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The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World
By Olga Khazan
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Most of us have at some point in our lives felt like an outsider, sometimes considering ourselves "too weird" to fit in. Growing up as a Russian immigrant in West Texas, Olga Khazan always felt there was something different about her. This feeling has permeated her life, and as she embarked on a science writing career, she realized there were psychological connections between this feeling of being an outsider and both her struggles and successes later in life. She decided to reach out to other people who were unique in their environments to see if they had experienced similar feelings of alienation, and if so, to learn how they overcame them. Weird is based on in-person interviews with many of these individuals, such as a woman who is professionally surrounded by men, a liberal in a conservative area, and a Muslim in a predominantly Christian town. In addition, it provides actionable insights based on interviews with dozens of experts and a review of hundreds of scientific studies.
Weird explores why it is that we crave conformity, how that affects people who are different, and what they can do about it. First, the book dives into the history of social norms and why some people hew to them more strictly than others. Next, Khazan explores the causes behind-and the consequences of-social rejection. She then reveals the hidden upsides to being "weird," as well as the strategies that people who are different might use in order to achieve success in a society that values normalcy. Finally, the book follows the trajectories of unique individuals who either decided to be among others just like them; to stay weird; or to dwell somewhere in between.
Combining Khazan's own story with those of others and with fascinating takeaways from cutting-edge psychology research, Weird reveals how successful individuals learned to embrace their weirdness, using it to their advantage.
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The origin of my weirdness is that I grew up a Russian-Jewish immigrant in a town called Midland in West Texas, in a region whose biggest claims to fame are being the onetime home of George W. Bush and serving as the inspiration for Friday Night Lights. A Chicagoan once asked me what the nearest big city to my childhood home was. When I matter-of-factly responded that it was El Paso, he burst out laughing.
My father, who had been an electrical engineer and black-market TV repairman in Russia, had secured a job at a Midland petroleum engineering company by offering to provide Russian translations for the company’s oil deals with Siberians. (Siberia having had, along with the rest of Russia, recently discovered capitalism.) My mom did accounting for a small company, and sometimes she pitched in with the translating. My parents would often take me along to their translating jobs, so I spent much of my childhood asleep on white tablecloths, waiting for the adults to wrap up their schmoozing.
“Culture clash” implies a bold interplay of contrasting patterns; what we experienced could more accurately be described as a culture transplant. We were sewn into this new place and hoped it took. Almost everyone we met was an evangelical Christian who believed they would live eternally in a celestial paradise—and many felt obligated to let us know about it. My babysitter considered glossolalia to be a fun afternoon activity. The only kids’ activity at our apartment complex was an improvised Sunday school, whose organizers prayed with me that my parents would become Christians. A boy called me a “wetback” in the middle of class, and I thought seriously about changing my name. When we watched the Addams Family movies, I developed a strong kinship with pale, dour Wednesday Addams.
Midland was a town mostly populated by white Americans and Mexicans, and both groups largely kept to themselves. Besides us, there were at most a handful of non-Spanish-speaking immigrants in town. (We did not, however, know each other, only of each other. As in, my dad once mentioned that he thought he saw a Ghanaian at the grocery store.)
West Texans exhibit an easy dominance of their inhospitable natural environment, which is something I never did master. They are a group of people who are simply not messed with, whereas I constantly was. Much of the grass there is not grass, but rather “stickers” that will gouge holes in your skin. Once, my father saw a man shoot a rattlesnake in his front yard with a rifle, then pick it up by the neck and present it to his children with a smile. At a treacherous desert day camp, I was stung by so many fire ants that my feet no longer fit in my shoes. As I cried, the camp counselor scolded me for not being tough.
In fourth grade, I changed schools halfway through the year because my family moved across town. Unsurprisingly, I did not take well to the new environs. A short list of things I had issues with: Going outside on field day. (Due to allergies, which my teachers took as a sign of sneaky insubordination.) In science class, making “birth announcements” for a baby dinosaur of our choosing. (Birth announcements were not a custom in Russia.) Being in the same math group as the class pretty girl. (Obvious reasons.)
