Since discovering my tribe of outliers, agilizers, and creative neurodiverse thinkers, I will never see myself the same way again. I’m more at peace today than I even knew was possible. The power of understanding that you are not defective, and you are not alone – that there is a group of people where everything you think is freaky about yourself is actually NORMAL can’t really be described in words.
We are outliers. Outliers are people who fall outside the normal ranges of the bell curve.
We are uncommon. We think differently from the average person. We are neurodiverse – our brains and nervous systems are wired differently from the average or neurotypical brain.
This does not mean we are disordered – it’s more like we pursue order differently. While others seek stability to create order, we need agility to create order in our lives. We find order in the “dance” of life more so than in the stability or stillness of life. In other words, routines tend to bore us much more easily than the average person. When we see something we know could be better, we have a much harder time “looking the other way” than the average person does. We are interested in exponentially more things than the average person.
Outliers are people who fall outside the normal ranges of the bell curve. We have uncommon qualities, talents and personality traits and as a result, we often must challenge the status quo and lead unconventional lives in order to find personal satisfaction. We are people that the majority of other people don’t or can’t understand easily. We are often remarkably smart, talented, creative, caring, compassionate and sensitive survivors. Like me, most of us have been (to varying degrees) deeply affected by this pervasive sense that no one out there really understands us. We tend to experience chronic overwhelm, frustration, and disorganization as a result.
We are surrounded by people trying to get us to do things their way. How often have you heard questions like the following:
- Why can’t you just ______?
- What’s so hard about just ______________ ?
- Why can’t you finish what you started?
- How could you be so smart and not be able to _______?
We try so hard to live up to expectations, but we just can’t get things done in the linear, predictable way we want to. We can’t “just do it” because the “usual” ways of doing things like self-care, healthy eating, organizing, planning and scheduling just don’t work for us. We have to do things our way.
Things that are easy for us are hard for them. Things that are easy to most people are hard for us. We see and feel the world so differently that it’s like we live on different planets sometimes! Yet we need each other. We need to work, learn and live together precisely because of our differences. But when we don’t appreciate each other’s cognitive differences, and try to get people to do things our way, we get tension. We end up with people calling each other defective, disordered or wrong when in reality they are just different in ways we don’t like. Sadly, we live in constant power struggles, conflict and even war with the very people we need.
We often pressure each other to do things our way because it can make life easier when we see and do things the same way. Here’s a minor example of how this plays out every day – some MAC users have a tendency to pressure me to switch to MAC. When I say I’m sticking wit what I’ve got, they tend evangelize – going on and on about how great MAC is. I agree – MAC’s are great – but they don’t meet my needs. I get tired of defending my choice to stick with Windows for now. I don’t recommend Windows to anyone. I believe everyone needs to understand their own needs and choose what’s right for them.
How computer operating systems work differently is analogous to how cognitive differences work. Some brains are better at self-control, some are better at flexibility and multi-tasking, some are better with graphics or sound, some need change and variety more than others.
Some people do the same kind of evangelizing as MAC users about productivity systems. Many people honestly believe that the “Getting Things Done” system is the best system on earth and it should work for everyone. Just because it works for them and the book itself says “anyone can use this…it’s been tested on thousands of people”. So now, if it doesn’t work for you, they say it’s because YOU “aren’t disciplined enough.”
Because outliers tend to create their own systems – and keep tweaking and changing them – we generally don’t write books telling everyone to “do it this way.” We tend to share ideas and think – if it works for you great, if not keep trying.
It‘s really hard to write a book that doesn’t preach “How to___ in 5 simple steps.” People crave simple easy steps. Even if they don’t work. They love the illusion. So some authors give in and write it that way even if they know a lot of people will actually struggle with it.
Faced with the pressure of wanting people to like us, we may become defensive, or withdraw, or give in to what they want, or just go silent. Isn’t it time to unmute ourselves? To find an effective way to disagree about the ways we do things and resolve our differences without either party having to be wrong – that is the art of designing mutually agreeable alternatives. One size, one process, one approach does NOT fit all.
It’s not easy to resist the pressure of the dominant ways of thinking in any culture. Cognitive outliers often don’t have great “people skills.” We encounter so many situations where our intuitive responses are not like other peoples.
We tend to struggle with following directions. When something doesn’t make sense to us, we tend to ask a lot of questions. When we ask a lot of questions or disagree, we often get labelled as “difficult.” After a while, when facing a disagreement, confrontation or criticism, we tend to assume we are the problem. We then either back away, hide our real opinions, apologize, agree even though we don’t, or explain why we disagree and face being told that we think too much, or are being negative. If we can see both sides of a situation, we get pressured to take a side.
We literally get overwhelmed and EXHAUSTED from being put on the defensive and having to explain why we are different or why we can’t or won’t do things their way.
But if you are the minority in any situation, the pressure is on YOU to self-advocate. Who teaches us how to do that? We don’t learn that in school, partly because most schools are designed to get you to conform – certainly not to challenge and ask for your right to for example, tweak a homework assignment to make it more interesting to you. I actually used to do that! Some teachers acted like I just asked them kill someone, other had to think about it, and others were delighted and actually liked my ideas and gave the “tweak” as an option to the entire class. I was really lucky to have a teacher like that. She affirmed my right to self-advocate.
Most schools seek to control when you should learn, what to learn, how to learn, who you learn it with, when you can eat, when you can go to the bathroom and so much more. Where in that scenario are you learning how to advocate for your right to fidget? or to move while listening? You don’t. You get a label.
Take the two examples I gave earlier of how we pressure people to conform, and multiply them by the millions of little ways we pressure each other every day to modify ourselves to get others’ approval. How often do you hear: Don’t be so emotional! Your overthinking it! You care too much! Your too sensitive. Why can’t you keep track of time? What’s so hard about being on time? How hard is to just pick up after yourself? or do the dishes after you eat?
These are only the tip of the iceberg of how deeply neurodiversity affects our identities, our sense of self-worth and how misunderstood and frustrated we feel. It affects every little thing we do.
Neurodiversity plays a HUGE role in how much clutter we have and in how we clean and organize our homes and workspaces. I’ve worked with so many clients facing divorce, or even about to lose their children, over the power struggles played out by people with different cognitive styles and ways of doing things.
They live together without knowing how to self-advocate and design mutually satisfying alternatives so they resort to all sorts of pressure tactics to get each other to do what they want.
Intolerance of neurodiversity is about much more than ADHD, Asperberger’s, autism, OCD and giftedness. People get bullied, kicked out of school, lose their jobs and families break up over it. Cognitive intolerance and misunderstanding is a significant factor in domestic violence and child abuse.
Luckily, once we understand this intolerance better, changing the way we see ourselves (and each other) goes a LONG WAY to ending our own inner wars as well as toward resolving chronic tension and conflict we experience with our loved ones.
If someone told you there was a pair of shoes where one size fits everyone, would you believe them? Of course not. Because that’s obviously not true. But when it comes to time management, or organizing or diet advice, or even how we do the dishes, we want to believe that what works for someone else should work for us and vice versa. Even though we repeatedly fail at doing it someone else’s way - even when we really want to do it their way.
Just because an idea makes a lot of sense and works for a lot of people doesn’t mean it should or could or can work for you. What does work is understanding your needs and designing or tailoring accordingly. But that in itself is a skill.
The real question is whether or not you are willing to take the time to learn how to design rather than prescribe.
If you are, it may be a little slower at first than following a prescription, but once you become “agile” at coming up with simple, easy-to-use systems that fit you, you will be empowered to keep growing and becoming ever more organized for the rest of your life. AND you can teach your loved ones too.