You’re a night owl, a mother, a daydreamer. Or maybe you grew up economically disadvantaged or deep in rural isolation. Whatever your personal difference is, you’ve likely been conditioned to believe it’s a weakness—a flaw. Something to be hidden at work.
I’m here to tell you that what you think is your weakness might, in fact, be your biggest professional strength. Our personal stories influence how we think about our abilities, achievements, and possibilities, and often, our views of ourselves are more negative than the assessments from our peers.
When You’re Different from Your Peers
I worked with a young leader in private equity named Emily who struggled with reconciling her difference from her peers, and her story taught me a lot about how we view the things that set us apart.
Emily is a bright, engaging woman with a powerful track record of achievement. A graduate of both Harvard University and Harvard Business School, she left Boston to join an elite private equity firm in California. She was promoted early and often and was soon sitting on the forty-fourth floor in a corner office. She is polished, confident, and attractive. She’s perfect, at first glance.
During our first meeting, she confessed she was exhausted. “I’m trying to keep up, but I don’t think I can. Everyone else has more time to focus on sourcing and researching deals than I do. My toddler is teething, and he’s up most of the night. I can’t stay awake when I work late at my laptop. I just keep dozing off, and I know I’m falling behind.”
Emily had looked at her peers and realized three things: First, they were all male. Second, none had children or other significant family responsibilities. Third, they each worked all day, every day. She believed that to be successful in this environment, she had to look and sound like the people around her.
Emily worked hard to remove all traces of her son from her work life. When he was born, she was checking email shortly after they left the hospital and was back in the office within six weeks. She rarely talked about him and had a deep list of nannies on call to help her stay late and start early.
“I can’t afford to be different,” she told me. We later learned Emily’s peers and manager were strongly hoping she’d be exactly that.
“The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.” – Albert Einstein
Personal Differences Help Evolve the Status Quo
Often, people and companies get stuck in routines. They develop a “way we’ve always done it,” and change becomes difficult. One benefit of having people with personal differences on a team is that those differences can introduce positive change that might otherwise not be considered.
For example, shortly after Emily returned to work from parental leave, her team had to deliver a pitch in New York. The three-hour meeting required six team members to fly cross-country and return in one twenty-four-hour period. Emily, nursing an infant, couldn’t figure out how to make that work and, after agonizing about her decision, asked if the team would consider a virtual option for the meeting. Could they pitch via video?
The team agreed, and the pitch went well. It was a long shot, though, and the client ultimately selected a firm with deeper experience in their niche. The team’s physical presence wouldn’t have made a difference. When they heard the news, the team members were grateful not to have spent a dozen hours in the air that day.
We Are Our Harshest Critics
Two years later, eight of the nine team members remember that pitch as successful because, while it didn’t result in new business, it allowed the team to practice their skills at pitching virtually. But Emily has never considered the day a success.
She is the lone team member who views that pitch, and that full episode, as unsuccessful. She tells herself that her proposal, and the team’s accommodation of her request, cost everyone a long-shot win.
Emily is telling herself a story about her difference. Some parts are true. She did ask the team to accommodate her need to be home with her baby. The team did lose the pitch. Those are facts.
But some parts of the story are her interpretation of the events. Her interpretation, or assessment, is different than the assessment of her team members. She believes that the pitch was lost because the team didn’t travel. She believes that the team prefers to travel, that the team puts that long-ago loss in her column, and that she now must make up that loss.
Her colleagues, however, believe the opposite. One senior partner told me, “I wish Emily would rock the boat more often. We’re looking for innovators and visionaries. She’s a great worker, but she does things the way they’ve always been done. Except for that time when she recommended we not travel to a long-shot pitch.”
Emily’s colleagues not only approved of her different behavior, but also hoped that she’d engage in it more.
“What sets you apart can sometimes feel like a burden and it’s not. A lot of the time, it’s what makes you great.” – Emma Stone
The lesson to take from Emily’s story is that we tend to view our differences through the harshest lens. We assume anything that goes against the status quo is wrong, a mistake, when in reality, breaking the mold is often seen as creative, confident, and innovative. These are qualities that many companies value greatly.
By embracing your differences, you open yourself up to exciting opportunities and force progress by mixing up old habits, which will take you further professionally than playing it safe and conforming ever will.
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