With Barack Obama’s victory, it became official: Being “different” is no longer a handicap. If a black man can shatter the race barrier and claim the highest office in the free world, we can all achieve our dreams. Yes, a new day of acceptance has dawned, and if you listen closely you’ll hear the whispered promise: “It’s okay to be yourself!” That’s right. There’s never been a better time to march to the beat of that proverbial “different drummer” that makes you you. And if you’ve always felt that you don’t quite fit in, why not turn your unique qualities to your advantage?
It’s time to realize that your unusual personality, outlook, appearance, or background—really, any attribute that sets you apart—is not a liability but an asset. Being different gets you noticed, which is the first step to gaining influence with those around you. And refusing to hide or downplay your uniqueness makes you more authentic—which in turn leads others to like, trust, and believe in you.
This has always been true to a degree, but it seems authenticity is more widely celebrated than it’s ever been. The results of the recent election prove the point: It’s cool to be boldly different. It’s cool to be what I call a “fearless fish”—and not only will people admire you, they might even vote you into office!
In other words, authenticity is the new black. Somehow we’ve broken through to an age where subterfuge, game playing, and conformity are shunned, and openness, transparency, and “keeping it real” are rewarded. And while Obama is the standard-bearer for this age, that doesn’t mean he’s got the market cornered.
Not every fearless fish can be president, but every fearless fish can achieve greatness in his or her own way. Whether it leads to business success, a richly rewarding personal life, or both, you’ll never be sorry you unleashed your true self to swim free.
It can be daunting to think about making the transition from lonely outsider to trailblazer, but it may be easier than you think. For inspiration, just look at how Obama ignored expectations and conformity in order to make history:
Love yourself first. (And others will love you too!) Before you can expect others to accept and love who you really are, you must figure out for yourself who that person is. Focus on the aspects of your life—your job, your relationships, your talents, your hobbies, even where you live—that are truly you and not just who you think the rest of the world wants you to be. Don’t shy away from something just because it goes against the norm.
It can be frustrating and lonely to think or look differently from everyone else, but once you learn to accept yourself, others will follow. Our country had never elected an African American president, but that didn’t stop Obama. He had a passion for this country and a desire to run for office, and though the odds seemed to be stacked against him, his belief in his own self-worth and capabilities shone through.
America was able to see what Obama already knew about himself, and we elected him based on his own confidence to be able to do the job right.
Don’t apologize for who you are. Use it. Although our country officially prides itself on being a “melting pot,” in reality our culture dictates that people act a certain way or be labeled as (gasp!) weird or different. Everything is scrutinized—from the clothes we wear to the cars we drive to the music we listen to—and if it doesn’t pass muster, you’re seen as an outsider. It can be easy to fall into the trap of trying to fit in and losing the things that make you unique—and those are the very things that make you an asset to yourself and others.
Take Obama, for instance. His childhood was remarkably different from most of the senators he worked with every day. As a biracial son raised by a single mother and grandmother, his meager beginnings didn’t include private schools and Ivy League dreams. But during his campaign, he never tried to hide or apologize for who he was, and it paid off. Americans felt connected to Obama, and they felt like he was familiar with their concerns because he had been there before. He wasn’t selling the same story that candidates before him had used, and it won him the votes.
You can’t be unforgettable unless you dare to be different. If you strive only to blend in, you’ll see that opportunities will continue to pass you by.
Surround yourself with good people. One of the smartest moves you can make, in business or in your personal life, is to surround yourself with people who will add to your life and help you to grow. The truth of the matter is that new relationships aren’t going to forge themselves, and it may take sticking your neck out a time or two before you can make the right connections.
Barack Obama made a habit of aligning himself and surrounding himself with smart people who helped him along the way. Many of them were “fish out of water” like him. From his various mentors, to his entire campaign team, every single person played a critical role in his eventual success.
Obama learned from his mentors, depended on and trusted them. You can do the same. If there’s someone you admire, or who has a skill you’d like to learn, buy him a cup of coffee and ask for his advice or even his help. If you don’t ask, the answer will always be no. If you do—well, who knows where you might end up!
