Who knew that as an adult I’d still be thinking about what it means to “belong” or to “fit in”.
It’s amusing even writing about it.
When I was a kid, it was very uncool to desire to “fit in”.
Coming from a country town, being alternative was cool. Being indifferent was cooler.
Conformity was a dirty word. It signalled insecurity or worse:
A compliant nature (Sorry kid – you’re bully-fodder).
Ironically, the peer-pressure to be a non-conformist meant that “fitting in” simply took a different form. In fact the whole group was trying to “fit in” back then. Conformity masquerading as apathy.
The thing was however, for me:
… it was actually really important to fit in.
Whilst on the surface I appeared a well-adjusted kid with lots of friends, on the inside I often felt like I didn’t have a place in the world.
Like I didn’t really belong anywhere.
I was born in Manila in the Philippines but came to Australia when I was around 3 years old.
My mum is Filipino and my dad was Australian.
I grew up in a surfy, beach town in country Western Australia called Geraldton. It has a population of around 30,000 people. Its primary industries are cray-fishing, mining services and agriculture. It is a predominantly Caucasian community with a small indigenous population and very few non-European migrant locals.
As an adult, I know that having a diverse cultural background means that I am uniquely placed to straddle two worlds.
But when I was growing up, it felt much more like I fell between the cracks.
When I went back to the Philippines, they would see me as a foreigner. A Western Asian. Not truly one of them.
But in Australia, I was also seen as a foreigner. An Asian Westerner. Not truly one of them.
Not “fitting in” for me (and many other migrant kids) carried social penalties beyond the subtle jostling for position commonplace in the schoolyard. I fielded racial abuse on a daily basis and endured the well-meaning casually racist comments from friends who sledged me because they loved me.
In my case, the desire to fit in was anchored in a need to feel safe in my own environment. My anxiety levels would spike at each reminder of my effortless non-conformity (ha!). I can readily admit now that back then, I wanted nothing more than to “fit in”.
To me, the search for belonging was an existential need.
And to be honest. I used to hate that I felt that way. Because for a while, I thought that it was something wrong with me.
But I don’t believe that anymore.
The problem I have with the conventional definition of belonging is that it assumes belonging is found in only one place. That people are one-dimensional and they fit neatly into one box.
That is simply not true.
When I pivoted out of my legal career into a commercial and strategy role – one that I suited strongly by the way – I was asked in the interview: “You’re a lawyer. Why would you want to move into such a different role?”.
My instinctive reaction was “Why on earth not?! Why wouldn’t I want to express myself in many different careers and apply my mind to multiple domains?!” (I didn’t say that of course, I said something about how it was a natural extension of my strengths, and an exciting new challenge, and a bunch of other keywords you learn to say in those kinds of interviews).
The default assumption was that I was just one thing.
But how many of us are just one thing?
Just a football player? Just a nurse? Just a farmer? Just a mum?
When did our magnificent and awe-inspiring humanity suddenly get smoothed down to That One Neat Label?
And when we want to break outside the mould, to not live up to the expectations of That One Neat Label society has graciously decided to burden us with, why do we suffer the social penalties for not fitting in?
Why does a fitness model always have to write about squats to sell product – when what they really want to do is help people overcome limiting beliefs about their mental health?
Why do we tell our talented specialists and professionals that they don’t have the cognitive agility to switch careers later in life – as if they don’t have the intellectual horsepower to handle such a shift when they’ve been demonstrating aptitude to handle complex problems their entire career?
Why do we tell our little boys they can’t wear pink or play with dolls, as if it compromises their humanity (instead of broadens it) to indulge in every colour and experience the playground offers?
Why do we keep telling our little girls that pretty is better than smart? And why do we tell everyone else that smart is better than character?
Espousing different traits is a strength, I know this now. And there is nothing more delightful than meeting people who confound stereotypes.
What I’d love to see is a new definition of “belonging” and “fitting in”.
One that understands that people are multi-layered, inconsistent, sometimes contradictory and can belong in multiple domains – not just one.
When the effortless non-conformity that we are naturally born with doesn’t have to be manufactured and passed off as cool to be acceptable.
When society has matured enough not to be threatened by people who don’t fit the mould, who slot imperfectly into many boxes, and where belonging means free to be yourself – and loved because of it.
Irrespective of which group you happen to be part of at the time.
Have I given up the search for belonging? Not yet.
But as I work with Ideapod each day I get closer to finding it**.
And instead of fitting in:
I’m finally free.
**If you are like me and want to live in a future where you don’t have to be “just one thing”, join Ideapod to change this story at our debut event Reimagine on 22 September 2017 in Sydney – buy tickets here.