The Lizzie Bennet Advantage

Last week, I blogged about those times when we’re right, and everybody else is wrong. This week, I want to discuss how a society (or family) often advances their understanding through newcomers or people working on the fringes of accepted expertise.

einsteinEinstein is a case in point. As an adolescent, he had trouble getting along with teachers who were focused on rote learning rather than creativity, and ended up working in the patent office when he couldn’t get a teaching job. Looking over patent applications, he saw every whacky, weird, crazy and brilliant idea having to do with electrical inventions, and by the time he was thirty, despite having no formal place among academics of his day, he’d formulated at least the foundations for his most significant work.

Another case of brilliance from the margins was Dr. John Snow, often called the father of epidemiology (the study of how diseases affect entire populations). Snow was born dirt poor, the oldest of nine children.

pump handleThe prevailing theory of the 1850s was that diseases were spread by foul miasmas, or bad air, but Snow, who knew how poverty and poor neighborhoods worked, pinpointed a particular communal water pump as central to a lethal epidemic of cholera. Nobody wanted to acknowledge that sewage and the drinking water were connected.

Snow, coming from outside the medical establishment and outside the confined thinking of the genteel middle class, could prove the families who drank beer remained healthy, while those relying on unboiled pump water were dying. He didn’t stop hammering on those facts until he’d convinced the authorities to at least remove the pump handle…. and the epidemic ended.

CopernicusThen we have Copernicus, the Polish cleric and civic official who, without holding any academic positions, but relying on wide-ranging classical scholarship, and his own measurements and observations, came up with the idea that the sun, not the earth, is at the center of the (then) known universe.

Therapists and friends benefit from this outsider’s advantage. They help us organize what we know and what we’re experiencing without reference to our preconceived notions and biases. Similarly, a society, school or business with a constant influx of new blood will have a source of insights about its functioning (also mr_darcya source of strife), that closed groups don’t. Juries are constructed so that everybody chosen has outsider status with respect to the alleged crime.

In books, the stranger, the small child, the new kid, the new hire, the relative visiting from afar steps into the shoes of the one who sees most clearly. The hero and heroine’s insights about each other are possible in part only because they see each other as a case of first impression. I like that, and as I prepare to travel again, I hope I can benefit from what new surroundings tell me about myself. It’s an aspect of being the stranger I enjoy, and makes it easier for me to be a friend to insights and truth.

When were you the stranger, the new comer, and what did you notice? Did you keep it to yourself? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift card.


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54 comments on “The Lizzie Bennet Advantage

  1. We moved every year and so I was always the new girl in school. I hated it and got picked on a lot, but it taught me so much. Special education kids were always nice to me and now I work with them in the school district. I love my job. It’s very rewarding.

    • There’s stronger community at the margins than in the center, but most of us don’t realize this until we’re outcasts. We’re accepted for who we are when pleasing others is no longer the price of fitting in.

      Oh, I could write books. Hey, wait a minute…

  2. Stepping into any new job, I may see things more clearly than folks that have been there for awhile and are stuck in traditional ways of thinking. Depending on my role, I make observations and ask questions and share suggestions. Other times, I keep my thoughts to myself when I get a sense that folks aren’t quite ready for change or ready to receive new insight.

  3. When I start a new job, I look at what instructions there are for me to do my job, and then I think of the best way for me to do it. I remember working at a particular place and while someone was showing me how to run reports, she always ran each different report on a particular computer, she was under the impression that only that computer could run that report. I explained to her that she could run them in any order she wished or all on one computer, she had no idea.

    • And how much time had she wasted, limiting herself to that one computer?! Makes you wonder why switching teams isn’t standard good management practice. The CIA moves people around a lot, but they do it in part so nobody “goes native,” that is, becomes more loyal to the local connections than to the overall organization.

      I betcha the soft benefit of that policy is a lot of honest feedback about any one location is functioning.

  4. I was the stranger last summer when I moved to another group at work.
    It was a hectic time for the group and many changes took place. I worked to insure that the changes were communicated and updated. If a question was asked, I researched it. If I needed to stay late to resolve customer issue or a coworkers question, I stayed late. Over time, the group members saw me as reliable and a good communicator. These qualities helped me transition from stranger to leader.

