How to Win at Being an Outsider

How to Win at Being an Outsider
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By Anna Bedineishvili, Strategist, Sylvain Labs

I’m a legal alien. I’m a Georgian-born, British-bred, consultant working in New York. In 2013, a mentor of mine suggested I hide this part of my identity in order to land a job in the US.

With good intentions, she advised me to erase any trace of foreignness from my resume and to avoid it in interviews like it were the ‘f’ word. Apparently, recruiters see themselves drowning in a sea of immigration paperwork when they hear you’re not an American citizen.

While she had a point, (I met many recruiters who lamented the grueling Visa process a minute into the interview), I never followed her advice. I laughed off the thought of me pretending to be a local with my tendency to use words like ‘queue’ and ‘knackered’, and with the last name Bedineishvili, there was no hiding it. It was Obama’s America, so I didn’t feel much pressure to repress my foreignness. Neither did I feel such an urge to defend it like I do today. I was passively foreign.

“Any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door”. That is a genuine quote from Nigel Farage, a British politician whose pro-Brexit campaign was abundant in xenophobic rhetoric. This, and similar narratives, often disguised as patriotism, are not limited to the U.K. We’ve heard it in the US, Australia, France, Austria, and beyond. It’s a global issue.

So, what exactly is good advice for the demonized foreigner looking for work in a world swept up by anti-immigration fever? For me, it’s to do the opposite of hiding, or in the words of the Barbadian goddess Rihanna, ‘shine bright like a diamond’.

Just as a local strategist may use familiarity with their culture to inspire brilliant ideas, your experience as an outsider arms you with a set of skills that are equally valuable in the workplace. In fact, the value of immigrants and locals are not mutually exclusive. Countless studies have shown that groups made up of diverse individuals are more successful than those made of individuals that are the same. Diversity 101, everybody!

Unfortunately, us humans have always been afraid of the unknown, and this can manifest itself in the most generic of situations – the workplace. So, it’s vital that you’re able to articulate your value, instead of relying on others to instinctively see it. To help you out, I’ve created a list of some key traits I’ve noticed in fellow foreign strategists. At best, this list may empower you while you’re networking, in an interview, or even over family dinner with your partner’s xenophobic uncle. At worst, it’s a necessary stroke to your ego during a time of walls, bans and Brexits.

Your ignorance is practical

As an outsider, your local ‘ignorance’ can actually work to your advantage. You have the tendency to question some of the very fundamental, unwritten rules because they’re not fundamental to you. That’s essential in our line of work; to be able to see what may be invisible to others. There’s good reason researchers refer to insights as ‘duh-scoveries’.

You’re trained to assimilate

Moving to a new country forces you take in as much information, as quickly as you possibly can in order to make sense of a new world: verbal and body language, folklore, dress, food, humor, laws, work ethic, beauty ideals, family values, and so on. Similarly, as a strategist, you must rapidly immerse yourself into every new project, understanding everything from the consumer to your client’s business model. You’ve already adopted a learning mindset in your everyday life as an outsider. Go you!

You go below the surface

As an outsider, you probably have been frustrated by people’s eagerness to fit you into a pre-conceived box. Fighting this in your own life, you dig deeper than the surface when it comes to understanding people. Your eagerness to challenge stereotypes helps you add more depth, nuance and stories to the standard ‘consumer profiles’, bringing people to life in rich and relatable ways.

You find shortcuts to friendships

When you move to a new place, you’re desperate to make friends (or at least I was). To battle your loneliness, you learn to look for opportunities to connect with all types people. In other words, you learn to be more empathetic, more often. This is ideal for when you’re connecting with clients and research respondents, but it also arms you with a diverse network of people who influence and broaden your thinking.

You are comfortable with change

You’ve experienced one of the most intimidating changes in your life by moving into a new world. Suddenly, your entire perspective shifted and some things, like your furniture, or your ideas, are not as precious as you thought they were. This kind of perspective is the secret sauce to groundbreaking ideas. Strategists who are able to reinvent their approach to projects (to research, ideation, presentations, deliverables, ideas) will never stop evolving.

The above traits are by no means exclusive to foreigners. They are the ‘survival skills’ foreigners have adopted as a consequence of being on the outside. Fortunately, these same skills can make them better strategists, worthy of recruiters diving right into that sea of immigration paperwork.

And everyone, including those that are seemingly on the ‘inside’ has felt like an outsider at some point in their lives. It’s in the moments of feeling most on the outside that there is opportunity for growth. As the brilliant filmmaker Amma Asante once said, ‘when we have the courage to move into other worlds, we have the impact to change them.’

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