Having the courage to be different when everyone around you screams “fit in!”

Ian Sanders, Soho, October 2016 (pic Rowan Williams)

I guess my working life is pretty different to a lot of the people around me. The people I share my train carriage with, family, friends, and a lot of people in my LinkedIn network.

I don’t have a fixed office, I choose to work out of multiple spaces.

I don’t have just one role or skill, I’m hired to do a number of things.

There’s often a blur between being at work and being at play.

I haven’t had a traditional career path.

The fact is, I love being different. It’s a big theme in how I work with clients. They like that my offering and approach is different to everyone else, and — most importantly — I help them be different too.

But of course it’s not often easy being different, especially when you’re growing up.

When I was a kid, my family used to tease me that with my olive skin, surely I wasn’t one of them? For a time, I admit I felt like the misfit - I was different to them, I was quieter, more reflective.

I grew up with a sense of being the outsider. When I was six my parents switched me to a new school. I wasn’t very good in the classroom, and I wasn’t very good on the sports field. I didn’t fit in.

I got teased at school because I grew up without a TV. Later I got teased because I was crap at sports (turned out, I just needed to wear glasses). Then I was teased when I wore my CND badge, when I went on the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign march. I might have had an easier time at school if I’d fitted in, not stood out.

And of course, that’s many of our stories. Many of us have a sense of being different, an outsider, even a bit weird. The story of the kid that didn’t fit in or wasn’t popular is a common one. We all feel we’re unique in our own way. The trouble is, schools want us to fit in and conform to a standard way of doing things.

That’s replicated in the world of work. I’ve found that many organisations — especially big ones — behave like schools. They want us to fit in too. They tell us that if we behave like the others and follow the rules, we’ll do well.

But of course that’s crap. Success comes from standing out not fitting in. It’s hard though to have confidence in being different, when everyone around you screams “fit in!”

I’ve never been good at fitting in. I guess I like being the rebel, zigging when everyone else zags… And in many ways I’ve striven to carve out a career from this differentness.

I’ve seen the benefits of being different. When I worked in an organisation I chose to be multi-dimensional rather than a specialist. I tore up my job spec and carved out my own role mashing-up multiple disciplines and activities. I continued that when I took the leap to go independent. Ditching a long term plan I just followed my curiosity, experimenting with different projects and ventures along the way.

My views on business and work also marked me out. When I went to Austin Texas in 2010 to give a presentation at South By South West called ‘How to unplan your business’, a couple of people on Twitter said I was being dangerous. Conventional thinking said you needed to plan your business, they didn’t like this guy coming along and say “unplan it” instead. So what? Some people may not like you or get you. But in my book that’s better than being bland, and what’s more, it means you get noticed.

Of course that’s exactly how consumer brands get noticed. When I was first introduced to Red Bull in the mid 90s, I was excited not so much by the drink itself, but by how this was a game-changing brand. We didn’t have energy drinks back then, there was nothing to compare it with. Red Bull’s point of difference? It was a whole new category. It was hard to label, you had to experience it in order to get it.

I tried to think like Red Bull. Maybe not everyone would like the taste of Ian Sanders, or could describe it to their friends, but they would see the value (and perhaps working with me would give them ‘wings’?)

So I continued to be different. In the last sixteen years working for myself I have experimented with how I work and what I do. I have reinvented myself. I have worked in different worlds, I have embarked on new chapters in my life.

Today I help my clients — businesses and individuals — be different. And what I tell them is that being different is actually just about being you.

It goes back to your uniqueness. It’s about sticking — like a magnet — to who you really are, to your real story, to your raison d’etre. Being you gives you the authenticity and courage to stick to your guns. To be confident with that different point of view, to be happy zigging when everyone else zags.

I recently worked with the global innovation studio Stripe Partners, helping them capture the essence of who they are and what they do. Stripe’s Tom Hoy told me,

“Working with Ian has given us the confidence to continue to be different.”

Stripe could have diluted their offering. They could have told a contrived story about who they are. But no, they decided to stick to their guns and be themselves.

I’m interested in brands and businesses like Stripe with a genuine point of difference. Look at Mailchimp. Who would have thought an email newsletter platform could have such personality? Mailchimp learned they could build a business by thinking and acting different (and by having a chimp as a mascot). They say, “As a company, we should feel free to be more human, more personal, weirder and more original.” That’s their differentiator.

But you can’t fake it. Being different should always be about holding a mirror up to who you really are. It’s not about making up a story, it’s sticking to who you really are, and having the confidence to illuminate that, to be proud of that. That’s my own story.

Whether you’re an individual working in an organisation, you work for yourself or are a business leader, here are my four tips to compete on your difference:

  1. Shine the light on your real story, on why you do what you do, what led you to here.
  2. Share your opinion, don’t sit on the fence. Let others know what you think on leadership, sustainability, or whatever‘s on your mind.
  3. Don’t hide the interesting stuff away. I was advising a marketing executive who was looking for a career change. One thing he wasn’t sharing was how he’d started out: a degree in aeronautics and a stint as a software engineer. That made him more interesting than just another marketeer.
  4. Stick to who you really are. Remember that your point of difference is You. Let people know why you’re different. Stick to who you really are and build on it.

I love to work with businesses, brands, organisations, leaders, executives, entrepreneurs, creatives and freelancers who want to be different (if you want to be like everyone else, sorry I’m not the guy for you).

If you need a different perspective to: i) tell your business or brand story; ii) figure out and capture the essence of your business; iii) guide you through your career or work life, get in touch hello@iansanders.com

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated IanSanders’s story.