    • That business about communicating is so important, and so neglected in many organizations. One of the things that amazes me about self-publishing is the speed of adaptation among authors who are on the chat loops. If somebody has a bright idea, they share it. If somebody has an idea that failed miserably, they share that too.

      Much efficiency is gained, and much innovation is facilitated by rapid, open communication. The other assumption on the loops is that we’re not competing with each other–there are enough readers for every author with a good product to enjoy “enough” success. It’s different from most corporate environments I’ve been in, and I like the results something ferocious.

  5. I moved around a lot through out childhood. I was never able to make lasting friendships. I was quiet and I observed those around me. You really get to know those around you, and you know which ones that would be the kind of friend you want.I was a substitute for many years before I got my job in special education. I always felt like a newcomer , but I learned to not take it to heart when I was ignored all day. One school had awesome teachers that would reach out and become your friend. I was lucky to be hired in that school and work there for two years and was transferred. Luckily, the school I was transferred to has been as welcoming. Unfortunately, at the end of this school year I will be transferred again to Jr. High. I am not looking forward to it, but I will try to stay positive. Through it all I have noticed that any job is like high school. Full of Drama.

    • You are probably very effective in your job, because you know exactly what those kids go through every day of their lives. Always the different one, always on the outside looking in, always having in some way to translate what others take for granted, be it language, behavior, emotion, learning styles.

      ANY school is lucky to have you, Ann, and I’m sure the kids figure that out very quickly.

  6. I’ve been the new comer at several jobs. I always notice the cliques first. I guess I’m scoping out which people I will likely gravitate towards and it’s good to know which people you should avoid.

    • Oh, the cliques.I first became aware of them in third grade. By fifth grade, the bullying had started. Where does that stuff come from? I understand that we like to hang with people we enjoy, but how does that, at a very young age, morph into a need to marginalize everybody else?

      We’re not chickens, for heaven sake.

  7. Having moved a number of times as an adult, the thing I’ve most noticed as a new person is how similar people are everywhere! Also, I’ve found it very rewarding to try and see what others see in me upon first meeting and working to become better, stronger, kinder based on the reception I get.

    • Catherine, we really are more the same than we’re different. I think this is true of men and women, grown ups and children, Americans and Koreans, you name it. There are substantial areas of commonality between any two members of the species, and more of us should be like you, and focus on those shared traits rather than the differences.

  8. As an Army brat, we moved a lot. I married an Army brat. We didn’t move so much. But when we did, we tried to move to old neighborhoods so that there were families similar to ours. We shared common experiences and assimilated fairly quickly. Then came the time when “Mom” went to work. Ugh! No friendly faces. Competition for praise in work projects. Second ugh! 25 years passed. Retirement, thank the Lord. Now we are back to friendly neighborhoods full of folks like us. So the comparison is silent on the job, talking and sharing with neighbors.

    • I would not have thought to search for homes that way, Anne, or not consciously. I look for big trees–I kid you not. Maybe that’s another way of finding the same sort of environment.

  9. When I start a new job I’m not super chatty. Instead I listen, focus on following instructions and learning the aspects of the job. My co-workers have always praised me for being a good listener.

    • I wish in school we’d focus as much on teaching listening and group problem solving skills as we do on the core curriculum stuff. I was well into being a parent when I came across these aspects of communication and collaboration in a graduate program. Listening is such a powerful, fundamental skill, and you’ve probably known that all along. Some of us aren’t that quick on the uptake.

  10. Like most people, when I’ve found myself in a new situation (social or work) I do my best to soak up as much knowledge as possible. More likely to ask questions than offer perspectives right off the bat.

    However, once I am comfortable I don’t hesitate to offer ideas and suggestions. I guess I’ve been fortunate (especially in my work life) that I’ve been surrounded by people who appreciated and encouraged new ideas and perspectives.

    • You must also have a sense of how to present those ideas so they come across as constructive rather than competitive or destructive, Mary. All the bright ideas in the world go nowhere if they’re foghorned without a thought for how people might be affected by them.

  11. I was the newcomer/outsider throughout most of my school years, I attended 12 different schools, four in the fifth grade alone because we moved a good many times. I don’t know that I observed much because I’ve always been introverted, and because we were very poor at times I learned to depend on no one but myself. I worked to put myself through my senior year of high school and later while I earned an associate’s degree in library technology, though I never worked in the field.

