Why being different is a good thing

black-sheep

I’m different. I march to the beat of my own drum. But it hasn’t always been that way.

I’m 46 and I can look back on my youth with the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom that comes with being a middle-aged know-it-all. (See? Self-awareness!)

I spent most of my teen and university years – and, in truth, well into my mid-30s – trying not to be the proverbial black sheep. I worried about being what I thought other people expected me to be, rather than focussing on just being me. I fretted whenever I discovered I saw the world from a different angle to my peers. At times the desire to conform and melt into the crowd of ‘normal’ was almost overwhelming.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I had the light-bulb moment that said it was okay to be different, but I suspect the turning point was becoming a dad. (I’ll come back to that later.)

These days I’m more comfortable in my own skin.

These days I recognise the things that make me different are also the things that make me unique and, well, me.

These days I recognise that if people have a problem with me being different then that’s their problem, not mine.

Fitting in

It wasn’t always like that. Not by a long chalk.

If you’ve ever done any of those personality tests – Belbin, Myers-Briggs, that sort of thing – you’ll know they’re all fundamentally based on a simple principle: people are different. We think in different ways. We tackle problems in different ways. We react to the same situation in different ways.

There is no one ‘right’ or ‘best’ category. Every type has particular preferences, strengths and weaknesses. No better, no worse, no stereotypes, only shades of similarity and difference.

In the corporate world there are certain personality types that are more prevalent than others. I’m one of the less common ones. It doesn’t make me inferior – and I’ve always known that – but it didn’t stop me from worrying about ‘fitting in’ or wishing I was more like so-and-so.

At 26, I focussed more on my weaknesses or perceived personality deficiencies. At 46, I focus more on playing to my strengths – where I bring something different or unique to the party.

A generalisation, but one which is broadly true: the smartest people value others who are different; the stupidest fear it.

‘Different’ is not bad or something to be feared

I worry about the world we live in. In our current reality, we are being taught increasingly to fear ‘the other’. We label them as different so we can regard them as inferior. We are tacitly – in some cases openly – encouraged by people in powerful positions to mock others or make them feel they do not belong on the basis of skin colour or physical disability or for simply having an opposing point of view. You’re either right (i.e. you agree with us) or wrong, superior or inferior, normal or somehow sub-human.

There is no room in our soundbite-driven, instant judgement world for people to be merely different. There are no more shades of grey – merely ‘us’ and ‘them’.

What a horrible world to grow up in, where diversity is something to be suppressed and not celebrated.

That’s all the more reason to encourage rather than discourage being different, and to feel proud rather than ashamed. Be the fairy-tale ugly duckling. Be the black sheep in the flock.

Different is not wrong. Different can be good. Different can be great. Who wants to live in a world where the only flavour of ice cream is vanilla?

Like father, like son? Not always

I said earlier that a key turning point in learning to view my individuality as a positive rather than a negative was becoming a father. More precisely, it has come as a result of watching our children each develop their own wonderful, unique personalities.

Here’s the thing with kids. Yes, they will inherit certain characteristics and preferences from us but, as they grow, they will develop as individuals too, taking them in directions we might never have anticipated. They react to the same situation in different ways, they are interested in different things, they may even develop fundamentally different values to us.

This is something to be encouraged, not discouraged.

I’m not saying we should force our children to be different or leave them to develop unchecked. But deep down every kid is unique and while it’s our role to give them guidance, it’s not our place to dictate their future. If we try to make our kids fit a cookie-cutter mould or turn them into Mini-Mes, we’re denying them a whole vista of opportunities and restricting their potential by imposing boundaries based on our expectations rather than their capabilities.

So don’t be the parent who is fixated on turning your son or daughter into one bound by normal conventions. (What is ‘normal’, anyway?) Help them learn to appreciate and indulge their differences. Celebrate their achievements and passions no matter what field they are in. Give them the best chance of growing up to be people we are truly proud of.

Wouldn’t that be great?

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