This article was originally published on HuffPo.
For all our professed admiration of difference and diversity, most of us still try very hard to fit in.
In fact, I’d argue we’re unhealthily obsessed with the question of what is “normal,” and we spend a lot of time, effort, and money doing our best to live up to an imagined definition of it.
The desire to belong isn’t new, of course. It’s as old as humankind itself, probably older, and I’m sure it conferred many critical evolutionary advantages that helped us get this far. But in the 21st century, I fear it is causing us a great deal of unnecessary suffering.
We obsess over our careers, our relationships, our bodies — our very identities. We minimize the ways our experience deviates from the norm. We gloss over the hard stuff, the messy stuff, the weird stuff, the stuff that doesn’t mesh with what we believe our stories should be.
We try, again and again and again, to cram the stuff of our being into a punishingly tight box called “normal,” then despair when we inevitably fail to fit.
When we do this, we don’t merely suffer. We grow alienated from the very richest, most interesting parts of ourselves.
I’ll tell you a story.
I once met a woman who was smart, driven, successful at work, and respected by her colleagues. But she didn’t have a “normal” career trajectory and feared it was hurting her credibility. So we talked about it. I asked her to tell me about her strengths, her values, her experiences, her doubts, and especially her insecurities.
And I was blown away, both by her brilliance and by her own inability to see it. Where I saw strength and resilience, she saw weakness and self-doubt. Where I saw clear passions and motivators, she saw confusion and inadequacy.
But here’s what shocked me the most: The parts of her story where she felt especially insecure and most eager to hide — the inconsistencies, the nontraditional choices, the resume gaps, the secret passions — were actually the most interesting and compelling and, yes, brilliant parts of who she was!
Differences ≠ deficiencies.
This isn’t just one woman’s story. It’s the story of every person I’ve ever coached on personal branding and credibility. I was amazed when I realized the new credibility stories we came up with featured those messy, interesting, brilliant deviations from “normal” that my clients had previously tried so hard to minimize.
In other words: Their brilliance and authenticity and juiciness came not despite their idiosyncrasies but because of them.
And my clients agreed that these new stories were stronger, more authentic and more compelling to their intended audiences. More profoundly, they felt like they could finally stop worrying about whether or not their backgrounds were “normal,” secure in the knowledge that their unique experiences were essential to their brilliance.
When we let go of the need to fit inside someone else’s box, we’re free to show up as we are: messy, human and whole. And brilliant. So beautifully, unexpectedly brilliant.