    • Molly, in my experience, introverts are often good observers. They may not enjoy being around people all the time, but they keep their eyes and ears open.

      I should have pegged you for a librarian. You’re certainly a book lover, you have a real eye for detail, and you like knowing how things work.

  12. I work in a Quality Assurance Dept. and a few years ago we took over QA of a group that had been doing self QA for years. It was a painful transition, but my group was able to look at processes with fresh eyes and ask questions about why things were done they way they were. Our questions lead to process improvements and helped save the company money and create a better customer experience. Now we have a good relationship with that department and we are able to work together to find efficiencies.

    • QA is a hard job, but done right, everybody benefits from its application, the customers AND the employees. I’ve seen QA be about fingerpointing rather than problem-solving, though, and that’s not pretty.

  13. Great article…it made me think. When I was in graduate school, I did an internship at a national laboratory. Normally, I would be standoffish in a situation like this, the peon in a high-tech situation, NOT feeling confident in myself, my knowledge, and my own skin. But I decided to step outside my comfort zone, risk being myself, fake a little confidence with a what-the-heck attitude. It turned out to be a great summer. My new ideas on how to do an old job were accepted and implemented. I learned that I do have something to contribute if I’ll just get past my own insecurities at being the new person.

    Have safe travels!

    • I’m off to Europe, and that means flying over the ocean. I must really, really want to go, huh? And yes, I’ll be in Scotland part of the time too. Haven’t bought my return ticket yet… don’t tell my cats.

  14. When I was 10 we moved from Southern California to a small town outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Major culture shock. One of the good things I noticed was the manners of the Georgia children. All the teachers were Miss, Ms, Mrs, or Mr. Most adult women were Ms (or Miss). Every response to an adult ended with a “Ma’am” or “Sir”.

    • And they all probably took those manners for granted. I bet you also put those manners on your own kids. I was six when I started spending some summers in San Diego. My rural PA upbringing did not prepare me for the self-possessed, appearance conscious, materialistic focus of the kids I found there. I could not get back to my green pastures fast enough, nor resent those forced beach summers bitterly enough.

  15. The most obvious time I was a stranger was when I spent a semester in college studying in France. I observed and listened a lot, but I also made myself get out and explore the city more than I normally would — sometimes with a friend, sometimes on my own. The funny thing is, about halfway through my trip I discovered that even some of the French students at the university would approach me for directions or information (maybe I just looked approachable).

    The not-as-obvious time I felt like a stranger was when I returned to my home college after that semester so that I could finish out my senior year. The friends who had NOT traveled abroad were still very much focused on their own lives and problems, while I felt much more interested in politics and world events and the viewpoint of other countries (which I had discovered in a BIG way while I was in France). I suppose I kept some of that to myself, but gradually I learned to make friends with people who WANTED to see a bigger world.

    I hope your travels this year will give you new worlds to discover, Grace — and I know we will all enjoy the fruits of your discoveries in future writings!

    • Jennifer, I had a chance to spend three months in Europe right after college. It surely changed my view of the world, and of my country. Also made me really envious of a continent where diverse cultures could co-exist (at present) in close proximity. I will never stop envying the people who grow up hearing multiple languages. I can haz a jellus!

  16. I do usually keep things to myself because I’m introverted. Unless it’s in business, then I speak up because I want my business to succeed

    • I’m introverted too–really, really introverted. For me that doesn’t necessarily mean shy, so much as it means that being around other people, I lose energy. I need solitude to recharge. Even when I enjoy being around other people, I still need that alone time.

      I try to keep my mouth shut anyway (with limited success) unless I have something constructive or encouraging to say. World has enough noise.

  17. Recently we moved from our home of 35 years to a retirement community in another state. Initially I was anxious that I would never feel at home like I did in my old home. That was never the case. My new neighbors were warm and inviting since we all had given up the “old” for a new experience. I concluded that shared experience negates the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. And, no, I didn’t keep it to myself. I have tried to pay it forward.

    • The magic of summer camp all over–except you get to stay up past your bedtime. My parents are still in the house they’ve lived in for forty years, and I wish they’d swap that view of the ocean for some human interaction. Dad will go all week without leaving the house unless he has a doc appointment, and Mom’s almost as bad.

