What would you think if I told you that I went for a stroll through the city at 6a.m. this morning, half-dressed, singing French chansons so loud that the entire neighbourhood came out on their balconies to see me?
If you’re like most people – you’d probably think I’m a wacko (and rightfully so!).
But if we just step back from this example for a moment, we can conclude that you’ve judged me, based on what you think is ‘normal’ and what ‘normal people’ should act like.
We all have these standards against which we evaluate our own, and other people’s behaviour. While these norms help us relate to one another, and fit in with the crowd, they also restrict us both in our actions and our beliefs.
Maybe you’ve noticed that you feel hostile towards who deviate from ‘the norm’. For example, gay people, people of colour, those with different political views, or any other minority. What these groups have in common is that they risk falling victim to our fixed viewed, and that we may unintentionally judge them for being different.
According to science, we often harbour unconscious biases against minority groups – even if we strongly believe and advocate that all people are equal. This is because our brains look for shortcuts when processing information, and as a result, we tend to group people into different categories based on shared traits.
For example, when you see a 75-year-old limping and clutching to his cane, you might automatically think of the man as being old, whereas a guy with six-pack abs and ripped jeans would probably appear a lot younger to you.
But if you think about it – these norms are very subjective. To a 10-year-old, someone who is 25 might seem old, whereas a 65-year-old could still think of themselves as young if their friend group was all 5-10 years older.
That raises a very important question: do these norms that we have surrounding age, size and personality objectively exist?
For example, can you say that a ‘normal man’ will always be 1.75 metres tall, have two kids and a lovely wife and own a lovely family home in the country side?
No. Of course, you can’t.
We know that people come in all shapes and sizes, and make different life choices.
So, unlike the standards that we have in manufacturing, there’s isn’t really a norm for ‘all people’. In fact, you would probably have a hard time nailing down 30 characteristics that accurately describe 95% of people.
The Insiders and the Outsiders
Even so, often fall victim to the idea that people can be divided into two groups, based in their appearance, feelings or behaviours. On the one hand, there is the ‘normal group’ in which members act in a socially acceptable way, and on the other hand, there is the ‘abnormal group’ that is different from the majority of people.
In high school, for example, you have the cool kids who are admired and envied by their classmates. They’re the good-looking guys who boast about sneaking beers on a Saturday night, and the girls with boyfriends who go to parties held by older students.
Apart from this seemingly normal group, there’s a group of kids who just don’t seem to fit in. It’s silent bookworms, overly consumed by academics or college applications, the loners without friends, and the kids that reject the mainstream in one form or another.
While most people can probably relate to either of these two groups, thinking of people as ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’ greatly oversimplifies reality. In fact, this type of black-and-white thinking keeps us from seeing the world in all its nuances and facets. Therefore, I would suggest we stop grouping into separate buckets (‘the insiders’ and ‘the outsider’)
We are all one community
Instead, we should embrace the fact that we are all part of the human family. As a global society, we are one large community, in which each person has their own, unique spot.
What I like about this line of thought is that it can help us understand how people interact. Two people that share the same values, culture or beliefs (person A and person B) may be much closer to each other than bickering neighbours (C and D), even if they live on opposite ends of the world. They are likely to get along – even if separated by physical distance.
Similarly, a fan of Manchester United soccer club might have more to share with other sports buffs than with, say a girl who loves theatre and dance.
But what does this mean for you?
Find your tribe
There are other people in the world who have the same interests and values as you do. So, go seek them out, and find communities that you relate with.
Even if they live on the other side of the world, or are hiding in places you never thought of, with enough dedication you can find them.
If you are feeling different from your classmates in college or your colleagues at work – dare to look for support and a sense of belonging in groups you have never considered. Experiment by looking in new, unforeseen places. For example:
- LinkedIn groups
- A different neighbourhood in your town
- Online forums
- Your local library
- Associations and sports clubs
- Music schools or academies
Don’t be afraid of striking up a conversation with the people you meet. They might share your passion for dance, or your love of historic paintings – but you’ll never know until you ask.
