How to Establish a Stellar Reputation as an Outlier

It’s tough to write about a topic like outliers without mention of the book by the same name. Malcolm Gladwell refers to outliers as those who have “been given opportunities, and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

In other words, and to use a bit of interpretive freedom, while being an outlier doesn’t necessarily imply that being different is inherently good, it does imply that being different presents us each with enormous opportunity in our personal lives and careers alike to have a meaningful and memorable impact on others.

Our class guests, Nadine Terman and David Hornik, would appear at surface level to be opposites in most ways, but each has harnessed her and his respective outlier status to achieve great career success.

Nadine, a carefully worded, unemotional and numbers-driven hedge fund investor has, despite her gender, become a leading figure in an industry in which over 99% of capital goes to men, according to her estimate.

And David, a quirky, humorous and self-proclaimed loudmouth with a penchant for speaking inappropriately, left a presumably more stable and conservative career as a public defender to pursue his passion in entrepreneurship and venture investing, achieving outlandish financial returns on some of his bets.

For all their personality differences, Nadine and David led me to conclude, in true blog form, that exceptional outliers do the following:

  • Display supreme competence — being different draws a lot of attention, and in corporate America it can be quite a scary, and indeed risky, proposition to be viewed as an outsider. The best insurance an outlier can purchase, therefore, is turning in stellar performances. In the hedge fund industry in particular, delivering measurable, consistent results is the number one predictor of career success, over personality traits and certainly over gender. Nadine is a case in point.
  • Are confident — confidence is important for many more obvious reasons than simply making us feel better about ourselves. One study determined that confidence influences persuasion to the extent that it is couched in positivity. And another study found that that confident people tended to be more accurate, and even helped them overcome stereotype threat. Which suggests that confidence directly influences the amount of competence others perceive in us, and, just as important, influences our own ability to overcome the negative preconceived notions that others may hold about us on account of our differentiating characteristics. At a more fundamental level, however, to be intentionally different necessitates that we have enough confidence in ourselves to pursue our passions and values especially when they are unpopular.
  • Nurture a support network — being an outlier, by definition, is lonely, but going it alone as a leader is dangerous. Without a network of supporters (e.g., advisory boards, mentors, GSB classmates), leaders’ ideas often remain unchallenged and their assumptions too often go untested. It can also be demoralizing when no one is around to provide support and encouragement in the face of adversity. Successful outliers therefore build support networks comprised of deep relationships with competent, trustworthy individuals and friends, people “who you trust and who trust you back,” said David. Importantly, supportive people are not necessarily similar people either, Nadine reflected: “a lot of women weren’t very supportive of me early on, but I didn’t really care as long as I had support from people, regardless of what their gender was.”
  • Take risks on others — the best outliers pay their successes forward by paving the way for other outliers to follow in their footsteps. Though Nadine lacked many of the women’s resources available today during her own career ascension, she leveraged her eventual success and seniority to launch a nonprofit that helped other women on their way up the corporate ladder. Moreover, effective outliers can also have far-reaching indirect effects on others, as well. After Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, for instance (and despite the fact that his work was widely considered an affront to the dignity of American values) millions of Americans finally realized they weren’t alone for simply being sexual. His outlier work paved the way for generations of further research, as well as for millions of men and women who simply needed someone of influence and authority to help confirm their normalcy.
  • Have an opinion — phenomenal outliers must possess, or at least strive to develop, their own philosophies, or else how can they create a vision that inspires others to follow? In startups especially, an entrepreneur’s business is an extension of his or her personal belief system; it is the stuff from which company values emanate, keeps them steadfast in their mission and protects them against temptation to veer from their values. And, it earns them respect, especially when speaking truth to power, as noted by both David and Nadine.
  • Be kind — nice guys finish first eventually, David would say. And I absolutely agree. Being an outlier is tough enough as it is, so why be a jerk?
  • Architect their own environments — outliers seek out environments in which they are free to express themselves, even if doing so means taking small wins like not having to wear a suit and tie, says David. That also means situating themselves in environments in which they can safely engage with opponents to hone their philosophies and consider new, more effective ideas.
  • Look for small wins–being an outlier doesn’t mean always being the black sheep, although I happen to admire those personalities, as well. Nor does it mean constantly going against the grain. Indeed, in many ways our guests weren’t outliers at all. David went to law school and then became a VC, a career move that is not altogether uncommon, and there are numerous (albeit probably not enough) women in finance. Rather, being an effective outlier often comes in the form of seizing on fleeting opportunities to stand out, be memorable and embrace one’s “inner weirdo,” says entrepreneur, restaurateur and self-proclaimed outlier Eddie Huang: “It’s not about a ‘big break.’ If you are on a mission it’s never over. You just keep doing it brick by brick.”

Entrepreneurs, not unlike David and Nadine, embrace their outlier status, says fellow entrepreneur and former Accel Partners EIR Krish Ramakrishnan: “Outliers seek answers when they’re not satisfied with what they’ve been given. If they can’t find what they’re looking for, they build it. That’s how innovations emerge.” And it is well known that in product development, simply copying competitors can be a catastrophic mistake. Instead, the best companies strive to be outliers, explains Trenton Greener of Moz.com, a digital marketing firm. “As a business, the real challenge lies in being different in a way that is relevant, valuable to your audience, and creates an advantage.”

Outliers are awesome because they’re the one’s who have the courage to subvert the status quo and ignore what is popular in favor of doing what is often more effective, more ethical and more fun. So in the words of Amy Goodman, “Go where the silence is and say something.” Others may just listen to what you have to say.