My first recollection of feeling like an outsider was when I moved from India, where I was born, to the island of Newfoundland in eastern Canada. Newfoundland at that time was a very homogenous society, with 96% of its 500,000 residents having British or Irish ancestry. I remember being aware that I wasn’t like the other kids at school. They had Sunday roast for dinner, I had roti and daal. They got to play outside every day in the summer, I had to wait until I finished doing the summer homework my parents would give me. (“Canadian schools are too easy,” I remember them saying.)
And then, I walked into my Grade Three class one November day, having switched schools because the first one I went to was not hard enough. The class was in the middle of a math problem. They were doing multiplication tables and had gotten up to the 8s. I, having learned to do multiplication in my head, was able to get up to the 12s in a flash. My best friend still remembers that first encounter with me. I went from being the new girl to the resident math genius and my popularity soared from that day on. Being the different kid was okay after all.
Fast forward to today, where I have a career that I love but one that has not followed a linear path. I work primarily in tech marketing but through the years have marketed everything from Australian wine to baby formula to fine art to cloud backup software. On top of that, I’ve taken large chunks of time — sometimes 2 months, sometimes a year — to travel around the world while my peers have grown their bank accounts and job titles.
Getting a job in a new [to me] industry was tough at times. I had to convince others that hiring an outsider was a good thing, not a liability. Not everyone was convinced; they felt safer being around people just like them or they were nervous about the time it would take me to get up to speed on the things they needed me to do. But the ones that were convinced, kept hiring me for the same three reasons:
I had no baggage
If you’ve been working in one company or a particular industry for a long time, you develop opinions about everything and everyone. That can be a good thing but sometimes it means you have blinders on. By not knowing anyone or any inside gossip, I approached other employees, customers and industry peers with an open mind. I was able to get the “difficult sales engineer” to come on board with some new programs we were launching. I learned what our customers really wanted but had given up talking about because they felt no one was open to hearing their ideas.
I brought the best from other industries to this new one
A few years ago, while working as the head of marketing at a tech startup, I decided to open an art gallery. I learned a lot from the art world that really helped me as a marketer. One thing in particular that stood out was that people who bought art didn’t buy it because of its functional characteristics; instead they bought it because of how it made them feel. I was able to take that experience and apply it to how we marketed our cloud backup software - it wasn’t about the features the product had, it was about the peace of mind it gave people using it.
I was able to see the forest for the trees
If you’ve ever made a painting or even just looked at a painting, one of the things you learn to do is to move back away from the canvas. A colour that seems too intense up close can look vastly different when you step back and see it in the context of the whole piece. It’s no different inside a company. Often the day-to-day activities inside a business can make it really hard to see whether or not it’s having the desired effect. Someone who is not in the weeds can help you see this.
It takes practice to be comfortable being an outsider, or even just being around people who seem like outsiders. It’s not always easy - you can become the target of people’s fears or seem threatening when you are not. But the rewards you get from an outsider’s perspective may surprise you and even delight you. Just give it a try.