      You did the smart move, Dot. You chose when to simplify and downsize, you chose the next step. I WISH my parents had your courage.

  18. So, I’ve glanced through the comments. School and work take up so much of our lives. I hope we all like what we’re doing. 🙂

    • A-absolutely-men. I tell my daughter over and over: Do what you love. Do what you’d do even if you never got paid for it, then do it some more. Life is too short to put off the fun parts.

  19. Hi Grace! Because your email asks that we make a comment on your Blog for faster response, I will. Twice now I have e-mailed you asking why the only copy of WORTH that Amazon sells is 6″x9″!! I sure hope this is not the size of your up-coming books. How can I re-order WORTH in the normal paperback size? By the way, what is “self-publishing” and why are you doing it? Thanks again, Kathleen

    • Kathleen, I promise you, I am NOT getting those emails! This is a worry, because if I’m not getting yours, then I wonder what other balls I’m dropping–I’ll ask my web folks to look into this.

      To answer your very reasonable question, Amazon sells two sizes of print book for Trenton, and Worth (and will for Hadrian): essentially 6 x 9, and 5 x 8, priced at $5.34 and $8.54 respectively. These are among the few sizes Amazon will create and sell for an author who is not publishing through a traditional publishing house. Amazon will not print a mass market paperback book for an independent author.

      I think that decision has to do with the technology used to print books on an as-they’re-ordered basis. Rather than printing 300 books, sending them to book stores (expensive shipping), then having the book store ship back 127 unsold (also expensive), the print on demand approach only prints a copy of the book when an order is received. This usually means a higher price ($8.54), so I was very pleased to see the $5.34 price.

      Independent, or indie, authorship means the author directly pays for the services a publishing house usually provides–cover art, copy editing, proofreading, developmental editing, formatting, publicity, uploading on retail sites, and more. This means the author maintains creative control. The author decides when the book comes out, at what price (for ebooks), where, and how long it’s on sale.

      Self publishing means the author keeps all the control, and that’s the most common reason people point to when they decide to self publish. You choose the title, you write the back cover copy, you decide if you include an excerpt in the back from your last book or your next one.

      • Self publishing also means the author takes on all of the risk. An author can pay thousands for production services, and sell very few copies of the book. If the book does sell, though, the percentage of the price that goes to the author is substantially higher.

        On my self published print books, I’m pricing the books as low as Amazon will let me. I make no profit on them, because I know the self publishing print arrangement will usually create higher prices for most sizes. On my ebooks, I’m able to offer readers a lower price ($3.99) and still make MORE per book than I would if the book were traditionally published.

        I’m a print reader, but I read all kinds of books, so the trade paperback size doesn’t bother me. For the readers who don’t care for trade paperback size, I hope the mass market option will soon become available. Publishing technology is changing fast, and that has to be one change we’ll see soon.

        Finally, of the thirteen titles I have coming out this year, only Trenton, Worth and Hadrian will be self-published. Every other full length novel will be available in mass market print size, as will all but three of the books next year.

        I wanted to learn how to self publish, because I consider that one option every author ought to knowledgeably consider. I also want some titles that, at my discretion, I can offer to readers free, or in a bundle, or for a deep discount. The only way to have that flexibility is for me to self publish the titles. Then too, publication of a title through a traditional publishing house takes at least a year, while self publishing can get the book to readers much more quickly. I like that too!

  20. One of the hardest experience for me was when in 2008 I got my first job as nurse in a very well known hospital here in MA. I was so happy about it… so absolutely in love and excited about being a nurse. I was coming from a great work place with co-workers that I loved (worked in Human Services for 11 years. I was totally unprepared for the hospital environment. No pun intended but its a sick place to work. Some nurses are absolutely wonderful teachers and mentors. Some others are HORRIBLE individuals that should never work as nurses… they “eat their young” … it took a year for me to loose the joy of working in the hospital. I LOVE being a NURSE – no question about that – but I absolutely hated working in the hospital – I love home care and public health. So in home care with every new patient I get I am the stranger in the situation. I tell every new client that 1) I am not an expert in their health but I am there to learn and help them; 2) I am not there to boss or bully them into following anything I say – I am there to make suggestions and instruct so they can choose to make informed decisions; 3) I am not an intruder on their routine or way of life – I am there to support them, to help them to move along towards their baseline towards being healthier again! It works for me … it helps me to put them at ease and we communicate better.
    I think being the stranger sometimes is a real blessing because you are given a chance for a new beginning, a clean slate!