Fit in—but do it your way. The best part of being a person who never “fit in” any one place is that you can become a pro at fitting in anywhere! But that doesn’t mean becoming a boring conformist. You can follow the rules without “selling out.” If your own personal style is eclectic and funky, but your office dress code calls for staid business suits—compromise. You might wear a colorful scarf or an antique brooch along with the acceptable business attire. (Not only will it let you express yourself, it will be a good conversation starter and a great way to meet other fish like you.)
Obama is different from most of his political peers, and yet, he isn’t exactly the guy next door, either. Throughout his campaign we’ve seen his ability to use his status as different to relate to people from all walks of life. Whether he is on the basketball court, being a father and husband at home with his own family, or rolling up his sleeves to help paint a wall at a school, he maintains the composure demanded by politics while maintaining who he is intrinsically. Still, he didn’t show up at his inauguration (or on the campaign trail either) wearing basketball shorts!
There’s nothing wrong with “fitting in” as long as you don’t have to compromise who you are in order to do it—something Barack Obama figured out long ago. He’s proved you can mix Burberry suits and fist bumps and have both seem perfectly natural.
Use your difference to make a difference. Those who are different are perfectly positioned to make a difference. It’s not the wallflower who’s going to help a company go green, or the conformist who will invent the new business model. You’ll discover that you can create change—and be an inspiration—because you don’t blend in. The best way to change negative impressions or stereotypes is to do good work—both on the job and out in the world.
Obama’s mantra of “Change We Need” couldn’t have come at a better time. He saw a nation that was desperate for something different, and he knew that he had the fresh perspective that people were looking for. Rather than trying to blend in, he embraced the things that made him different from the other candidates and used them as a platform for his campaign.
Keep it current. The world is continuously evolving (and at a very fast pace), and we as individuals should be no exception. Always think about what your next move should be and pay attention to how you can stay relevant in a world that is constantly changing. Obama used social networking to stay current during his presidential campaign—and we can all emulate his enthusiasm for staying relevant.
Everyone thinks of Obama as youthful, but really, he’s 47—which is hardly a spring chicken. His attitude is part of what makes him seem so young. He built his brand and made himself relevant by embracing the Internet and creating a movement that amounted to an all-out call for change in America. He regularly updated his pages on social networking sites with photos, videos, and success stories, and made his own inclusive website more dynamic than all the other candidates’ sites by inviting his followers to create their own blogs and send policy recommendations.
The moral is this. You have to stay current and fresh to stay on top. Do it and others will be attracted to your energy and your willingness to change.
Put yourself out there. Many of us have had something happen that rocked our world and made us question our personal value and the decisions we’ve made about our lives. Perhaps as a college student, spending those first formative years on your own, you realized that you actually didn’t share the same political or religious beliefs as your family. It can be a scary and life-changing realization to forge ahead with a new set of standards and ideals, especially when you think that your family might not approve. As a fearless fish, no matter what the consequences, you have to move forward with what you know to be true to yourself. You can overcome these obstacles by practicing the ABCs for fish out of water: action, belief, and courage.
Obama had to truly believe in himself before he could have ever attempted to run for the office of President of the United States. It took a lot of courage to stand up and say, “I know that I am different from every candidate before me, but I know I am the right person for the job.” His authenticity was magnified by his courage and the action he took to put himself out there—and the rest, as they say, is history.
If you believe in the authentic self that you have discovered, it will give you the courage to take action and move forward as a fearless fish. The only person who has the final say in the outcome of your life is you. Tune out the naysayers. Trust your instincts and do what feels right for you and you’ll find your success.
Here’s the thing: When you’re different from the norm, you already attract attention. Why not allow that attention to energize you rather than squelch you? Why not let it take you somewhere you never dreamed you could go?
The attention you attract may be the best thing that ever happened to you. It was certainly true for our nation’s new leader, and it can be for you as well. You have so much to offer and so much to gain. Take a note from President Obama and give the world a fearless representation of who you are. You can be the one whose individuality makes a difference. Know who you are and don’t apologize for it. Use it to set yourself apart from the crowd and make your own piece of history in 2009.