I get hundreds of emails every day — heartfelt stories, personal confessions, secrets.
No matter what the topic, every single person shares one thing in common. It’s what no one wants to talk about:
Many of us have a secret part of ourselves we feel we cannot share. Whether we are hiding a small quirk or a large secret identity, we feel that we will be judged if we are ourselves. We also feel we are the only ones struggling with this.
I cannot even begin to describe the weight that most of us carry. We feel:
- terrified we will be judged for who we really are.
- that we are the only one who feels the way we do.
But why? I think we are constantly holding ourselves up to an imaginary ideal average. Here’s how it works:
#1: The Myth of Average
I hate math, but stick with me here. There is a fancy term called “Linear Regression” which is when you draw a line that best fits a scattering of points. A silly example to demonstrate an important point:
X = Amount of Chocolate Consumed Per Day (in pieces)
Y = Height (in inches)
Each Dot Represents a Person
A linear regression would draw a “line of best fit” to show an average for chocolate consumed by height. Like this:
This line is supposed to help us see trends. Here’s the problem: It’s only an average.
Out of the 75 dots on my imaginary graph, only 4 actually fall on the best fit line. This leaves 71 people out of the average.
So, even though the average is helpful to see trends, if you are not on the average it leaves you feeling different. Let’s look at this with a number of different traits.
#2: Who Am I?
Every day, all day, we are thinking about who we are. We are also thinking about who we are compared to others. For example here is a made up chart of annual income at each age.
X = Age (in years)
Y = Annual Income (in dollars)
Each Dot Represents a Person
In this made-up example, as we get older, people tend to make more money. And when we look around at our friends, or look at income averages online, we only see one number for our age group. But again, only 4 dots on the line actually hit that average. Everyone else is below or above the line. So what happens when you are not on the line?
#3: Hitting the Line
I think we are constantly trying to figure out:
- Where is the average line?
- Am I below or above it?
- Can I get closer?
The problem is that the line of averages is not ‘real’ in the sense that most people are not on it. It is an average of the total, but is not where most people actually are. We:
- end up feeling less than or better than.
- end up trying to move towards or pretend to be close to something that doesn’t exist.
- compare ourselves to a fake average.
This can leave people below the line feeling like they are doing worse than EVERYONE else because they can’t see how few people that average actually hits. And it might leave people above the line feeling better than others because they feel special or above average. Neither are particularly good for building relationships or self-esteem.
#4: Everything, Everywhere
We do this with our weight. Our clothes. Our vacations. It can even happen with our faith, political ideas and parenting. For example, if you look at how faithful a group of people in a church is, you will see people who are more pious and less pious. Some people go to church every week, some people don’t. Some people give to charity, some people don’t. If you plotted all of these religious variables on a chart you would get a smattering of dots all over the place.
The average might be church visits = 1 per month. Charitable donations = $200 per year. Anyone who goes to church less is going to feel bad and possibly try to hide that fact. Anyone who goes more will feel more righteous and better off — they might even take it upon themselves to expound upon the importance of going to church on fellow brethren.
I used the following ridiculous example with a friend the other day who spent 2 hours (!?) doing her hair before a party. Here is how that went:
Friend: “I want those loose, bouncy waves everyone has!”
Me: “No one actually has those.”
Friend: “I see it all the time.”
Me: “Most people have curly hair or straight hair. The in-between is coveted but not normal.”
Friend: “I guess that’s true, everyone does something to their hair.”
Me: “Let’s stop! Own your outlier status!”
#5: Let’s Be Outliers
If you are lucky, you figure out you are not average, love that part of yourself and find people who will also love you for it. This is exactly why I started the Science of People. I love outliers. I hate averages. I am turned on by weird and different. BUT this has been a harder message than I ever could have imagined.
- We have to know ourselves. It is so hard to know who we really are before we can even begin to fight for it.
- We have to be ok with being different. Once you know who you are, how do you own it?
- We have to accept other people for their differences. Being an outlier means owning your differences and accepting others for who they are.
For so long, my life was about being as close to the mean as possible. And I was miserable.
My goal is to be different and not worry that I am the only one who feels that way.
My goal is to help you expose who you really are and to find you people who love you for it.
Let’s all be outliers.
Vanessa + Science of People Team
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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