At the new school, lunch was eaten in shifts, like in a Dickensian workhouse. Before lunch, our class would file out of the room and line up outside the cafeteria. We would sit down on the concrete walkway and wait for the first wave of eaters to leave so we could take their still-warm seats.
My parents grew alarmed when they learned about this system. Not the staggered lunches—the part about the sitting on the concrete.
“You do this even in winter?” they asked.
This practice, of course, violated the iron law of Russian medicine: sitting on cold things allows pneumonia to enter the body through its most vulnerable access point, the anus.
They decided to spend their parental-concern capital on making it so that I was no longer allowed to sit on the ground with the other kids. Instead, I spent my pre-lunch minutes loitering by the teachers, attempting to make adult conversation. “Nice brooch. Did you get that at Dillard’s?”
My exemption raised questions among my classmates, who mashed together my eccentricities to formulate a theory as to why I couldn’t sit with them. One day, curiosity got the best of them, and the boldest among them asked, “Is it true you’re allergic to concrete?”
The “holidays” at my house consist of the fake Soviet Christmas known as New Year’s Eve. When you’re a kid, this is the night you meet Soviet Santa, aka Grandfather Frost, who will only give you presents if you recite him some poems. (From each according to his ability…) It’s the night when my mom makes eggs stuffed with caviar and puts on her finest new sweater so that we will be rich in the New Year. Then she turns on the TV and shushes us so she can hear the traditional New Year’s address delivered by Vladimir Putin.
When I was in middle school, we left Midland for the relatively cosmopolitan cul-de-sacs of the Dallas suburbs, about a six-hour drive east.
Neither my parents nor I made many friends. Instead, my parents subscribed to a service that would deliver Russian television to our house. Gradually, it became practically the only TV they watched. That’s still true. They also only eat Russian food, and they almost exclusively read Russian news sites. They essentially live in Russia, in the U.S.
Of course, one’s native culture is always going to feel cozier. But I can’t help but notice that they are missing out on the golden age of American television for a series of increasingly complex Russian ice-skating-based reality shows. I imagine this retreat to their homeland is, in part, a reaction to the alienation we experienced in Texas. In the Dallas suburbs, we had few negative experiences on account of our ethnicity, but we didn’t have many especially positive ones, either. I think this ennui soured my parents on American culture slightly, and prompted them to look elsewhere for connection. You see a similar phenomenon with people who spend all their time LARPing. Yes, it’s a reclusive, looked-down-upon subculture, but at least it’s their subculture. When you find yourself in constant disagreement with the world, you withdraw into yourself. You re-watch old movies, wear your broken-in pajamas. You move back, mentally, to a country you fled. When you are the only one of your kind, you just want to find your kind again.
If “weird” has a feeling, it is at once energizing and maddening, like trying to squeeze into a space where you might plausibly fit, but don’t quite. (In fact, weird people are sometimes literally told they are not a “good fit.”) Being weird feels like showing up alone to a party where you only know the host, except the host is in the bathroom, and Oh God, are you even in the right house? Except the party is your life.
You might know what it’s like to be considered weird if you have few friends, or if you have an unusual hobby or lifestyle, or if you struggle socially. Or, you might be otherwise well-adjusted but are one of the few people of your ethnicity or gender or physical appearance doing whatever it is you do or living wherever it is you live. Sometimes, weirdness hinges on identity: women who have little interest in caring for children are considered strange by society, but so are men who do enjoy childcare—in fact, we’ll meet one such man soon.
This book is for those who have spent their lives feeling different, as well as for those who only feel different by dint of circumstance—perhaps because of a job or move. Maybe you attribute your personal or professional struggles to this difference, and the fact that you didn’t choose to be different makes them all the more hurtful. As the psychologist Sharon Lamb, who grew up poor, wrote after she didn’t get tenure, “That year of job hunting consolidated my suspicion that my upbringing in apartment buildings and playing in back alleys and empty lots meant that I would never be able to have a foundation among old stone buildings and those phony ‘traditions.’”1 When you’re locked outside something, it’s hard to know whether it’s because of something about you.
