Misfit’s Guide to Navigating the Office

There is no such thing as failure!

It's possible to survive and thrive as a misfit without forcing yourself into a round corporate hole. Here's how to embrace your weird and successfully navigate the workplace.


A few years ago, I reached a kind of pinnacle of my career. I had an impressive job title, was fresh off the successful sale of a company I’d helped build, and was frequently asked to speak about my experience. By most objective measures of success, I’d made it.

But unlike how I’d imagined success would make me feel — confident, polished, poised — I found it had not transformed me. I remained the same misfit I had always been: emotionally clumsy, physically wobbly, awkward, anxious and still not entirely comfortable in my surroundings.

But that didn’t mean I was bad at my job. To the contrary, I was good at it. So I set out on a mission to help freaks like me stop trying to fit their square peg-ness into round corporate holes and to recognize that they could “make it” as precisely who they are.

Embrace Your Weird

Conventional career advice overwhelmingly teaches that office-politicking extroverts are best set up for success. As a result, if you’re offbeat, you’ve probably felt that the parts of your personality that seem out of sync are weaknesses you need to overcome.

But this logic is flawed, dated and untrue. What companies really need are passionate, original thinkers. Businesses need “disruptors” — Silicon Valley’s favorite word — and they need employees who are too odd to understand the ways things are “supposed to work.” Fellow misfits, do not fear: You do not have to change your fundamental being in order to thrive in your career. When in doubt, remember the following:

  • Your unique point of view is a strength, not a weakness.
  • Your sensitivity is what allows you to read a room and, ostensibly, play to it.
  • Your emotional intensity/curmudgeonly nature/crippling social anxiety/outsider status means you’re not constantly trying to curry favor with an uninspiring boss or your phoning-it-in co-workers.

Having the courage to celebrate your differences and communicate your ideas will help you succeed in nearly any vocation. So keep at it. Push yourself to share ideas or fixes to long-standing problems. Propose your big, wild dream project. Embrace your weird, it’s more valuable than you think.

Don’t Fake It

Most of us have heard the phrase “fake it till you make it.” This trope has taken on new meaning in an age of social media when our feeds overflow with carefully curated lives and accomplishments. We’re all faking it to make it, though it’s not always quite clear what “it” is.

The impulse to want to fake it, to be more poised, polished or more like what you perceive all those #bosses on Instagram to be, is powerful — especially if you’ve spent a lifetime feeling odd. But pretending to be something you’re not in a new job, faking skills or contorting yourself to gain recognition, is a short-sighted strategy with little return.

Your best work will come when you can be open, accountable, curious and fully who you are — not by performing some outsize version of who you think you should be. Not sure where to begin? Try the following:

  • Stop with the whens and thens: (“When I am X, then I can X … ”) Instead, focus on the value and strengths you bring in this moment, even with all of your perceived flaws.
  • Identify what it is about work that makes you feel anxious. Learn to push through this anxiety instead of running away from it. A daily meditation practice may help with this; so could a simple 10-minute walk.
  • Pinpoint the triggers that make you feel ashamed or insecure and begin the process of overcoming them. Journaling, therapy, confiding in friends are all potential ways to cope.

Confidence Is Overrated

I’m often asked on stage about my “confidence.” “How did you become so confident?” someone will inquire, and I will still my shaking hands long enough to explain that, actually, before I walked on stage I was quite positive I would embarrass myself so thoroughly that the talk would be the end of my career. Then I calmly elaborate: “I don’t have confidence today and I don’t have it most days. But I don’t need it, and neither do you.”

Many of us have been told that confidence is a fixed state — once we have it, it doesn’t go away. But confidence is actually fleeting: One day you will be swaggering around a conference room fired up to give a presentation and the next you’ll be eating your feelings in the office kitchen paralyzed by a full panic.

Most people — misfits or not — experience this sort of vacillation. We think confidence is a requirement to be successful. But instead of focusing on confidence, set your mind to developing your competence — and becoming better at what you do. When there’s a big presentation or a proposal you need to crush, instead of worrying that you’re not confident enough to pull it off, pour yourself into the work itself. Become radically honest about what you still need to learn (and still want to learn) and work toward developing the daily discipline it takes to improve. Becoming really good at what you do will help calm your insecurity and give you a sturdier foundation to help you go after what you want.

Stop Overthinking

For many of us, the biggest obstacle in the way of our success is the noise we create in our own heads: psyching ourselves out, telling ourselves we can’t do it, distracting ourselves with problems that don’t necessarily exist outside our minds. For those of us who experience these thoughts, learning to control our overthinking — and anchor ourselves back in reality — is critical. Here are alternative messages when you’re spiraling:

“I know she’s busy with a lot of things. I’ll check in in three days.”
Instead of: “She didn’t answer my email, I’m never getting the job/assignment/promotion” “I’ll never know unless I ask.”
Instead of: “They’d never give that assignment to me.” Give yourself permission to try.
Instead of: “I can’t do this.” “I’m doing my best”; “I’m getting better”; “Nobody is perfect.”
Instead of: “I’m not good enough.” Remember that what we perceive as failure is often an opportunity. When in doubt, quote Oprah: “There is no such thing as failure; failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
Instead of: “I’m afraid to fail.”

Misfits, Unite!

So you hate networking, small talk gives you hives and you find yourself in a state of panic over professional events. All of this may make you may feel like you’re alone at work. You aren’t. You just haven’t identified your people yet.

Finding a few smart, supportive people who understand you won’t happen overnight.

But the awkward moments you experience on a regular basis can be an opening for a conversation with someone who also struggles with feeling like they don’t fit the mold. Look for these moments of honest rapport, and seek out the people at work who behave in a way you admire and whose work you genuinely respect.

Some tips:

  • Focus on building genuine connections and relationships, not transactional relationships based on what other people can do for you.
  • Ask questions that have nothing to do with work.
  • Give heartfelt compliments.
  • Be a person your new colleague-friends can trust.
  • Actively support your co-workers, back up their ideas, offer help when you can and celebrate their successes.
  • Set boundaries and stick to them. You are not obliged to socialize with co-workers outside the office if you don’t want to, nor do you have to take on their personal problems to be a good colleague. Don’t over-promise your time in order to be liked in the moment only to leave yourself feeling resentful later on.

Over time you will find your place in the office ecosystem — not despite being a misfit, but because of it.

Published By: Bellaland, New York Times - Jennifer Romolini.

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