Today, I want to challenge you to find someone (either in-person or online) and start chatting to them. See how you get on, and whether you share any mutual interests.
Get used to being judged
Back in school, I was the only one in my year who admitted that they liked going to school. And so, my classmates kept nagging me: ‘When are you going to start caring about guys instead of worrying about grades?’
During this time, I felt very alone with my values and it hurt when my class mates rubbed this in. But ultimately, I realised it wasn’t personal.
Most people don’t want to hurt you – they simply can’t imagine that you have different interests and priorities in life. Their judgement comes out of misguided assumptions, fear, jealousy or even anger.
But when you are confident in your decisions, it’s much easier to acknowledge different views and respond positively to any judgement you face.
Embrace people’s differences
Remember that everyone experiences the world differently. We all have unique outlook on our lives and should have the freedom to design our space according to our values.
Of course, we all want to feel supported and accepted by the communities around us, but we should embrace each other’s differences – even if they make us feel uncomfortable.
Especially if you are felling marginalised or lonely, try to respect the people around you. Don’t feel like you need to manipulate or influence to be more like you.
Everyone has the right to live their own life – whether you share their values or not – and manipulation leads to resistance. Let go of the idea that other people need to be just like you. The only people you can win on your side are those that aren’t willing to think for themselves.
So instead, accept nuanced viewpoints, and embrace the fact that people will see the world differently based on their values and experiences. If you are okay with other people being different, it will other people are more likely to respect you for who you are.
For example, rather than bashing against people who are hesitant about vaccines, try to understand their philosophy. Do they have a family history with severe side effects against vaccines? Or do they prefer to rely on plant-based medicine for healing?
And instead of labelling lockdown supporters as ignorant or obnoxious, see where they are coming from. Maybe they are concerned about the health of a family member, or terrified of their own mortality?
Why people identify with a particular view can have a number of different reasons, and all perspectives deserve respect and kindness.
To help you practice empathy and respect for those you see as different, try this little exercise:
Think about a person you find it hard to get along with. Maybe they have a habit that annoys you, or you disagree with them about politics. It doesn’t matter what bothers you, so long as it relates to them behaving differently than you would like them to.
Think of a situation where this difference between the two of you drained your energy. Then, come to peace with this disagreement. You can say something like:
‘It is okay that people think differently than I do. They have another outlook on the world, based on their past, their experiences. I am comfortable with these differences and let XY be as he/she is. I respect XY and they can believe what they like, and act the way they want.’
Repeat this over and over again, until it feels true and you feel an inner sense of peace towards the person.
Dare to be different
If you want to lead an interesting life, you need to be bold, true to yourself and willing to challenge the status quo.
You are unique and can choose path you want to take in life. You can mindlessly follow the crowd, working from 9-5, and delaying happiness until retirement. But if you want to lead an interesting life, you be bold, and willing to challenge the status quo.
Whether your dream is to travel to Mars, write a New York Times bestseller, or lead a country to positive change, be true to yourself to make it happen. Have the courage to stand out from the masses, be grateful for the opportunities you get and own your differences.
You can use your skills and experiences to inspire change – but only if you are willing to break with history. Many people who made phenomenal discoveries in science, contributed to the arts, or led entire countries defied the norm. Take the mathematician John Nash, who made impressive contributions to the field of game theory, but also suffered from severe schizophrenia. Or Beethoven, who composed great masterpieces by building songs with small motifs (which was totally unheard of at his time).
Creative ideas come from breaking boundaries, challenging rules and playful experimentation – not from blindly following the lead of others. So, use your superpowers wisely – but be aware that there is a fine line between a genius and freak.
Don’t let the fear of being different, or the fear of failing, hold you back from chasing your dreams. Overcome the fear of judgement, and dare to take action towards causes you care about. Because you will always find people who support you, no matter what you do.