Weirdness affects us all, in one way or another. Maybe you aren’t weird, or at least not at the moment. Maybe you simply live with social anxiety or impostor syndrome—two of the common side effects of weirdness that can gnaw at the psyche for no particular reason. Maybe you are trying to understand why your neighborhood, school, office, or social circle is so homogenous, or why so many people are uncomfortable living alongside people who are different. What is it about unusual people and ideas that makes us so uneasy? And why do so many free-thinking adults all end up living in very similar ways?
Or perhaps you’re in charge, trying to help a diverse team of individuals do their best work. You hope to use their distinctiveness to fuel success, like many of the people I’ve interviewed for this book have done. Or maybe you’re just trying to spur the team you’re a part of to come up with the best, most creative solutions possible. Weirdness might be an asset, in that case.
You might be relieved to find, as I was, that it’s actually advantageous to be different, and that there are ways to turn your weirdness into a superpower. The stories of the individuals in this book hold valuable lessons for people facing all of these weird situations, and more.
It can be hard to visualize “weird.” (Like that other thing, you know it when you see it…or at least when you don’t get the baby-shower invitation all your coworkers got.) For me, the peculiar nature of my family’s immigration journey was what lodged me between identities and caused me, until very recently, to feel deeply uncomfortable in my own skin. It was what made me, for lack of a better word, weird.
Every year during my middle school years, my family moved to a different Dallas suburb right as school was letting out for the summer. The initial move was for my dad’s new job, but that threw us into a prolonged house-hunting slog that I still struggle to understand. Each house we hunted happened to be in a different school district of the sprawling metroplex. This meant I never knew any of the other kids in my neighborhood before embarking on a long stretch of unscheduled, summer sitting-around time. I had to take care of my toddler brother anyway, so entire months would pass in which I wouldn’t talk to any kids my own age. We had a small collection of DVDs that my mom got for free from work, including the little-seen Matthew Perry vehicle Fools Rush In and the movie adaptation of Get Shorty. I would carefully ration them out so that I had one new one to watch every week until school started.
When the school year began, I found there were usually other outcast-type kids—think intense manga fans—but they seemed able to join forces, creating their own mini-society of oddballs. I, meanwhile, never encountered another Russian immigrant kid like me. I rode the bus alone. I spent almost every evening alone. Since I didn’t have an iPod yet, I spent a lot of time talking to myself—a habit that unfortunately has stuck.
For a while in high school, I decided to see what I was missing and joined a rural, evangelical Christian youth group. I began to spend hours each week scouring the Bible in search of loopholes that if read a certain way, allowed for sex before marriage. I would highlight all of these potential provisos and drag the Bible to my pastor’s house, whose wife would sit me down with a plate of underdone brownies and explain why no ma’am, Jesus never did say you can have sex just ’cause you’re super in love. To be clear: not a single human being alive on earth had expressed even a passing interest, at that point, in having sex with me. But I wanted to have my argument airtight just in case.
One day, someone toilet-papered our house, and I had to explain to my parents that this is what American kids do to losers. Undeterred, my dad eagerly raked the toilet paper into a garbage bag and put it in his bathroom for future use. “Free toilet paper!” he said happily over dinner.
The day in high school we were supposed to have sex ed, we had instead what I can only describe as Prejudice Happy Hour. We were told to shout out qualities that we wanted in a friend, and the teacher would write them on the board. This was intended to build self-esteem, the key to avoiding pregnancy. (The belief at the time seemed to be that self-confident people never have sexual intercourse.)
“Christian,” someone said. The teacher dutifully wrote it on the board.
“Straight,” someone else ventured. The teacher wrote it down.
A couple kids raised their hands in protest. I’d like to think I was among them, but the embarrassing truth is I don’t remember if I was.
What I do remember is the teacher defending the list’s inclusion of “straight.” If a gay person stood next to him, he explained, he would feel uncomfortable. But personally, he added, he had no problem with gay people.
I would go home and log on to our enormous, shared family PC. I had maybe visited ten websites at that point, all of them for school papers. The one exception was sfgate.com, where I could read columns by Mark Morford.
