We all want to stand out in some way, but we also want to fit in: to feel we belong, that we're part of a community, or that we're part of something larger than ourselves.
But if you're like me, fitting in is not so easy. For one thing, I'm shy. Unless I'm onstage, I'm fairly introverted. And I'm hardly brimming with natural self-confidence (unless I'm in the right settings; as it is with many people, my self-confidence is largely situational.)
And that's too bad. Feeling we fit in helps make us more relaxed, more motivated, more self-assured--all of which not only help us feel better about ourselves but can also help us perform better and be more willing to help others.
Fitting in = win, win, win.
Some time ago, I realized being cycling-scrawny (6 feet tall, 150 pounds) is great for road cycling but is far from the healthiest of looks.
So I joined a gym. Started lifting weights. Felt like a fish totally out of water. Any upper body strength I'd had was long gone. No one was lifting less than me.
Hated it. Insecurities abounded. Felt like whoever looked at me was judging me. Not that many people were looking. Most--especially the big boys--brushed past me as if I wasn't there.
But I stuck with it. Got a little stronger. Got a little bigger. Slowly became able to do more sets, more reps, and more weight. Got a little stronger. Got a little bigger. (That's how it works.)
One day, an archetype of a gym rat--shaved head, cutoff shirt, veins in his arms like ropes--was doing side-to-side pull-ups: hands close together, looking along the bar rather than facing it, pulling up and alternating bringing his head above the bar on the right side and then the left.
By then I was looking for different exercises to do. I'm not sure what possessed me, but when he finished his set, I said, "I've never seen pull-ups done that way. Where are you feeling them?"
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I thought, Oh, great. He's about to blow me off.
Instead, he smiled. "Yeah, they're really hard," he said. "I definitely feel them in my lats, but I like how it brings my core into it. You should try them."
I said thanks and started to walk away.
"Hey," he said. "I've noticed you often change the width of your grip when you do dips. Why is that?"
In that moment, I thought several things. I was surprised he even noticed how I did dips. I was shocked he was asking me for advice. And three, in an environment where I had always felt a little uncomfortable and a lot insecure, I was evidently starting to fit in.
And cheesy as it might sound, that felt really good.
Twenty-two pounds and no increase in body fat percentage later, I no longer feel like I don't fit in.
I'm far from the biggest or strongest but that was never my goal. But it's really nice to exchange hellos, to exchange nods, to ask questions or give a little advice. I've become a member of a small community of people with a shared interest and a shared purpose.
Fitting in feels good, even somewhere relatively meaningless and insignificant like a small-town gym.
So how can you fit in when you don't feel you belong, whether in a group, an organization, or even at a job?
It just takes the right approach:
1. Start quiet and just do the work. We've all been in situations where "that person" shows up for the first time and tries immediately to force his or her way into a group.
Don't be that person.
Say you join an industry organization. Show up for every meeting. Contribute in small ways but otherwise lay low. Show you realize you're new. Show you don't expect to be taken seriously until you prove you're serious--and you're in it for the long haul.
2. Volunteer for the worst jobs. "That person" tries to leapfrog his or her way to the plum tasks. Sometimes the person even manages to pull it off, but the cost, in terms of belonging, is high.
Instead, use the time you're laying low to figure out where you can make the biggest difference to the people in the group. Hint: Just find ways to make their lives easier. Volunteer for the grunt work. Volunteer for the glory-free tasks. Volunteer to pay your dues.
3. Ask for help that only requires words. "That person" goes to a networking event and, moments after meeting you, wants an introduction to someone you know, or for you to wrangle them an appointment with one of your customers, or wants you to--well, you know how it goes. We all need help. We all need assistance. But once you've paid some dues, be smart and start small. Don't ask for time or effort. Just ask a question.
One, you'll get the information you need. Two, you'll implicitly show you respect the person you asked. (Aren't you always flattered when someone asks you for advice?) And best of all, that little exchange will help you start making real connections.
Never go for the networking or assistance jugular. You'll never fit in that way. Wait until you fit in.
Then people will offer to help you.
4. Ask to help in ways that require more than words. "That person" immediately walks over and tells you what you're doing wrong. Or what you could be doing better. Or could be doing differently. Or, most likely, what you should be doing his or her way.
That kind of help is more about "that person" than about you--much less about what you might actually need.
Pay attention so you'll notice when others are struggling. Then come up with specific ways to help--that way you can push past the "No, I'm OK" automatic responses.
Very few people offer help before they have been asked, even though most of the time that is when a little help will make the greatest impact. Just make sure you offer to roll up your sleeves and really help--that's the only way to make a real difference in another person's life.
5. Help other people feel they belong. Think of it this way. No matter how welcoming and new-employee-friendly your company, recently hired employees may feel they're constantly being weighed and measured and found wanting.
Maybe it's the guy in shipping who always eats lunch alone. Maybe it's the lady in accounting who always stands at the edge of a group. It's easy to spot people who feel hesitant and out of place.
Pick one. Say hi. Say something nice. Say, or do, something that makes the person feel a slightly bigger connection--to your company, to a group, or just to you.
Reach the point at which you feel confident helping others fit in, and that's when you truly fit in--because then it's no longer about you: It's about the group and the people in that group.
Which, when you think about it, is the perfect definition of fitting in.