I was 4000 meters up in the Andean mountains when the realisation finally hit me. Attempting to ‘fit in’ just wasn’t going to work.
The year was 2007 and I was walking the Inca Trail. Frustrated with the lack of adventure in my life and, in the hope that I might make some new friends, I signed up to an organised trip to Machu Picchu.
What was supposed to be an adventure of a lifetime, though, soon became a familiar scenario. I didn’t seem to share anything in common with the members of the group (I didn’t know any of them before departing). The social interactions were polite, occasionally interesting, but never was a deeper connection made.
I knew this experience well. I was 27 at the time but I’d spent the last 10 years plus feeling like an outsider.
The social scene in my teenage years, while at University and after, revolved around alcohol and getting drunk. I couldn’t relate to it. I couldn’t understand what was so great about drinking to the point of nausea, not remember what you did the night before and only being able to express your true feelings while under the influence of an external stimulus.
Despite my misgivings with this form of socialising, though, I had no superior alternative. To me, it seemed, my only option was to accept this way of life and attempt to ‘fit in’.
My attempts were laughable. I might drink a pint of some horrible beer and, at a stretch, consume two. It wasn’t that I felt particularly drunk. I just couldn’t stomach the foul taste and the thought of consuming eight, nine or ten pints (a badge of honour amongst my peers), made me wretch.
Of course, the drinking was only part of the social experience (albeit the main one). My attempts to strike up conversation with the group I had attached myself to, or a girl I liked, were equally unsuccessful.
It seemed deeper conversation or discussion of important issues, were taboo. If you wanted to be popular or accepted, you had to be loud, crass, make jokes and banter. Keep it surface level was the credo, something I didn’t know how to do.
Although walking the Inca Trail with a group of previously unknown travellers provided a different setting and context to the bars, clubs and pubs of my earlier years, I was still painfully aware of my outsider status. I wanted to belong. I thought I might have an amazing time by travelling to a distant continent, seeing one of the wonders of the world and meeting some new people. However, I soon discovered, there was no escaping myself.
I finally realised, as I was walking up the highest section of the Inca Trail (Dead Woman’s Pass at an altitude of 4200 meters), that I was never going to find a sense of belonging by relying on other people, organisations, or trying to ‘fit in’ with what another group was doing. My attempts, to date, had yielded pitiful results. At best, people tolerated me. However, nobody embraced me.
Sometimes this made me question myself. Was there something wrong with me? Or, was it that there was something wrong with the world?
Ten years on, I can now answer that question. Back then, I wasn’t sure. However, high up in the Andes, what was becoming obvious was that I couldn’t continue with my forced attempts to ‘fit in’.
What, then, could I do instead?
The crazy thing was that I already had an idea. In fact, deep down I had known what I’d needed to do since I was 18 years old. Lack of knowledge wasn’t the problem. Fear of implementing it was what held me back.
The solution was throwing myself head first, and committing wholeheartedly, to following my dreams. Rather than pursue the well-trodden path that The System presented, I had to hack through the undergrowth and make my own.
My attempts to ‘fit in’ revealed a desire to hide from this scary truth. Up until my realisation, I would jump back and forth between following my dreams and hoping I wouldn’t have to. That all ended on the Inca Trail.
But what did a life where I forged my own path look like?
For a start, I knew it meant no more attaching myself to groups, looking for a sense of belonging by following the accepted way of socialising. I had to stop hoping that fate would magically swoop in and change my life without me having to do anything more than hang around the right people. Instead, I had to be strong enough to stand alone. I had to do my own thing, even if this meant spending a lot of time by myself.
Then, I had to fully commit to my work goals. Sure, I’d never had a conventional job, but I’d been hiding behind my freelancing work as a tennis coach and hypnotherapist. I had a much greater dream, and I needed to embrace it.
This demanded greater self-assurance. I had to stop listening to societies fears about the limited chances of dreams coming true and allowing them to become my own. Instead, I had to listen to my inner voice, and what it was telling me was the right path to pursue.
If you’ve ever felt that you’ve struggled to ‘fit in’, then you may be curious to learn the answer to my earlier question. Was the world wrong, or was I wrong, for not being able to ‘fit in’?
Ten years on from walking the Inca Trail, the truth I’ve discovered lies somewhere in between.
You’re not at fault for being unable to ‘fit in’. It’s perfectly normal for a sizeable minority of the population to feel there’s something wrong with the world. In fact, it’s a good thing that they do.
According to Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (see quote below), you are needed for humanities progress. Society can’t advance if it’s populated exclusively by people who accept the world as it is. The people who look at the world, and don’t like what they see, are the ones best positioned to create the innovative solutions (both technological and humanitarian) that help us all advance.
‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world,
The unreasonable man adapts the world to himself,
That’s why all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’
– George Bernard Shaw
While this knowledge should bring you comfort, I must warn you about a potential trap. You should never hate the world for not accepting you.
Nothing productive comes of this. Neither for you, or the world.
It makes you bitter. Worse still, you become ineffective. The positive energy you need to affect a change in your life, and surroundings, gets consumed by hate.
Instead, you must ‘let go’ of your anger against a world that has rejected you.
If it’s any comfort, I learned a surprising truth when I took this difficult step. I became more accepted! Not in the sense that I was able to conventionally ‘fit in’, but, in the sense that I created a niche where I belonged.
By following the path that my Inca Trail revelation revealed, I became more authentic. I expressed myself freely and showed people what I stood for with my work and life.
This connected with other people who felt the same way. They warmed to me because I wasn’t trying to sound like everybody else and was at peace with who I was.
So, if you take one lesson from my story, let it be this. Perhaps that world you despise for making you feel like such an outsider, is merely trying to communicate a message. You weren’t created to ‘fit in’.
Instead, let your frustration guide you to a different path. Allow yourself to be that ‘unreasonable person’ and you might discover that, ironically, the world really does need you.
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