By the time that Zach Wahls was about ten years old, he knew what it was to lie about himself. When another kid asked, “What do your mom and dad do?” his straightforward answer prompted teasing and taunting, as Zach’s parents are a same-sex couple. After the second and third time this happened, he learned to obfuscate, or change the topic, or, if need be, to out-and-out lie.
“I’m not gay,” he explains, “but I know how it feels to be in the closet.”
Zach acknowledged what it meant to deny himself, his story, his onlyness. But in order to make his dent, he had not only to come to terms with himself but to convince others to join with him. He, along with many others, ultimately convinced the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) to change its policies to become more inclusive.
Zach grew up as a Scout; he can rattle off the Scout values faster than I can order a double cappuccino. For nearly eleven years, weekends for him and his family included some form of scouting activity, whether “sewing patches on orange T-shirts, searching for raccoon and deer tracks during outdoor hikes, selling caramel popcorn after church, sanding or painting pinewood cars for the Derby Race, and of course, doing service projects in the community.” His love for the Scouts, though, was challenged by what they asked of him: silence.
Zach is the child of two lesbians: Terry Wahls, an internal-medicine physician, and Jackie Reger, a nurse. He’s one of two million children of same-sex parents born in the United States, a group that occupies a rapidly growing place within the LGBT community. Zach, like many other children in these families, learned to hide who he was. Little did he know when he was growing up that being a gay Boy Scout leader was not allowed. While there had long been many closeted gay Scouts and scout leaders, being open about it meant getting kicked out of the organization, for it was viewed as “promoting the politics of the gay agenda.” The BSA’s official policy amounted to “don’t ask, don’t tell” for kids and their troop leaders.
Zach is not alone in having had to hide some part of himself. Christie Smith of Deloitte Consulting conducted research that found that 61% of people do not reveal their true selves. In order to “fit in,” the majority of us admit to “covering”—trying to conform to the mainstream—even if it means not being who actually we are. Some typical examples are a gay man hiding his sexuality with “manly” sports talk, a younger man wearing glasses he doesn’t need in order to appear more experienced, or a black woman hiding her more natural language choices to downplay her heritage. But it’s not just such traditional “outsiders” who admit to high rates of covering: a whopping 45% of straight white men report covering as well, playing to a role or an archetype instead of feeling free to be themselves.
“Fitting in is the greatest barrier to belonging,” Dr. Brené Brown, the vulnerability researcher, has written. Fitting in means adjusting yourself to meet the expectations of others, and thus denies the power of your own ideas to stand out. When people repress themselves, they are likely repressing their ideas as well, which suggests that some sizable percent of potential creativity is simply lost.
Suppressing oneself affects not only the individuals involved, but the very fabric of our society. It obviously hobbles the wealth of ideas, which in turn limits growth and innovation. But it also affects the future of meaningful work in a world where many jobs are filled by increasingly smarter artificial intelligence. For example, if men think their jobs need to be “manly,” they may not seek out less “masculine” fields, such as well-paying nursing jobs. Their marginalization (by themselves and by others) reflects the economic and societal cost of fitting in.
Research from sociology, psychology, and anthropology has consistently shown that when individuals are in the position of being the “only one” in a group with a different norm, they will be pressured to conform to it. Nonconformists are typically dismissed and made to feel “other.” In those circumstances, “others” can be set up to compete with, to judge, or even to betray one another in order to win one of the limited number of seats at the table. In many respects, conformity or competition is not a choice but simply a matter of survival. To crack the code of acceptance and belonging—the most fundamental of human psychological needs—you’ll naturally suppress the qualities that set you apart. Without belonging, the odds are good that you will give up your own ideas. As a result, your fresh perspective and novel ideas are either deferred, in the best of cases, or extinguished, in the worst. And, with 61% of ourselves doing it, it’s a huge cost to our future selves.
That dynamic changes when you find people who share a common cause. Thus, onlyness isn’t a path to loneliness; it’s anything but. The reason that some people manage to make a difference, a dent, and others don’t? It isn’t because of lack-of-boldness; instead it’s because you need to know how you meaningfully belong. And this insight changes the needed next action steps. Instead of advising you to “go for it,” which is the common advice, the action is to go find your people.
When you do, everything changes. It’s as if there is a metallic thread—perhaps catching light, and thus your attention—that only you see, and, as you pull on it, instead of an unraveling… you find yourself connected to a larger fabric of society. You finally find the way to be deeply attached to the world, not by fitting in but by standing by your own ideas.
Zach Wahls has continued to make Scouts for Equality his main effort, and along with those who have united behind the project, he has made huge progress. The BSA no longer has discriminatory policies for their scouts or the scout leaders.
People who defy convention are labeled with many disparaging terms: rebel, freak, square peg in a round hole, weirdo, black sheep, oddball. They are pigeonholed as “misfits” until they find those who share their goals and passions. The dynamic changes at a point of critical mass; research has shown that at least 30% of a group has to consist of nonconformists before the “other” label is abandoned and each member is valued for him- or herself. For what only they offer the world. When there are enough people valued for their ideas rather than the power of who brings those ideas, the best idea has a shot. And those ideas are what we need for progress—personally, socially, and economically—to be made.
Adapted from The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World by Nilofer Merchant (Viking, on sale Aug. 29). Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.