We are surrounded by advice to embrace our uniqueness. We are also subject to no end of systems that ask us to fit the one size that suits the system, to trim inconvenient factors and to conform. Bringing your unique value is the harder and more challenging path but it is the path of purpose and enduring reward.
There is much fantastic advice about the power of being yourself of finding your unique contribution and bringing the difference only you can make. We can all learn a lot about how to bring our unique contributions to our lives from books like
- The Power of Onlyness by Nilofer Merchant
- Linchpin by Seth Godin
- Originals by Adam Grant
A consistent theme through this literature is that we each have unique contributions to make because we are different and diverse people brought up in our own circumstances and experiences and supported by differing communities. Success does not come from fitting in, from losing our uniqueness but instead embracing it. Organisations, societies and all individuals benefit when we accept and support this difference.
Despite the obviousness of this advice, it runs against most of what we experience as we go about the daily challenges of living our life and building our careers. When we step away from this advice, more than anything we hear a relentless message of “Be Like Others” or “Fit in” or worse “You don’t fit in”.
My career has been a long series of Zig Zags to find my unique ability to contribute and the places where I can make a differnce that is mine. I summarised some of the frustrations and lessons of that road in my Monash Education STEM talk
Why is it so hard to contribute our unique contributions? Two reasons dominate. The first and the easiest to solve is that we don’t actually understand our advantages and our differences. It takes time, bravery and lots of learning from experience to discover what you alone can bring. When we are are not confident in our capabilities or even as they are still maturing, it is easy to be distracted or surrender to all the advice to fit in and follow the common path. It can feel hard to bet everything on a hunch but that is often what your unique path to success takes.
The second reason is much more problematic.
The Systems are Against Us
The machine mindset that underpins so much of process in our business and lives works best when the inputs are standardised. People need to be fungible to fit the roles, the tasks and the paths that the career demands. Organisations relentless focus, deliberately or unintentionally, on turning employees from the bright and unique sparks hired for their talents into yet another grey widget who can be replaced or moved with ease. Uniqueness is inconvenient to the system. Uniqueness gets pushed out. This is why so much everyday career advice is to do like others and fit in.
Fighting the system’s conscious and unconscious standardisation is hard work. It is exhausting and often unrewarding. One slip or one violation of the power standards and you will be out. More people are punished for being unique than rewarded for their talents bucking the system.
Many people pushing back on you cannot even appreciate the problem. The system is just the way it is. Any unfairness, pain or limitations are inevitable, equal and certainly not their issue. The system works for those who conform and surrender. Careers that are long unhappy and unrewarding are always available. Demanding your own way or your own approach can be portrayed as seeking excessive privileges and getting in the way of an efficient standard system.
One reason that those who pursue their unique talents end up as change agents as they discover that to embrace their special contributions they need to make changes to the system. Often they need to recruit and empower others in a community to make that change sustainable. Sustaining agency becomes the life work of those who want to live their own lives.
If you search, through trial and error you will discover how you can bring unique value to your life and work. The next challenge will be sustaining the ability to do so. Find your collaborators and be ready to fight the system to make it better for all.