“It seemed to me that I made no impact on the world, and that in exchange I was privileged to watch it unawares.” ~ Marilynne Robinson


It carries a certain cachet for me, and maybe for everyone else, too. There’s a rakishness to the label of ‘outlier’.  I realize that could come entirely from my own partiality to non-conformity, but I’ve come across other references to outlying lately that make me wonder if it’s not becoming better understood, more accepted, and in fact perhaps revered. That would, of course, be its death-nell from the point of view of its usefulness as a way of life.  One can’t remain a champion of difference while embracing the crowd. I suppose I’ve wondered, as you might be now, how an outsider’s mentality can contribute to a successful life vision, but I’ve become more and more sure that is so when developing survival skills in a world of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Isn’t it interesting how our youngest adults, while appearing to crave acceptance and belonging through the personally disconnected world of social media, are living lives that would qualify them as the amphibians of our planet?  As Op Ed columnist David Brooks pointed out in a recent article in the NY Times called The Rise of Amphibians, “Amphibians have to master two or three different ways of being in the world, and often they do not fit perfectly anywhere.”  We’ve learned from Mr. Darwin, Mastering different ways of being is the most necessary survival skill of all.

I’ve often wondered if I’d be able to hold myself together split between many different ways of being, longing for the imagined ease of ‘fitting in’ where you feel you belong entirely. But then I know my artist’s soul would never be happy without the possibilities connected with other worlds and varied cultures. Translate that to mean I get easily bored and my nerve endings don’t feel alive when challenges are no longer paramount. Mr. Brooks extends his analysis of human “amphibians” to describe their core as being fueled by difference, and therefore creativity, and follows that up by saying, “They have that semi-outsider mentality that forces them to observe everything more closely.” Close observation exists when truly alive, or perhaps in order to remain so. The jangling neurons are there for a reason.

But if the adaptable “amphibian” seems too much of a stretch for you (especially if your tight in your maturity), then can you picture yourself as a dog instead? In a Feb. 14 PBS mini-series titled Animals with Cameras (still available online to stream), Episode 3 of the documentary shows how the age-old battle between sheep farmers and wolves is being won in France in a most unexpected way. It’s fascinating to watch, so I urge you to follow the link above to see it with your own eyes. But the gist of what the cleverly placed animal cameras discovered was this: the attribute most admired by both sheep-farmer and sheepdog is a canine machismo exhibited by a large number of these guard animals making them capable of facing a wolf pack to protect the sheep they’d bonded with over a lifetime. A few of the dogs did not, however, display that required level of courage, so they were pushed to the outside of the circle, with the others literally ‘insiders’ who slept cozily in the middle of the herd. The ‘outsiders’ were understandably warier, less accepting of the status quo, and always tuned to changes in the atmosphere around them. When the wolf pack started to move toward the sheep at night, the cameras showed it was the ‘outliers’ who sent out the alarm to wake the unsuspecting sheep and their ‘insider’ dog friends remaining clueless of the danger. The cameras showed that far from being useless misfits, the outliers kept the herd safe, proving there’s more than one way to use the skills and proclivities of being different. Whether you’re a dog, an amphibian or a human who doesn’t fit in, staying tuned to the changes in atmosphere around you could be lifesaving, and it certainly makes living a lot more interesting. Vive la différence!

5 Responses to Outliers

  1. This is the comment of a writer who prefers to remain anonymous but gave permission to post her thoughts sent privately by email:

    You don’t know how much this resonated with me on many levels. Even even I was growing up, I was never really part of a group. I usually had a few close friends but each from different activities either neighbors, or fellow parents, tennis players, or from the community groups that I belonged to. The ones I’ve had for the longest time all go back to the summers when I was growing up on Nantucket.

    I truly became an “outlier” when, thanks to my husband’s job, we relocated to Paris. Although I could read and write French adequately, I was timid about engaging in conversations. There, I learned the true feeling of being an “outlier”. However, I think that the French are much more comfortable with this condition — so I was pleased to be able to consider myself a “flaneur.” Eventually I did make friends there, both French and American, mainly through joining various international organizations, and through tennis. Also, doing errands in the neighborhood, with my snack loving Jack Russell terrier, also improved my local language skills, greatly. However, there were still many times when I was on my own, but because of the endless beauty and activity in the city, I was never bored. And, a conversation that I had with a French woman my age, in which she said that the thing she liked most about spending time in Paris was to be “anonyme” certainly rang a bell, and, I think validates your concept of being an outlier.
    And, I agree with you that it’s much more interesting (and liberating,) to be able to be comfortable, on your own, among many different groups of people, in many different venues, than always being part of a tight group!
    So, thank you for focusing on this wonderful aspect of life, especially in this age of over-connectivity!

  2. This is a mighty provocative essay. Are we outliers by nature and thus when we would reasonably fit in, we seek escape? Or are we outliers only for particular areas where we don’t feel we fit in? This duality, I imagine faces all outliers.

    I think of the scientific method, which most of us confuse with proving certainty is used to disprove assumptions and established axioms. If Scientific minded souls were conformists, we would probably still have the planets and stars revolving around us. And we all know that the greatest moments in science have been leaps beyond the common thinking. Remember that Einstein applied for a university position in every academy in Europe and was turned down. He alone doubted Newton’s established theories. No university or club would have him and he was forced to practice his doubting skills at the patent office, where his job was to doubt every application.

    I hope Brooks is right, yet it seems that Social Media and artificial intelligence have gone a long way in producing conformity and bright separating lines between broad ideological dogma. Even in art I fear that the lure of the big hit, has diminished the chances for an outlier/outsider to break through common tastes and assumptions.

    I love the quote from Marilyn Robinson and have a similar feeling, yet we know from science and the Uncertainty Theory that observation in itself, actually effects what we consider reality. Thus there is a modesty in the quote as well as an urging that we all take time to witness without intending to control.

    Your essays continue to stimulate thinking and taking nothing for granted

    • Wow! That’s some thinking!! Agreed on the Robinson quote 100%, but not so on the possibility of us all being outliers at heart. There are definitely pack animals and more of them than the outliers. I’m not sure about the tech generation, either. But I do think I see more individuality among the very young today, so perhaps they’ll come slithering back to shake up their parents. I think that’s what amphibians do. Thanks so much for your broad, encompassing thoughts. The conversation is very stimulating!!

  3. Watching the dogs on camera, I instantly knew I would be a nervous and pacing dog on the outside of the flock. What gave me pause while watching the guardians protect the sheep was thinking that wolves are the ancestor of the dog. Made me wonder about protecting my gentler adult self from my younger self howling at the moon.

    • Oh my, what a thought! interesting to note that the dogs can also be the sheeps’ predators, and yet we’re all truly related to each other. and keeping our awareness up at all times so we can move safely from one world to another is probably the best way to protect ourselves from anything without or within that might pose a threat. Thanks for the tantalizing thought, Kathleen!

We welcome you to the conversation! Please share your thoughts.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.