For much of my life, that’s what I wanted most.
I was an only child living in Istanbul, a sprawling city of millions. Growing up, I spent most of my time holed up in my room in the small apartment we lived in—my only refuge from the faceless crowds.
I had eccentric tastes that made me feel I was different than my classmates. At an early age, I developed a love affair with computers and books. I taught myself how to code and lost myself in the fantasy worlds created by authors like Isaac Asimov. Carl Sagan would speak to me through the original Cosmos series on Betamax tapes. I didn’t speak a word of English, so I had no idea what he was saying. But I listened anyway.
My differences remained largely harmless, until I got to fourth grade. As elementary school students, we wore the same outfits to school—a bright blue uniform with a crisp white collar—and the boys all had the same buzz cut.
Well, all boys except me.
I had a laissez-faire approach to haircuts, which drew the ire of my school principal—a bulldozer of a man better suited to be a prison warden. He spotted my longer-than-standard hairdo during one of his “inspections” and began grunting like a winded rhinoceros. He grabbed a hair clip from a girl and stuck it in my hair to shame me publicly—a retribution for nonconformity.
I never skipped a haircut again.
When I started middle school, my sense of unbelonging kicked into high gear. It wasn’t just my hair that was different. Unlike my public elementary school, where I rubbed shoulders with students from similarly humble economic backgrounds, my private middle school catered largely to Istanbul’s wealthy elite. My parents could barely afford the tuition, but they found a way to make it work. This was my best option for learning English and getting a shot at attending college abroad.
I spent much of middle school assuming I was missing some “belonging chip” that came preinstalled in everyone else. I could talk for hours about the Foundation series or the latest in HTML programming, but I had never played tennis or heard of Prada. Fashion sense—or even basic color coordination—didn’t come naturally. I had an admittedly low-brow taste in music and preferred the catchy tunes of Ace of Base over the infinitely more popular Nirvana.
I remembered the lesson my school principal taught me in fourth grade. I started to treat my interactions with others like my haircuts, obsessively observing what was “normal” and making sure I toed the line. I would anticipate what other people thought, or what they wanted, and would conform accordingly.
It worked beautifully. My social circle expanded and, over time, I became a master at fitting in.
Whether it’s a suit, a dress, or yourself, fitting in works the same. You cut a thought here, you alter a preference there, and you adjust a behavior over here— until you fit into the same mold as everyone else.
But in the case of the self, the altered clothing barely resembles the original. To be sure, glimmers of my original, authentic self would shine through—with certain people and in certain contexts—but I mostly played the role I was expected to play in an attempt to belong.
When I moved to the United States for college, I had to start all over again. I traded my skinny European jeans for cargo shorts. I joined a fraternity and mastered the art of beer pong. My accent was one of my few distinctive qualities, but by the end of sophomore year, that too had faded.
I was a skinny kid with a funny name from a foreign country halfway around the world, but if I talked like them, I thought I could be them.
Yes, these attempts to fit in brought a superficial sense of belonging. But it wasn’t me that belonged. It was a one-dimensional, doctored-up, airbrushed, curated version of me.
The desire to belong is primal. If our ancestors didn’t conform to their tribe, they’d be ostracized, rejected, or worse, left for dead. Because this instinct is wired deeply into our genetic makeup, most of us do as I did and try to fit in.
But here’s the problem: The price you pay for fitting in is betraying who you are.
In fact, trying to fit in can make it harder to belong. Brene Brown describes it well: “Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else. If I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit in.”
For me, the turning point came a few years ago, around the time I first launched my website. I began to write about contrarian thinking and reimagining the status quo. In many ways, my writing was self-therapy. It helped me reconnect with my authentic self that had been muted by a desire to fit in.
My new book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist, was another turning point. I majored in astrophysics in college and worked on the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers mission. I later pivoted and became a law professor. In writing the book, I dropped all ideas about what a serious law professor “should” do. I wrote the book I wanted to write—even though serious law professors don’t write books about how strategies from rocket science can help people make giant leaps in work and life.
I’m still a work-in-progress. I still fight the innate tendency to crawl back into my conformist skin and change who I am in a futile attempt to be accepted.
When I catch myself trying to fit in, I put on Ace of Base. To most people, my Spotify playlists are musical armageddon. They are where good music goes to die. But to me, they serve as a reminder to embrace my authentic self—imperfections and all—rather than become a stranger to it.
In the end, I’d much rather write my own story than conform to someone else’s.
P.S. If you’d like help in writing your own story, check out my forthcoming book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist. Several chapters of the book (particularly “First-Principles Thinking” and “The New World”) are dedicated to helping you transition from being a cover band that plays someone else’s music to becoming the original artist of your own life.
I’ve been ecstatic about the early reviews. The book was named a “must read” by Susan Cain (NYT Bestselling Author of Quiet), “endlessly fascinating” by Daniel Pink (NYT Bestselling Author of Drive and A Whole New Mind), and “bursting with practical insights” by Adam Grant (NYT Bestselling Author of Originals). The book was also selected by Adam Grant as his # 1 pick among his top 20 books of 2020.
If you haven’t pre-ordered the book yet, you can get digital access to it within seven days of your pre-order (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound). That means you can start reading it NOW, months before the book is published.
After you pre-order the book, please send your receipt to [email protected]. You’ll also get pre-order bonuses worth at least 10 times the cost of the book. You can head over to this link to learn more: rocketsciencebook.com.