In my teenage disgruntlement, I had begun painting Texans with too broad a brush. Kind, open-minded Christians got lumped in with fundamentalists who beat their children in front of strangers. I wrote off apolitical popular kids, by virtue of their likability, as ignorant and unsophisticated. I mentally ignored the English teacher who was fond of saying, with a twinkle in her eye, “Candy is dandy, but sex don’t rot your teeth,” and instead focused on my classmate who said she was confident we would win the Iraq War, because God was on our side. (As psychology poetically tells us, other people are all alike; people within our own tribe are dazzlingly unique.) Years later, I learned through Facebook that a lot of my classmates had grown up to be politically moderate yuppies who were not so different from me.
At the time, though, I relished the escape Mark Morford provided. Each week, Mark dedicated his column to skewering the war hawks and Bible thumpers that I had come to feel surrounded by—even if wrongly. Despite Mark’s probable veganism, he was one of the few American writers my dad loved, and one of the few interests he and I shared. Mark was unlike anyone I knew: He hated homophobes; he loved yoga. He is how I first learned about soy milk. I was amazed that he inhabited the same physical world that I did, yet he could voice these incendiary opinions, which almost everyone I knew opposed. He was like a portal to a parallel universe, one where weirdos ruled.
I developed something between a crush and a cult member’s devotion to him, which was only consummated by a long email of appreciation I drafted circa 2004, but never sent. I must have gushed extensively about Mark around my dad, because one day he tried to temper my expectations.
“He look gayish,” he warned.
All of this did little to prepare me for college at American University, an East Coast school that was approximately 110 percent Jewish and liberal. After a lifetime of having maybe three friends, I was to live in a dorm room with another girl—one who had, no less, premarital sex.
In the first few weeks at AU, we had a very different type of sex ed class—one that didn’t make me any more comfortable than the Texan one did. We gathered in a small study room and were told to write down as many synonyms for penises and vaginas as we could think of. By the time someone shouted “cum bucket,” I was rending my garments. Then they showed us dental dams, and I did not know what they were for, and someone saying “oral sex” did not get me any closer to figuring it out. A few years prior, at my high school, a girl had gotten in trouble for acting “unladylike.”
That first year of college was so disorienting. At one point, a guy friend of mine opened his mail to find The New Yorker—a gift subscription from a doting, learned aunt. Someone joked that the articles are so long he’d probably never get through an issue, and everyone laughed and said that was sooo true. I laughed too because it seemed better than admitting I had never heard of The New Yorker.
I had also never met so many male Democrats, which thank goodness, because if I had I might have tied a lasso and roped them, just like they taught us they do with errant calves back in grade school. It wasn’t so much their views on NAFTA or solar panels that I craved as the fact that Democrats, in my mind, meant different. A different guy, I thought, would understand me.
Except I now had an ideological panoply of males before me, but I had no idea where to begin. One specific problem was that I didn’t know how to end conversations. No boy-of-interest had ever started a conversation with me. And I, in turn, had never started a conversation with one. So naturally, I had no idea how or when one was finished.
I went with my best guess: just swiveling on my heels and walking away abruptly, whenever there seemed to be a lull. I tried this in my first week, in the cafeteria, with a cute guy who had expressed an interest in me.
Sauntering away, I remember thinking, Yes, this was the right thing to do, which is something people never think when it actually was.
I wish it had been a phase. I wish I was the nerd who became hot by taking off my glasses. But social skills are skills. At my first party in college, I felt inept and imperiled, the way people feel the very first time they try to strike a match.
Well into my job at the Washington Post, I was hounded by a feeling that my employer shouldn’t have taken a chance on someone like me, who didn’t grow up reading her hometown newspaper and penning precocious letters to the editor. I was someone who had instead spent all her time watching Saved by the Bell and falling even further behind the coterie of well-read ideators.
