A Spotted Elephant, a bird that swims, a cowboy who rides an ostrich, or a train with square wheels on the caboose.
In the time-honoured story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, these are the misfits – the toys that did not quite turn out like the others. They are shunned by Santa and not considered useful since they do not look or work the same way as the traditional, common toy. They may not even fit into the box.
Sounds like a lot of people out there in the world of work.
These are the career misfits – a group of a people with a vibrant blend of skills, talents and experiences that makes them unique. Typically, they do something interesting on the side as volunteers or part-time entrepreneurs. Often, they have switched careers a couple of times, and usually have held a number of different job titles – many of which need explaining to others.
Career misfits rarely find a job posting or description that immediately speaks to them. They also spend much of their time explaining what they do, only to be met with bewilderment and confusion from others. Their careers don’t fit traditional paths like accountant, teacher, lawyer, marketing professional or any other generalization – because it puts them in a box they do not fit into.
Even when they come from one of those professional groups, deep down career misfits know they are so much more than their job title, and can do so much more if their work would give them a chance to do so. Unfortunately, many workplaces will not. Too many people in positions of hiring authority challenge misfits to 'dumb down’ what they are about, and conform to more traditional career profiles. The misfits are too quickly dismissed, mostly because they challenge others to think of them differently.
Unfortunately, today’s world of online job application forms (most with limited drop-down boxes for job categories), partly automated hiring processes, and the dreaded networking question – What do you do? – does not readily encourage the misfits to participate in traditional job-seeking processes as their authentic selves. And even when they do, they tend to be sidelined quickly, given that their backgrounds don’t follow the expected career curve.
But employers who have the courage or foresight to take a chance on a misfit tend not to be disappointed. Not only do the misfits add uniqueness and variety to the team skill set, they also motivate others to be or do something different, such as learn a new skill or pursue a side interest that will bring depth and breadth to their role. They encourage others to forget about fitting into a box, because boxes constrain lateral thinking and cross-discipline innovation, both of which misfits tend to thrive upon.
In many industries, it is the misfits who push boundaries: They bring lateral skills and experiences to conceptualize things in ways that create opportunities for their organizations and roles. They make others better at what they do, simply because they bring variety and encourage thinking in a non-judgmental approach. Misfits do not need or want people to think like them, because then they are not misfits anymore. They encourage others to draw out their inner misfit, because true talent needs to be cultivated to think and act outside the norms in order to develop the next horizon of business and social opportunities. Not surprisingly, many leaders and industry innovators would describe themselves this way.
This holiday season, you will likely encounter a career misfit at a party or networking event. If they don’t have a traditional “box” role, don’t run away – spend some time getting to know them. Probe to understand not what they do, but why they do it and what it means to them. Then think about how that misfit could add value to what your organization does, or to someone else’s. Their talent or passion may seem odd given the role or title they have, which might not make sense at first. Challenge yourself to look past that.
You may talk to a lawyer who needs to be in a place where they want to use their critical thinking and analytical skills for making communities thrive. You may speak to a teacher who would excel in environments that embrace idea generation and discussion, rather than traditional education. Above all, take some time to embrace the misfits you may encounter.
And if you are still wondering how a misfit can add value to your team of hardworking, dedicated reindeer, ask Santa about Rudolph.
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