Being an outsider doesn't always have to be painful.
With being an outsider, I do not mean:
… not having any friends or social contacts
… being excluded by society
… a “strange” person who is unable of communicating “normally”
In other words, I am not talking about what teenagers have in mind when they hear the word outsider.
Rather, I am talking about people who have a unique position in society. People who, either by choice or by force, are different from the people around them. People who do not “fit in” for various different reasons.
For example, I was talking with a friend today. She said that since she has been living in four different countries or so, she simply doesn’t have one regular friend circle.
In some way, she envies her friends who have been living in the same country for their whole lives. These people have a circle of friends who mostly know one another. They spend a significant amount of time together, and they will continue to do so for the majority of their lives.
She, however, has friends who are spread out all over the world. It is nearly impossible for her to bring these friends together and do something as a group. Hardly any of her friends even know one another.
As a result, whenever she visits a place, she is an “outlier” in any of the groups that she joins. That odd person who comes and goes. Who joins a lot of different social circles, but who doesn’t really have continuous contact with any of them.
This is an example of what I mean with being an ‘outsider’.
People who live on the margins of society. People who do not belong anywhere completely. People who do not fit into a single group of people completely. People who are living in-between worlds.
Outsiders have their own role in society
You see, many of these people which fall under this definition of outsiders have unique roles to play in society.
They are the people that are constantly exposing themselves to new environments, new communities and new groups of people, therefore being able to perceive the world differently.
They are the multiple expats who have a unique identity that doesn’t belong to any single place in the world.
They are the lifelong learners, producers and creators whose primary goal is to produce something unique in the world.
Outsiders know how dangerous it is to be stuck in one single environment for a long period of time.
Although they recognize that staying comfortably in one single group of people or one single community would satisfy their need for belonging, they have the courage to expose themselves to new environments on a regular basis in order to grow beyond the constraints of one single perspective in life.
They are constantly seeking for growth. They are constantly trying to learn new things. They are constantly trying to create something new and unique. They are constantly in movement…constantly pushing forward.
Being an outsider means to be in a permanent state of transition.
Once they have become so settled in one single environment that they start feeling comfortable, they start becoming nervous. Unconsciously, they realize that this state of comfort is the equivalent of stagnation. That the longer they remain in this environment, the more they will get drawn into the void of that particular group’s worldview.
What really sets apart “full members” of society from outsiders probably is the degree to which they share a particular worldview with the people around them.
Outsiders tend to have unique worldviews
The values, beliefs and assumptions we are making about the world together form a single entity called our worldview.
People who are considered “normal” by society share a large part of their worldview with the people around them. Outsiders, however, seem so “weird” because they are questioning a large percentage of those assumptions which the people around them are making about the world.
This doesn’t mean that they get excluded by other people, but it means that other people will always feel that there is something wrong with them.
A certain type of people get drawn towards becoming outsiders.
Writing this article reminds me of my own life story. Thinking about it now, my life as an outsider has probably started much earlier than what I wanted to acknowledge to myself until now.
When I was a teenager, I was mostly interested in playing computer games, listening to heavy metal music and experimenting with different ways of finding “acceptance” by the people around me.
One time, for example, I grew an Afro (yes, my hair is very curly) for about a year or so. Looking back on it, the only reason why I did so probably was that I wanted to know how people would respond to this. Perhaps, I wanted to be ‘unique’.
Thus, for a long time, I became known as “Afro Tim” at school.
I remember those times very well. During class, one of the favorite activities of my classmates was to throw paper balls at me so that they would stick in my hair. And in a strange way, I enjoyed it.
Perhaps this desire to be different, and at the same time to be accepted, also drove me towards my first extended stay overseas. It was right after high-school, and I went for one year to Indonesia.
From there, I kept extending my time abroad over and over again. In fact, I’ve never come back to my home country. Not for living purposes, at least.
In my experience, outsiders are constantly experiencing this paradox between wanting to be different and wanting to be accepted by the people around them.
Outsiders are drawn towards alternative ways of living
It is not possible to generalize how outsiders are living their lives, and what makes their lifestyle different from other people. However, they are drawn towards lifestyle designs that are not in line with the ‘norm’, and which other people would probably find ‘strange’.
For example, I have one friend who is German, but who lives in a van in Australia. He actually has a PHD in the field of neural networks, but he chooses to work on his on projects while exploring Australia.
He has two main sources of income. The first one is managing a rental home in Australia, which he visits once in a week or so and which allows him to get access to free parking spot whenever he is in the city. The second one is playing poker, which is also a large part of the project that is he working on in his spare time.
So he drives around Australia and spends most of his time either going surfing, or hiking. About once a week or so, he comes back to the city and stays for one or two days.
Of course, not all outsiders have such unique ways of designing their lives. But I think there is one thing which they all have in common: a main project which is taking up most of their thinking time. Something which they want to produce with all their passion, and which they are willing to sacrifice a lot for.
Characteristics “happy” outsiders have in common
As diverse as their lifestyle decisions are in life, as diverse are the needs of outsiders. However, I think there are some characteristics which most outsiders have in common.
