I’ve spent a large part of my adult life as an outsider. In college, I fled my home state of Indiana for Australia, to live abroad, to backpack and to find myself. The day after graduation, I bolted again, this time to New York, chasing my husband and my at-the-time-unknown PR dreams. And when I became a mom? You guessed it. An outsider again. (I was the first of my New York friends and the last of my hometown friends to take the parenting plunge).
Being an outsider can be a choice, and a positive one at that. There is something to be said about seeking out opportunities to live as an outsider, because when you’re an outsider, there are fewer expectations, and there’s an immense freedom in that. It allows you to recreate yourself, to surprise people, or to fail without guilt, scrutiny, and consequences.
Oddly enough, it was this outsider mentality, and the desire to be even more independent, that drew me back to Indy. As much as Indy is geographically a city on the “inside,” Indy’s environment is in many ways better for outsiders than its bigger-sister cities on the coasts. Sure, the resources in a city like New York mean you can recreate yourself every day if you want, but you can’t always have the house, the car and the family. It’s not so forgiving.
An outsider like Indy doesn’t have to accept the identities that other people say it should. As an outsider, Indy can say “no” and buck expectations, because there’s no defined role that Indy is “supposed” to play. In some ways, Indy has been watching from the sidelines, taking it all in from a distance, and now the city is ready to go after what it wants on its own terms.
There’s power in being comfortable with a less defined and more formless existence, but be warned, it’s not always easy. Being an outsider requires you to have thick skin. The more different you are and the less you blend in, the more people will come at you. You’re visible, which means you’re vulnerable. (A great New York Times article recently discussed this kind of targeted criticism in the context of one of western civilization’s oldest groups of outsiders—women.)
No matter what the industry or organization, insiders can have a tough time seeing the bigger picture. Take PR, for example—as much as the PR world values “insider” connections, it can be even more valuable to be an outsider. Corporate message points can only get you so far. At some point you need to listen to your audience. Being an insider means reciting rules, following routines, and that kind of behavior seldom leads to new discoveries. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
PR is about telling stories, and an outsider’s point-of-view (channel your inner journalist) is perhaps the most effective tool we have for that. It’s the ability to think like a reader (or consumer) and recognize the potential in small details that an insider doesn’t even notice. It’s deciding for yourself when traditional PR avenues are not actually going to cut it and exploring new channels that might be uncomfortable at first but completely worth it in the end.
With a young family, my new life in Indy is looking more settled than ever before. But that doesn’t mean I have to forfeit my outsider mindset. Traveling, even if it’s just for short trips, is a great way of maintaining that mindset. Meeting people, making friends, trying something new—all of it is an exercise in putting ourselves in vulnerable situations and recreating ourselves for the better.