How To Be Different and Why It Matters
Standing out is valuable, but you must adapt to the world around you
When I was little, I didn’t blend in. For some reason, I always stuck out like a sore thumb. In a crowd of shy Asian students, I was the one who made funny facial expressions to win people over. In the immigrant community, I was the “know-it-all.” In my own extended family, I was the “American.” In my school, I was the above-average student who could’ve blended in with the overachieving crowd except for my penchant for the “weird” and the “artistic.” I was the extroverted introvert routinely seeking shelter in introverted crowds while taking risks with the extroverts.
From a very early age, I knew that I was different. For a long time, I tried very hard to blend in. Most of the time, I tried too hard. I was a people pleaser growing up.
When I entered college as a rebellious teenager, I embraced my differences. I dyed my hair pink. I juggled two lives: work life and school life. I studied abroard to learn a new language. Then, I branded myself as the kid who went to an undergraduate business school but wrote poetry, who was a Chinese American that spoke Japanese, who was a marketing major that programmed, who was a programmer that preferred the big picture over details, who studied aboard, who traveled often but had debilitating motion sickness, who snowboarded but had a fear of heights.
I was full of contradictions. I liked to have my hands in many jars. Above all, I loved to learn. I refused to be boxed in, to settle down, and to take the easy route.
Naturally, when I entered Corporate America, I was quickly branded by the companies that hired me as someone who was “different.”
Often, I was brought in as a person with different skillsets than all the other members of the team.
- I was the only foreigner in my company’s new graduate program in Tokyo.
- I was the only female programmer in a male-dominated team.
- I was the team leader who taught junior members with no fear of job loss while the company went through five rounds of layoffs in three years.
- I was a senior developer who joined a systems support team.
- I was the systems support manager who had a passion for numbers.
- I was the technologist who enjoyed mentorship by male managers rather than female managers.
My interviews often resulted in long periods of silence between managers who communicated vastly different views about me. There was always that one manager who adamantly wanted me on his or her team. He or she usually had to stand up for me to get me hired. Needless to say, I usually had to work extra hard to win over my “doubters” on every team. People usually had three months to prove themselves.
But I had to prove my worth almost overnight.
When I started to write on Medium, I was the female writer who also wrote in “male” topics. I was the female writer who refused to niche down and ended up writing in 14+ tags. After six months, I finally called myself a writer. Of course, I’m also a technologist who is equally passionate about data science and poetry.
Along the way, I’ve learned that it’s okay to be different. It pays to be different. Most of the time, the bigger world will appreciate your differences.
However, you’ve got to adapt your “differences” to the bigger world.
Your Differences Must Add Value
If you appreciate your differences, you need to see the value in them. You need to identify how your differences can add value to specific people’s lives, and specific companies. You need to gravitate toward these people or these companies who will need to use your differences. With these people and these companies, you’ll be able to find opportunities that utilize your differences productively.
Ask yourself this question: Who will appreciate me? Will I appreciate them?
Your Differences Must Be Acceptable
Even if you are hired to provide value using your “differences,” to implement that, your differences must be acceptable. Each community of people (company, family, society) has a culture that must be respected. To work well with others, you sometimes have to tone down your differences and only make them available when people need to use them.
For instance, if you were hired on a team of all-male programmers as the “female” programmer who will bring more empathy into the team, you don’t have to throw empathy in everyone’s faces all the time. You can blend in with your male colleagues in your daily routines. When conflicts arise and the timing is right, then you can use your empathy to help your colleagues diffuse the situation.
Your Differences Must Be True
People can learn to be different. But, most of the time, people can spot a “fake” a mile away. The thing about being different is that the differences have to be a part of you. You have to internalize it as a part of yourself that you prize. It must be authentic for people to trust that you can provide value with your differences.
For instance, someone hires you, “the programmer,” onto a marketing team to market software for the firm. It’s not enough to say that you’re interested in programming. You have to be a programmer who’s an expert at developing this particular software for this firm. Only then can you provide expertise to the marketing team that no one else can offer.
Your Differences Must Be Forgiving
When you tell people that you’re “different,” people usually react with fear. You can help people understand your differences. Then, once people understand your differences, you can help them celebrate them. The best way to help people understand your differences is by telling them a human story related to your difference.
Do you have a compelling story that showcases your differences?
Tell that story to everyone who will listen. Brand yourself with this story. Then, sit back and let those who appreciate this story gravitate toward you. Give people time to figure out for themselves how to appreciate your differences. Everyone has a process of acceptance. Even if it’s people who are very close to you, give those people time to accept your differences.
Allow people to see beyond the label.
Now that you know being different is valued, go and be yourself. Adapt your differences to the bigger world. Your differences will add value to organizations. You differences will expand people’s horizons. Your differences will ultimately enable you to make a difference in this world.
What are you waiting for?
About the Author
Jun Wu is a Content Writer for Technology, AI, Data Science, Psychology, and Parenting. She has a background in programming and statistics. On her spare time, she writes poetry and blogs on her website.