Let’s take Mr. Money Mustache as an example. He is a man (now in his forties) who, together with his wife, decided early on in life that he didn’t want to be dependent on doing any work for income.
Therefore, he created a system whereby he would set apart a specific percentage of his income every month for savings, and another percentage of his income for investments. Furthermore, he reduced his living costs to a complete minimum, riding mostly a bicycle and doing almost all of the work around the house by himself.
I can’t remember how young he was when he retired, but it was pretty early on. Perhaps in his late twenties.
- Outsiders acknowledge the uniqueness of their own worldviews
Talking about Mr. Money Mustache, I will only mention three of out of many points which make his worldview unique. Firstly, there is this idea that cars should only be used to an absolute minimum. Secondly, the idea that work is something that you should only do whenever you feel like it. And thirdly, the idea that materialistic things have absolutely no connection with happiness.
I think that outsiders who are happy with their lives are very clear about their own unique worldview, and how it differs from the worldview of mainstream society.
One of the best expressions I have ever heard that would describe this state of mind very well is Marc Andreessen’s:
“Strong opinions, loosely held”
In my terminology, this would be the equivalent of having a very strongly formed worldview, but at the same time constantly remaining open for new learning points, new beliefs, and new ways of looking at life.
2. Outsiders actively choose the right living environments for themselves
My lifestyle, that of my friend and that of Mr. Money Mustache certainly are very different from one another.
Mr. Money Mustache is living in relative proximity to his home town, from what I remember. He prefers a quiet environment, a simple life, a focus on physical work, and a lot of free time paired with building a community of people who are following in his footsteps. He also spends a lot of time with the local friends around where he lives.
My friend, on the other hand, went to live on the other side of the world, spends a lot of time on the move, lives in a van, prefers to be in the nature the majority of the time, is a member of the start-up community, and loves doing work on his laptop that involves a high degree of thinking.
I personally love moving from country to country, living in simple apartments that I rent (but mostly only use for sleeping purposes), focusing on learning the wisdom of different cultures around the world, and spending my time writing about my experiences.
We live in very different environments, but we are choosing and designing them very actively according to our own needs.
This also includes very conscious decisions around who outsiders are spending their time with on a day-to-day basis, in terms of what communities they join, who their friend circles are, and what working environments they choose to be in.
3. Outsiders know when to transition from one environment to the other
Outsiders are very aware of the effects the environment which they are exposed to on a daily basis has on their own personal development.
They are not scared to break loose from an environment when they feel that it no longer provides the best possible ground for them to develop in the direction in which they imagine their lives to go.
This doesn’t mean that they are “disloyal” or that they are “breaking up” with a group of friends or a workplace just because they no longer feel that it suits their needs.
Rather, it means that they will find the best possible way of transitioning into the new phase of their lives, while also staying in touch with the people and other elements which have been at the center of their lives in the past, supporting them to the best possible degree.
4. Outsiders find a balance between the unique dreams they have and their social life
Naturally, this is one of the aspects of life which many outsiders are struggling with.
Because they tend to have a life project which takes up a large portion of their time, they tend to struggle with also finding the time to socialize and maintain a strong social network.
However, if you as an outsider want to be happy, you have to get this aspect of your life right. You need to create the time to go out and socialize. You need to maintain positive relationships with the people around you. And you need to stay in touch with people who are important to you.
Loneliness certainly is one of the biggest problems that outsiders face, but it doesn’t have to be a part of their lives at all.
For example, my friend who is spending a large majority of his life with traveling around Australia while going surfing and hiking, also has a very large and active social network.
There are a lot of people around the country and in very different places whom he visits regularly. Plus, he is actually a member of a start-up co-working space, a place that he goes to regularly in order to work, socialize and also share ideas with the people there.
Outsiders do need to be members of a community, even if they are a bit “different” from the other people there.
Some last words:
Perhaps the simplest definition of being an outsider is simply a person who has the feeling that he or she “is different from other people”.
One of the common mistakes that I see people making when they have feelings like this is that they think that something is “wrong with them”.
This is not the case at all. It is just that, for one reason or another, their worldviews have developed in different ways compared to the majority of the people around them.
Ironically, over time this “difference” only becomes stronger and stronger, as they are more and more pushed towards the margins of society. During this process, they become less and less are capable of identifying themselves with a single group of people, whether that is their nationality, a community, or a circle of friends.
Instead of trying to fight this process, outsiders should embrace it.
They should use it as an opportunity to…
… help other people look at the world from a different perspective.
… create something unique that will have a long-lasting impact on society.
… focus on their own personal development and the achievement of their dreams .
… find happiness in their own, unique way of life.
Lastly, I would like to hear from you. Can you identify with this idea of ‘being an outsider’? What is your story? What is it that makes your own worldview unique? What steps are you taking to design your life in ways that are conducive to your dreams?
Let me know in the comments below.
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Tim Rettig is a writer on intercultural communication. Most of his content is published on his personal blog www.timrettig.net.