Having been weird for so long still haunts me in so many ways: Like when I feel like I can’t socialize without a glass of wine oiling me up from the inside—and how often I replay those conversations after the fact. Or the time my therapist held out one hand parallel to the floor to show me where everyone else is, mood-wise, and then held out another hand, about six inches lower than the other one, as though her hands were two trains about to pass each other, and I was on the lower train, going in the wrong direction. “Your affect is kind of, here,” she said, jiggling the bottom, depressive hand. Sometimes, strangers ask me if I’m lost.
A few years ago, I was interviewing a man named Michael Ain, and in the middle of our conversation I started to feel unusually, well, insecure about my inability to get over my insecurities. This is what he told me:
In the early 1980s, Michael was wrapping up his junior year at Brown University. He had excellent grades, a record of volunteer work, and a stack of awards from his elite high school, Phillips Academy. He was determined to pursue a career in medicine, so he made an appointment with the adviser in charge of students who were med-school bound.
The moment Michael walked in the door, the counselor bristled. “You check all the boxes, and your grades are good,” Michael remembered him saying. “But you’re going to have a hard time.”
Michael asked what he meant by that.
“Look,” the counselor said, walking over to a paper thermometer taped to his wall. The temperature reading was supposed to represent the percentage of med-school applicants who had gained admittance to their top-choice school. The counselor pointed to the 95-degree mark.
“That’s my average,” he said. “You’re gonna be bad for my average.”
“I don’t give a shit,” Michael said, using what would become a go-to phrase for him in situations like these.
The counselor thought for a minute. “Well, in that case I guess you have two options,” Michael recalled. “Either tell them about it ahead of time, or…just go to the interview and see what they say.”
The “it” the counselor was referring to was that Michael, an adult man, was just 4 feet, 3 inches tall. If he stood toe-to-toe with an average nine-year-old, their eyes would meet. That’s a standard height for someone with his condition: achondroplasia, or dwarfism.
Michael’s interest in medicine took root during his regular childhood trips to various medical specialists, who worked on his painful joints and ligaments. He admired how some doctors treated Little People with respect, giving them a little more time to take their pants off, for example, but not doing it for them. He imagined how great it would feel for a kid with dwarfism to have a doctor who knows exactly what it’s like.
Michael excelled in school, and even sports, but when he was preparing to graduate from college, society had not yet progressed sufficiently to allow Little People to be considered capable doctors. At the time, people like him were still derisively called “midgets.” Still, after the counselor’s appointment, Michael decided he wasn’t going to back down. He figured he’d just leave his height off his application. He applied to thirty medical schools in all.
Being short has, for centuries, been associated with not just physical but mental frailty. Little People have long been laughed at and exploited, enlisted as court jesters or circus performers. A medical textbook from 1959 speculated that many dwarfs are “backward for their age,” adding, “Because of their deformed bodies they…are emotionally immature and are often vain, boastful, excitable, fond of drink and sometimes lascivious.”2 Even today, bias against people of short stature is one of the last acceptable prejudices in the world. Short men are still joked about and discriminated against in the labor market.
When Michael arrived for his med-school interviews, he was looked down upon in more ways than one. Some admissions officers would go through the motions. Others stared awkwardly, then dismissed him from the meeting. “Patients won’t respect you,” one said. “They want tall doctors with long, white coats.” He was rejected from every single school.
Many rational people—even very dedicated ones—would have given up at this point. Michael’s reaction could not have been more different. “I wasn’t going to let these fuckers stop me,” he said.
He applied to thirty more schools. Only one accepted him, and only because the admissions officer loved baseball, the sport Michael played in college.
When Michael finished up med school, he decided to pursue a residency in neurosurgery. But when he sent out his residency applications, he once again faced a slew of rejections because of his height. He resigned to work in pediatrics for a year. “It was good, but I missed surgery really badly,” he told me.
He applied to dozens of orthopedic surgery programs, managing to land at Albany Medical College, where the head of the orthopedic surgery program didn’t care what anyone else thought. Michael assured his colleagues all he needed to do his job was a step stool. He excelled at the program and was even chosen to lead grand rounds in orthopedics.
Eventually, Michael became a professor of orthopedic surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, one of the country’s top medical institutions. He specialized in children with dwarfism and developed new techniques to help people with spinal deformities.