    • OK, I need for you to transfer to the San Diego area. A couple of geezers in my family desperately need that attitude. One physical therapist in particular about had my dad in tears…. we excused her from further visits, and everybody was much happier.

      There’s a triangle in the mental health field: Victim, Predator, Rescuer. Everybody on that triangle is at the mercy of their pathology. The folks like you, who operate from an ethic of empowerment, are the solution to getting all three parties free of the triangle.

  21. “An occasional visitor sees all faults” – in Hebrew it rhymes and is a popular idiom.
    I often find myself in this position, and I think it must be an art form to be able to refrain from commenting as a newcomer 😉

    • Or an art form to comment so your perspective comes across constructively… even when you’re not the newcomer (say, when you’re the parent, the spouse, the boss, the friend….) I love the proverb.

  22. I came from India when I was thirteen. I had attended an English school there ran by catholic nuns, though not taught religion, but strict manners. In NYC, I was placed in a public middle school in Queens NYC. It was a shock to my system. These middle school children were poorly behaved, rude to teachers, cursing, badmouthing each other, often having physical fights. These native born English speakers had poor diction, and language skills compared to my English. I am not sure I said this to anyone at that time, but I certainly hated my time there. I still think that the manners I learned in India, and the respect we pay our teachers there, and respect for knowledge, is an attitude that would greatly benefit children here and perhaps cause less troublesome behavior.

    • That disrespect seems to come from a lack of gratitude. I took my daughter to Brazil when she was nine, and we were not visiting a ritzy hotel, we were visiting family who were in country with their church.

      Beloved Offspring saw what it was to live without shoes, plumbing, transportation, electricity… Travel broadens the mind, but it also expands the heart.

  23. Oh, my. After retiring from teaching in the hurly burly of a middle school for many years, I’m now working half time in a small law office (six lawyers sharing a floor). Talk about culture shock — black is the only clothing color (enlivened by the occasional beige), everyone eats at his/her desk, conversations are all quiet, and except for the phone ringing once in awhile, the place is practically tomb-like, with everyone squirreled away working like fiends. Teaching can be a lonely job in terms of adult contact, but I feel anonymous here, even after more than six months. It’s not that anyone is actively unfriendly, and indeed, many of the women seem to be good friends with each other. I’ve concluded that it’s partly the driving work ethic, partly my half-time appearances there, and partly that I’m buried in a corner in my own little space. It’s slowly starting to change, but it’s a challenge to the ego to move from being a well-established and welcome member of a large, somewhat nutty workplace to being the outsider. Danged if I’ll change my colorful wardrobe, though.

    • Wear those color, my friend! Your practice might be the exception, but lawyers in general aren’t good at boundaries and balance. We either treat everything too analytically, or we go off half-cocked, zealously advocating as if every case were a Supreme Court matter.

      We’re not a profession where supervision or even peer review is built into how we do our thing. We expect to be entirely responsible for our cases, and if we ask a colleague around the water cooler for a second opinion, that’s as much collaboration as we do.

      An odd profession. That said, I like most of the lawyers I’ve worked with, especially the ones with some humor.

  24. As a recent hire at a small organization, I began to notice that the organization tended to only recognize efforts that characterized extrovert employees, while the more silent – yet no less valuable – efforts of behind-the-scenes introvert types remained unrecognized. I gently pointed this out to one of the managers, who found a way to quietly reward the back office employees without embarrassing them. I found through this experience that making people feel valued is priceless. (Also, that sometimes an outside perspective is necessary to spot things that in hindsight, might seem very obvious.)

    • WOW. I betcha if you changed your name to Stephen Covey and wrote a book about that observation, you’d be taking all of us to lunch. EXCELLENT point, and it probably bleeds out into all manner of environments.

  25. I moved & started in a new school in 9th grade. By the 3rd day of school, we had to pick our permanent lunch table for the school year. I was lucky, in that a group of girls noticed that I was new & asked me if I wanted to sit with them. I think things would have gone very differently with out that insight & support from those girls, who became my friends.