On September 29th I hosted an internal company webinar for Alain Sylvain, who gave an extraordinary speech entitled “The Currency of Otherness.” Alain heads up Sylvain Labs and I met him (virtually) at the 99U Conference at which we both were speaking a few months ago. I was impressed with his presentation and after we met, I realized he was a kindred spirit.
Alain spoke about the notion of “otherness” — the feeling of exclusion from the group that many of us feel throughout our lives, especially if you are from a marginalized group based on your gender, skin color, religion, social strata, or sexual orientation just to name a handful of groups.
Humans need community and it is often expressed through a form of tribalism which can be, and often is, expressed by conformity. We behave and dress to fit in. And the clear downside of this uniformity is that it can inadvertently diminish your true self.
What Alain spoke about reverberated with me and I actually wrote about this need to conform in my book:
“…Conformity is such a human and tribal experience. We want to belong; or rather, we don’t want to be excluded.
I was reminded of this the other day when I stepped into the elevator at work. My team is on the third floor but there’s a bank on the fourth. As I entered the elevator, I was surrounded by an army of clones — young, middle-aged, primarily white males, wearing variants of the same uniform: blue collared shirts with small checkered patterns, dark slacks, brown loafers. They looked like they all went to the same hairdresser (short and shorn tightly on the sides) and no one sported any facial hair at all. As the elevator closed, they all went silent and looked down at their phones. I stood there, a middle-aged man wearing a black Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concert T-shirt, Lucky jeans and brown Chelsea boots. My salt-and-pepper hair is long-ish, and I was wearing aviator sunglasses. And, yes, that is equally a uniform and it telegraphs a lot about me, but it’s a costume I chose — no one else on my design team dresses like me; they dress like themselves, in fluorescent red jeans or purple Ben Sherman shirts or, yes, the quintessential black T-shirt.
When I stepped off onto my floor, I heard the conversation strike up again as the doors closed, and it seemed to me that they were relieved in that moment: they could speak their banking language amongst themselves, freely . . . in that box. This may sound judgmental, but I recognize it from experience: I once wore that drab, soul-sucking uniform, and know exactly how it feels to disappear into it. What I’m advocating for is presence. What you wear either camouflages you or illuminates you — either way, intentional or not, it’s a statement of your identity. If you love Brooks Brothers, then own it fully. Go the full Tom Wolfe and embrace the white linen suit —
JUST DON’T DISAPPEAR INTO THE BEIGE WALLS OF PADDED CUBICLES IN A FLICKERING, FLUORESCENT-LIT, LOW- CEILINGED ROOM WITH THE EVER-PRESENT MUFFLED HUM OF THE PRINTER.”
Excerpted from The Art of Creative Rebellion
Alain mentioned his sense of being the “other” as not only as a black man in the United States, but as parents of Haitian immigrants. Add to that his French name which can be pronounced either with a Haitian (French) accent or Franc (French) accent, he ended up being “othered” through multiple angles. I mentioned that as a half-Japanese person, I understand that feeling of displacement. In my case, I was never quite accepted as fully Caucasian nor Asian, even though I speak both English and Japanese. Often part of the immigrant experience is the sublimation of one’s own native culture in order to assimilate one’s children into becoming American, which often means the loss of native language.
But the true power of the US and the power of any corporate environment is its diversity and the allowance of a multiplicity of points of view, lifestyles and beliefs. A team is stronger if the people are allowed to be their true selves.
Belonging is much more powerful than fitting in.
We also discussed how we celebrate the iconoclast and Alain presented images of David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Theloneous Monk as well as Sia and Billie Eilish as examples. All these artists succeeded because they were radically themselves. They were different. However, society and many companies make it incredibly hard for a true original spirt to be themselves — we want them to conform and often we are outright hostile to them…that is, until we flip the switch and admire them. The desire for conformity is deeply engrained.
In ancient times (ala Rome), banishment from society was considered the second worst punishment aside from death. And, in modern times, you risk “banishment” of sorts within any group, if you don’t conform and therefore it requires true creative courage in order to truly express yourself. To be yourself.
We are all born creative. You are an artist (whether you realize it or not). You are unique. Your strength comes from your uniqueness.
As Alain recommends, hire “misfits” — develop and hire a merry band of individuals who can be their true selves at work. We can be inclusive of diversity rather than exclusionary. In the end it’s not only the right thing to do, it makes good business sense. Nurturing a team of individuals allows for belonging without compromising your ability to bring your whole self to the group; belonging is restored.
Here’s to the misfits. Be a misfit. Be yourself.
My recent speech at The Creative Bravery Festival on 9/29/20:
A short sampling of my speech I did for the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto on 9/25/20:
What I’m watching:
Woke — this Hulu Original (full disclosure, I work at Hulu) is pretty awesome. Created by the cartoonist Keith Knight, the show is inspired by the real-life experiences of Knight and “Keef” (the protagonist) is brilliantly and comically portrayed with pathos by Lamorne Morris.
Kiss the Ground — watch this. It’s narrated by Woody Harrelson but it’s different than most doom-and-goom climate change films as it highlights solutions and the incredible people who are out there working to reverse our damage to the world by investing and focusing on renewing our soil, which is an incredibly efficient, natural carbon capture strategy.
The Social Dilemma — Alarming and important to see. We are all addicted to social media, we know this already. But what is incredible is the algorithms in place to keep us coming back and making sure we consume massive amounts of information, and misinformation, that aligns with our personal interests. Whether you are on the left or right of the political divide, you are being fed news and propaganda that simply reinformces your inherent biases — it’s truly the echo-chamber.
What I’m reading:
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming — I bought this book after watching Kiss the Ground and have just started reading it. It is optimistic (yet realistic) in tone and provides “100 substantive solutions to reverse global warming” and I’m excited to do my small part to help heal our planet for future generations.