When I reached this point in my conversation with Michael, I was as awed by his accomplishments as I was by his easy acceptance of his physical difference. I also felt that—there’s no other way to say this—by comparison, I sound really whiny.
Yes, I had a rough time in childhood and adolescence. But I’m virtually indistinguishable from all the other mid-career office drones in Washington, D.C., where I now live. Even if I weren’t, there are plenty of immigrants here, and it’s considered politically incorrect to probe too deeply into anyone’s ethnicity. In short, I can pretty much glide through life pretending that I’ve always been a middle-class, East Coast white girl. When people learn I’m from Texas, they’re often surprised.
So, I thought, why am I in therapy, but Michael Ain is at Johns Hopkins, saying “fuck you,” literally, to the naysayers? How do you write your sixtieth medical-school application when everyone is telling you that short people can’t be doctors?
Michael knew he was an outsider. Yet he seemed certain he belonged among the insiders. I was curious whether people could cultivate an attitude like his. How can people who are different embrace whatever it is that makes them unusual and, just like Michael did, use it to power them?
- "Olga Khazan takes any topic she writes about and infuses it with so much humor and personality that you immediately want to read about it. With Weird, she weaves together fascinating profiles and research with her own experience to reveal the secret strength of being different."—Susan Cain, author of Quiet
- "An insightful ode to oddballs... [Olga Khazan's is] a voice unlike any I can remember encountering on the page. By turns insouciantly candid, calmly authoritative, and poignantly insightful, Khazan's persona has a startling freshness."—The Washington Post
- "[A]nimating, specific, rich, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.... For readers who love a well written, thoroughly researched social science book, Weird hits the spot. And for those who grew up like Khazan or see themselves in her story, it may be a balm for the soul."—Washington City Paper
- "In this insightful and entertaining book, Olga Khazan masterfully illuminates how being different from the crowd is a strength. Through real-life stories and cutting-edge research, this book will help you thrive because of whatever it is that makes you weird."—Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better
- "Weird will make anyone who feels like a fish out of water in their typical environment feel a little less anxious about the world around them."—Bustle
—Molly Ball, New York Times bestselling author of Pelosi
- "Almost everyone who walks into my therapy office thinks they're somehow different-or, yes, weird. But in her funny, personal, and always surprising book, Olga Khazan turns that feeling into a hidden strength. Chock full of fascinating research and real-life stories, Weird is both comforting and addicting, and a celebration of the power of our own uniqueness."—Lori Gottlieb, New York Times bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone
- "If you've ever felt like an outsider or an oddball, Olga Khazan has some good news for you. The very factors that prevent you from fitting in can eventually help you stand out. She's one of my favorite writers on the mysteries of human psychology, and her book gives an enthralling voice-and some enlightening science-to the universal experience of being a little unusual."—Adam Grant, author of Originals and Give and Take, and host of the TED podcast WorkLife
- "I feel seen. And I'm confident I'm not the only one who will recognize myself in these pages. Olga Khazan is a witty, engaging writer, and Weird is a compelling journey into the world of 'different' -- and a field guide to weaponizing your inner weirdo for the good."—Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and The Confidence Game
"Inspiring...In engaging and fast-paced prose, Khazan seamlessly interweaves stories of her own upbringing with interviews of a cast of quirky, colorful and inspiring 'outsiders.' Weird is blunt, both intentionally and unintentionally funny and alternately heartbreaking and uplifting."
- "This book isn't just a lighthearted, anecdotal tale of how it's OK to be an outsider. Instead, Khazan outlines the fascinating, often heartbreaking reality of how difficult it can be for people who don't fit in...she celebrates these benefits without glazing over the hardships of being an outsider....The people Khazan interviews are fascinating, and she does a magnificent job of bringing their stories to light with both gentleness and honesty while reminding the reader that no one is ever alone in feeling weird."—Bookpage (starred review)
- "A series of sharp, empathetic portraits....A winning demonstration of the value of difference."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Apr 6, 2021
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Hachette Go