways to help the crew work even better together.
The iconic 1997 Apple advert epitomised this;
“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Of course, these outliers and crazy misfits can also pull the ship in the wrong direction, they can cause cracks that leak and that take time to fix – and they can cause cliques or disrupt the way the crew operates. In this context, they are better known as energy sappers, a team cancer, or by the recent technical term, as ‘dickheads’.
This version of trouble-maker is best being pulled back into line, or possibly being dropped off at the nearest port.
I recently made a case for being an outlier in a social context. In a friendship circle, while there isn’t the same direction or goals that a business or sports team has, there is almost always an accepted way of speaking, acting and maybe even dressing that is rewarded by belonging to the group. This ancient survival instinct is still hardwired into us. The outlier who thinks and acts differently and who once was kicked out the cave, today risks being side-lined, blocked, un-friended or cancelled.
This rejection may be a blessing for your survival.
Your, and your groups attitudes and behaviours can broadly be separated in two:
- those that move one towards a healthy, inspiring and ideal life,
- those that move one away and undermine or diminish our life experience.
Common modern-day examples of the latter are things like : excessive indulgence in alcohol, drugs, gaming, pornography, partying, junk food, gossiping, negativity or engaging in violence, crime, gangsterism, exploitation, racism, bullying.
When our friendship circle gravitate towards these “unhealthy“ behaviours, we have a choice.
We can be “the rebel, the misfit, the troublemaker… who helps push the human race forward” – in favour of more healthy choices.
Moving away or detaching from this system goes against our need to belong (to that group), yet aligns with our natural instinct to thrive (within the larger context of being human).
Be the outlier in these instances.
Have the courage to make your own decisions and to take your own action.
You may risk judgement or rejection from your group, but you also risk living your ideal life.
Your courage, exercised with emotional intelligence (not judgement or superiority), will model the way for others to follow, and you’ll soon find acceptance and belonging in new like-minded groups.
Remembering that we become the average of the five people with whom we spend the most amount of time.
If in doubt, be a role-model for your kids.