As I rose to speak, I began mentally preparing myself to sing in front of a small crowd of around 100 people at a locally organized TEDx Open Mic event. As the organizer gave me the microphone, I thought to myself “here it is…the moment where I would reveal to the world that I was a …”
Nonconformist. Yes, I would publicly declare that I was a nonconformist and sing in front of an audience outside of my family, friends and church for the first time to prove it.
Twelve speakers had been selected from over 70 nominations to talk for 3 minutes on a topic of our choice. I was the first to speak based on order of last name. I had spoken at many events before, but singing was never a part of the presentation.
I began singing the chorus from Gavin Degraw’s song “I Don’t Want to Be.” It’s a song that talks about being yourself rather than a false version of who you think you should be based on others’ expectations. It was the perfect opener to my speech on nonconformity.
Our Path to Conformity
We all begin as nonconformists. As children we are born into the world as free spirits. We are independent and know what we want at a very young age.
Then, conformity creeps in. We attend school and begin adapting to peer pressure in order to feel a sense of belonging.
As young adults, we sometimes choose college majors and professions that we think would be most prestigious or acceptable to our family, friends or society.
Then, we move into organizations or groups where we desire to finally be our true selves, but may have to assimilate to fit in. It can become a never-ending cycle feeding into our need to please while losing ourselves along the way.
What’s the Big Deal with Conformity, Anyway?
I believe that life gives us signs to let us know if we’re on the right path. I attended a conference months after speaking at this TEDx open mic event. As fate would have it, the speaker who was a PhD researcher, human performance consultant, and professor had studied various aspects of human behavior and performance.
He shared that conformity was the most detrimental behavior for individuals and our society. My mind lit up as I thought about my speech on nonconformity earlier that year.
Conformity at its most basic level means compliance or behavior in alignment with socially accepted conventions or standards. Some level of conformity is usually needed to fit in with groups in various social settings both personally and professionally, but it’s not the same as connection.
Connection is natural. We seek to form relationships with others. These relationships in our lives and careers are great for our development. Deeper connections are usually made with people based on both their similarities and differences from us, and truly connected people want the best for each other.
Think about the people that you connect with. They are probably people who accept you with your flaws and all, not those who only approve of you if you meet a checklist of items that they deem “acceptable.”
Conformity, on the other hand, is “going along to get along” and hiding your true self to fit into someone else’s standard.
It can be personally ineffective or even destructive when it leads to groupthink where no one is thinking for themselves.
Groupthink can cause people to choose a certain path because everyone tells them too. It makes people agree with a certain viewpoint due to the fear of expressing a different perspective or being the only one to speak up. It can also cause us to only seek opinions from those who will confirm what we already believe or think about a situation, person, or idea.
I was the ultimate people pleaser earlier in my life and career. It is easy to conform because we feel this deep yearning for acceptance and want to be liked by others. Many of us seek to please others in order to gain their validation whether it’s friends, family, colleagues, bosses, or the world, but this can be a major cause of stress.
A deep desire to belong and gain acceptance can make you forget your personal values and beliefs. It can make you forget about your own voice or prevent you from standing up to things that matter to you out of fear of challenging the status quo or “rocking the boat.”
You may also find that you’re so busy worried about what others think of you that you don’t live the life that you truly want to live.
According to the Huffington Post, people at the end of their lives have expressed this number one regret: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
I don’t want to live my life with regrets. I am owning my nonconformity and being authentic in a world that thrives on people conforming in hopes to inspire others to do the same.
There are several well-known nonconformists. To name a few, Steve Jobs, Dr. Maya Angelou, Dr. Brene Brown, Warren Buffett, and Oprah Winfrey are all great examples of nonconformists in my opinion. They reflect the benefits of being authentic.
Although they may have never called themselves nonconformists, they’re great examples of people who went against the grain. They also had their critics.
It’s said that Oprah was fired from one of her first news anchor jobs because she laughed at funny stories and cried at sad stories. That was not the societal norm then and anchors reported on the facts without emotion.
Oprah has also shared that “you cannot live a brave life without disappointing some people.” You cannot make everyone happy and if you live your life seeking to please, you will eventually betray the trust of the only person you can control: YOU!
Nonconformity is Not….
Nonconformity is not deliberate ignorance or extreme thinking. It does not give anyone the right to be difficult on purpose or what I will call “real rude” for individuals who prefer to “keep it real,” but with a demeaning intention or tone.
Nonconformity is being yourself even if means that you may not be liked by everyone. It means breaking the mold when it needs to be broken and challenging conventional thinking when needed for progress.
It’s not walking into a room with red sneakers and being embarrassed because you didn’t realize it was a formal attire event. Nonconformity is walking into a room with red sneakers knowing that it would be a formal occasion but doing it to break the mold and lighten the mood.
If you truly want to belong to a group, try being yourself and seeing if you will be embraced for who you are. Sometimes our sense of “not belonging” is internally driven. You may just find that people connect with you even more. Those who don’t may not be the people to have in your closer tribe of supporters.
You also want to learn from others and continuously focus on evolving as a person. Nonconformists realize that anyone can be a teacher and that lessons can be learned from anyone in both positive or negative situations.
They keep moving forward along their path until they find their safe places, people, and ideas that bring them fully to life embracing every aspect of what makes them similar and unique.
Ask yourself these four questions to see if you may be struggling with conformity:
- Are you typically the one who goes against the grain in decisions or challenges the status quo in groups, but feel misunderstood or like an outsider when you find yourself standing alone?
- Have you tried to fit in to certain groups or environments, but felt like you were losing your true self?
- Do you constantly try to appease and please others at the expense of your own dreams, thoughts, and goals?
- Do people know the real version of you or do they know the version that you’ve created to belong or make everyone feel most comfortable around you?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be struggling with conformity.
The Secret is….
Nonconformity is the secret to being authentic.
Rita Mae Brown said it best: “the reward for conformity was that everyone liked you except yourself.”
The magic of nonconformity is that it can lead to greater impact and influence because you are showing up in the world as your authentic self. It can be a stress-reliever to focus on just simply being you versus focusing on how many “likes” you have from some people in your life and career that may not even know or accept the true you.
It’s okay if you want to be a person that is likable and nice. However, using your voice, offering a different perspective, and disappointing some people if you don’t go along with their plans may mean that you’re not always seen as likable or nice. That’s okay, too.
We all adapt to different situations when needed. That is normal. You just want to ensure that your sense of integrity, peace, authenticity, joy, love and self-acceptance is not sacrificed for anyone or anything.
I’ve never felt more alive than now on this journey of being my authentic self no matter what. I’m a little serious and a little silly. I’m a little bit country and a little bit city. I’m a little spontaneous and a little predictable. I aim to always be respectful and kind, yet courageous and bold all at the same time.
Singing in front of a live audience was the best thing that I could have done to fully release the old people-pleasing version of me and sing boldly (bad notes and all).
If being authentic is your goal, focus first on accepting and being yourself. See how this begins to transform your life and your personal & professional relationships.