Clients often ask me how they can set themselves apart and stand out when they start (or have been running) their own business.

In a glut of thousands of other writers, coaches, bloggers, developers, photographers, inventors, designers, illustrators, consultants, mentors who do the same or a similar thing, how do you get noticed?

Is it by doing it differently? Positioning it differently? Pricing it differently? It can be all of that, and more.

There are various practical ways to set yourself apart but often, after a while, other people catch on/up and what set you apart to begin with becomes the norm.

I believe there’s a different approach which no-one can ever take away from you…

In many ways our society does not embrace or celebrate difference. We’re groomed to be homogenous from the start – look at the education system churning out students who are good at fitting in, following the rules and thinking for themselves a little but but not too much. Look at the way our working lives are structured and set up and the way our lifestyle has already been designed for us.

I’m not sure if it’s an anthropological thing but it doesn’t feel like, as a species, we’re designed to celebrate difference. Notice it perhaps but not celebrate it. And yet, in our quest for authenticity – for showing up, being seen and standing out – it’s our differences that matter.

What makes us different, makes us strong.

If you’ve grown up with any kind of ‘otherness’ – a different skin colour, any kind of disability, a different family structure etc. – you’ll know how it feels to be the kid who doesn’t feel like they fit in. It’s often during our childhood experiences of being different that we become resilient and strong, or is that indifferent, immune, closed down and when we build our armour and figure out ways to hide our hurt, shame and humiliation?

Rather than making us strong and resilient, does this hiding and hurting of our otherness weaken us? Does it make us hard? Brittle? Does it cause us to deny the very thing(s) that makes us stronger?

I grew up as an adopted, Filipino-by-origin child, in a single parent family on an assisted place at a private school. I wasn’t always fully aware of my otherness – I’m fortunate that my skin colour, for example, has never felt like a hinderance – and though I flitted on the edges of various social groups, I was popular enough to be voted onto various committees and be voted in as the school hockey captain (being on the winning side of a schoolgirl coup in the process!). Despite this, I never felt like I truly belonged.

Equally, I’ve never wanted to fit in, to be ‘normal’ or the same as everyone else (though I’ve never really wanted to stand out either!). I’ve been proud of many of my badges of otherness throughout my life and have often actively sought not to follow the crowd and do my own thing…

  • I chose to study German instead of French at school (everyone did French!).
  • I went for a job that wouldn’t require me to do just one thing/the same thing, day in, day out (consulting).
  • At work I delighted in not wearing make-up & heels every day even though everyone else did, as the de facto ‘uniform’.
  • In my own business, I’ve often zagged when everyone’s zigging.

Some of these may well be my own defence mechanisms to keep people out but there’s definitely a rebel part of me which delights in my otherness, or at least parts of it.

I’m still learning that when we deny our differences and otherness, we deny important parts of ourselves which deserve to find expression. If we don’t let them out willingly, they often find ways to make themselves heard and known anyway – physically, mentally and emotionally.

Do you deny your otherness? Do you see it as a strength or a weakness, personally and professionally?

Owning the whole, real, raw truth of you

Two of the reminders I have in the email I send to myself regularly (which contains my latest plans/key focus etc.) are paraphrased from an interview Tim Ferriss did with Joshua Waitzkin, former child chess prodigy and one of the most interesting guys I’ve come across in the past few year:

  • Cultivate the art of playing in transitions; the spaces in between, the planes that others aren’t even aware of or haven’t yet trained or played in. “Your music is the space between the notes”.
  • Do it your way: Harness your eccentricities and cultivate your strengths as a way of life; no focus on weaknesses.

I love both of the above; they remind me to look at the ‘otherness’ – in myself and in others. They point me to the bits that most people don’t or won’t see (or if they do, they reject – consciously or unconsciously, and usually out of fear). They remind me to (aim to) fully embrace the whole, real, raw truth of myself and others.

And in the first instance, they certainly prompted me to look at ALL of my otherness to see what I might not yet be seeing or owning. Here’s the list I came up with, including a few more recent additions:

  • I’m Asian.
  • I’m adopted.
  • I have rats as pets!!!
  • I’m location independent.
  • I’m very technically inclined.
  • I’m a single mother, by choice.
  • I’m gay, and only came out later in life.

Looking at that I suspect I score fairly highly on the diversity checklist with all of above!!

While the short list above is only a small snapshot of who I am, many of them form the foundations of the whole, real, raw truth of me. Some are only just finding their expression as I head into my 40s but I can feel how fully embracing them could open up all sorts of opportunities and avenues which hadn’t previously existed, personally and professionally.

Are you owning and embracing the whole, real, raw truth of you? 

So when clients ask me how they can be noticed and stand out in a sea of same-ness, the answer is easy to give, though perhaps less easy to do…

Embrace your otherness, own it, let it shine. When you do, you’ll attract those who see it, who want to embrace it too, and who will value it just as much as you do.