Magnificent Misfits

Nobody said it out loud in grade school, but the subtext was clear – don’t stand out. It’s okay to “win” approved games in approved ways, but it’s not okay be different. Is being a misfit really such a bad thing?

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - Magnificent Misfits

Photo by Peter Gunneweg – courtesy of

It wasn’t her fault – or mine. It was just a coincidence that the visiting arts teacher’s presentation captured a seven year old mind that day. It never occurred to either of us that what happened next would carry an opportunity cost that rippled decades into the future.

Here was the artistic challenge she set for us:

  • First, we were to take a few one and two syllable words and sing them to a simple ethnic melody that contained no more than three or four notes.
  • Next, she had us move a pair of “twapper” sticks around in ways that choreographed the story points of the song. I can’t recall now what sort of sticks they were.

They could have been actual percussion instruments or just some random scraps of wood. At any rate, I got into it and lost track of where I was for a minute – especially forgetting that other kids might be watching or making decisions about me. The next thing I knew, I was being called up front to demonstrate the combined moves to the entire class.

Regrettably for me, I had picked it up like a natural.

In a setting less dysfunctional than the average public school system our teachers are forced to cope with, this could have been something to celebrate – but the other kids got that handled pretty quickly. Apparently they all knew something that I did not – that this arts teacher was not cool and neither was her ethnic stick song. The unspoken message was this – we can’t have anyone breaking ranks and exposing our sneering mediocrity. Stick out too far above the group for the wrong reasons and you’re liable to get lopped off.

Again, nobody said it out loud, but I saw it in their faces – all 20 or 30 of them looking back at me while I twapped my sticks with a red face and growing self-consciousness. Suddenly, having “perfect form” didn’t feel so good anymore. In that moment I made a decision that kept my creativity in check well into my adult life. I allowed the joy of the achievement to get plowed under by my desire to fit in.

In that experience were the seeds of years of misdirected thinking:

  1. Keeping quiet when it was time to speak up.
  2. Playing it “safe” even when I knew a better course of action.
  3. Believing that all my ideas were defective if one got rejected.
  4. Looking to others for approval I should have been giving to myself.
  5. Not trusting my inner voice when group-think tried to shout it down.

Here’s something that you and I are just going to have to remind one another about from time to time. Not everyone is going to like us… or our ideas… or the fact that we’re just plain better with the twapper sticks than they would be if they’d had the guts to try. The “misfit” treatment might start out as friendly advice or a left-handed compliment, but they’ll eventually turn up the heat until we get back in line. Sometimes you can see the corporate immune system kicking in when someone proposes something a little too unorthodox.

Later I started to get some enjoyment out of being labeled the closet bohemian in a few of the cubicle cultures where I worked. Sometimes I was able to turn it into a personal brand that worked, but there were places where it backfired. There are bosses and even siblings and significant others that will just automatically go all “whack-a-mole” on you if you say or do anything that appears to threaten their status quo.

Their attitudes and behavior have nothing to do with us or our ideas. The only power they have over us is the power we give them. How many artists, leaders and inventors never gave the world their gifts because they were tricked into believing they were misfits? Most of the significant improvements to our quality of life in the last thousand years or so came from so-called misfits who let go of their fear of not belonging.

It’s not that you don’t belong. You just belong to a smaller, more supportive club.

Questions: Can you recall a time when standing out backfired on you? How did you handle it? In what ways do you embrace being a “misfit” in your current personal or professional life – or where might you start?

  • Karen Dickens Emerson

    I was a good flute player and took no end of teasing for carrying my flute and a big stack of books to and from school every day. Why didn’t my friends have books? Who didn’t have homework? When the band director had me play a solo, I was mortified. Getting out of the hometown and on to college was ever so freeing. I found in college and in future communities people who supported my oddness. I have mostly come to a place where I am glad to let my little freak flag fly so that I can proudly take solos and express unorthodox ideas. I think I would have been there with you in liking twapper sticks and ethnic song. Twapper duet?