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  • Brendan Stec

The Outsider's Advantage

In their book Super Thinking, Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann write:

"There is a reason why many startup companies that disrupt industries are founded by industry outsiders. There is a reason why many scientific breakthroughs are discovered by outsiders to the field... The reason is because outsiders aren't rooted in existing paradigms. Their reputations aren't at stake if they question the status quo. They are by definition 'free thinkers' because they are free to think without these constraints." (1)

It can be frustrating when you work extremely hard to achieve a significant professional milestone, and your colleagues or industry peers don't recognize your impact. It can be disappointing when you are snubbed for a promotion, or your paper is rejected by a journal, or your publisher thinks your book idea sucks, or your startup idea gets torn to shreds on Shark Tank. In these situations of rejection, we are made to feel like an outsider, our ideas deemed unrefined, impractical, or worse – uninteresting.

But there is power in being an outsider: because you don't owe anything to anyone, you can more easily be a free thinker. When you're an outsider, when you're a rejected outcast, when you don't have a reputation to preserve or investors to answer to, you can continue to have all of the crazy, unique, weird, money-losing ideas you want. When you're an outsider, you can be a free thinker much more easily than a politician, who can rarely say what she really thinks or a TV pundit, whose ideas are valued for being entertaining, and not necessarily true or insightful.

If you ever find yourself considered an outsider to an industry or field, think about how you may leverage your creative and intellectual freedom to outperform those who are trapped on the inside. As a free-thinking outsider, you may see issues or opportunities in the industry the others are missing. You may been in a position to share truly novel art or build an innovative product, overwhelming the status quo with your unique and valuable perspective. Reed Hastings was certainly an outsider to the entertainment industry 20 years ago, but his technology background provided him a unique perspective for how Netflix could shake up the industry.

Many of the free thinkers of history that inspire us were also at some point outsiders. Albert Einstein formulated his radical theory of relativity and critique of Newtonian physics not as an accepted academic, but as a hobbyist working in a patent office. Thomas Bayes (the mathematician), Thomas Malthus (the economist), and Gregor Mendel (the geneticist) were full-time clerics who completed their scholarly research as relative unknowns out of genuine curiosity, not to earn tenure or win prizes. The Impressionist painters – Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne to name a few – were heavily criticized for years before their brilliant work became more widely accepted in France.

After analyzing these figures of history, we should reconsider many of the goals in our lives that demand us to be accepted. Maybe these goals don't really suit our unique values, and we are pursuing them merely to satiate a buried need to feel validated or to belong. These goals could include admission into a dream college, recognition for a job well-done, prizes, credentials, societies, fame, clout, speaking engagements. Often we desperately claw at approval and acceptance as we strive to "break into" some lucrative field or make our name as an industry "expert", without realizing that being a true pioneer and a true innovator often demands we reject all of the conventional standards of success. Because conventional standards of success reward conventional achievements.

Being an outsider is of course frustrating. You constantly deal with the social pressures so many people can't stand: ostracism, exclusion, and indifference. You feel your hard work is going unappreciated and your vision is misunderstood. Not many individuals can tolerate being an outsider, so they reel back some of their authenticity and craziness, they go back to graduate school, they sell out and go "mainstream", they adopt more conventional political or philosophical beliefs.

But outsiders who embrace their label, continue to work hard, and don't lose momentum constantly complaining about the "system" find they can produce the kind of genuine work that insiders dream about.

If you're an outsider – relatively new to a field or unknown to an industry – you might be better off than you think.


"You can't be normal and expect abnormal returns."

– Jeffrey Pfeffer



(1) Super Thinking by Gabriel Weinberg (p. 26)

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