Being an outsider in a room full of insiders

Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

This week was a European tour for me. I started in Brussels, then went up to Amsterdam to speak at the Sustainable Packaging Summit. on Wednesday I came straight to London (with a small box of chocolates for my dad’s birthday) to speak with a group of Spanish cleantech startups. I’m now going back to Brussels this Sunday (and speaking at another event on Monday there!)

I’ve been posting quite a lot recently about the importance of getting out of our comfort zones if we want to get wider perspectives. This week was me putting this into action – spending time outside of the people I would usually speak to, and learning about things that I honestly had little knowledge about.

There’s a reason we tend to want to stay in spaces that are more comfortable – it’s a lot easier hanging around with work colleagues in Brussels talking about my niche policy interests. Getting out of this space is uncomfortable as I don’t really know what to expect.

From a professional perspective, it’s also quite nerve wracking. I went to speak on a stage at a conference all about packaging when I was probably one of the people who knew the least when it came to the technical aspects of the subject. I even had a comment of someone a tad confused as to why I was on the speaker line-up since what I do didn’t sound all that relevant.

Feeling discomfort in such spaces is completely normal, and indeed part of the process. When we want to do something different, it means opening ourselves up to new things. For me, this meant going into a space of experts of something I knew little about. It was also really humbling to realise how little I knew about the chemistry in the way packaging is made, as well as how complex it all was.

Nevertheless, there is a real value in being an outsider. What I shared on stage was a more broad outlook at European policy. I was invited for this reason – to give my own expertise, rather than opining similar things to the ones that the room already knew.

I think it worked. I had a few people telling me that they really appreciated my broader perspective, as well as someone asking if I would be interested in speaking at a similar conference in a few months time.

Being an outsider means that there is little space to hide. It allows us to be different and share something novel, but this also requires a deeper level of self-assuredness and confidence. But standing out for the right reasons is far more memorable than doing what everyone else is doing as an insider.

So for me, this meant really being sure of my own skills. I had to be a lot more connected with my intuition. It was about being bold and following what I thought was useful to share, rather than looking for an easier route to get agreement. As is the life of the outsider.

As an ethnic minority, the idea of being an outsider does really get reinforced, even if subtly. Just this month I’ve spelt wrong several times, including being put up on a website publicly. I’ve also had my name mispronounced when introduced too.

Frustratingly, I’ve seen much more difficult (but European) names from central or eastern Europe being spelt correctly, but my more ‘ethnic’ name being spelt wrong, despite it being right there for everyone to see.

Knowing how to respond is tricky – when I’ve raised it, people don’t really understand the problem. Everyone makes mistakes right? We’ve all seen a typo in our name after all. And yet, the level that it happens to me compared to those with ‘whiter’ names is probably two to three times more.

I’ve tried to ignore it, but that only leads to greater frustration. I chastise myself for not standing up for what I believe in. Yet raising it also brings discomfort in a place in spaces where one is meant to be ‘civil’.

My answer is to come from a loving space, but to raise it anyway. The more I can be understanding around an error, the easier it is for someone to receive my explanations that such mistakes have a negative effect. From my eyes, I am experiencing a lower level of dignity and respect due to my racial background. So it’s important for me to share this.

Alas, being an outsider is not an easy game. But it is also more rewarding, and often more fun. My ethnic diversity also gives me a rich set of perspectives and it is also what I draw upon when I speak. It gives something different. And in a world where we’re clamouring for solutions, it’s vital to get different viewpoints.

When we see ourselves free of needing to be part of any particular group, it allows ourselves to express far more openly. To me, that is the ultimate freedom.

And it’s no wonder that those who really master this are the most successful people in the world.

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