Thursday, June 26, 2014

The problem of difference

Are you the odd one out?
Difference can be a thorny subject can't it? Often differences of opinion can lead to disagreement and conflict, from a personal level to an international level.

We are often completely "right" in our own mind, and can be surprised when not everyone sees the situation or issue in the same way as us!

Difference doesn't necessarily mean wrong. Life is generally more grey than black and white, which means that while we're in this world we need to learn to live in the tension of difference with those around us (and in ourselves).

How we handle difference is really important, and we can either handle it in a negative or a positive way.
"Difference doesn't necessarily mean wrong..."
On the negative side, difference can become a reason to exclude, to isolate, to ridicule. I'm sure many of us growing up experienced this either directly or indirectly - maybe we knew (or we were) the different kid, the black sheep, the one who saw the world differently to their peers.

Comparison can be really tough to deal with, whether it's put on us by others, or whether internally we (negatively) compare ourselves to others. The thing is, we're all unique people with unique combinations of skills. As the saying goes: "Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live it's whole life believing that it's stupid."

It can be hard to handle difference. A friend of mine has dyslexia, but when he was growing up in the late 70s and early 80s it wasn't something that was well understood in mainstream education. When sitting an exam, he'd been given instructions to write at the top of his exam paper that he was dyslexic (at least a hint that this would be taken sympathetically into account by the examiners). The problem is that the word dyslexia is hard to spell even if you don't suffer from it. He ended up writing 'I am bloody stupid' at the top of his paper. An example of a school not handling difference well - this was probably what he felt he'd been told he was (when in fact he is very bright and entrepreneurial).
"...our society seems to value conformity over diversity."
So how do we nurture difference? How do we handle it in a positive way? I heard an unverified story in the news recently that in North Korea a diktat went out that all men needed to copy their leader's haircut. We don't have this requirement here in the UK, but as the educationalist Ken Robinson says, our society seems to value conformity over diversity.

Are we afraid of difference?
There's a theory that the phobia of spiders and snakes is something inherent from back in the depths of history - fear of difference being a prehistoric defence mechanism.

The idea goes that we are naturally predicated to be wary of creatures that are so different to us - giant hairy spiders and poisonous snakes being very different in form to four limbed mammals like ourselves (the theory also suggests this is why we bond so well with cats and dogs, as they're more similar to us).

I don't know how well accepted this theory is in scientific circles, but it does illustrate the point that we can find it hard to relate to those different to us, and even to fear difference.

It's so easy to surround ourselves with people who are like us. At university I remember that folk tended to naturally gravitate towards their own "tribe", but there's a richness in diversity that we can miss out on if we only spend time with those who think and behave like us. As a start, recognising that we all think and learn in different ways can begin to help us relate to individuals who are very different to us.
"Instead of being afraid of difference, or of being different, perhaps we should embrace it."
Instead of being afraid of difference, or of being different, perhaps we should embrace it. I was in a meeting recently discussing how to capture good ideas in our company. Many of these are 'slow hunches', incremental improvements to processes or approaches to the everyday things.

The interesting question was raised: How do we capture the radical ideas, the crazy plans which don't fit the company strategy or business plan but are still worth exploring? I'm not sure there's an easy answer to this, but I have learnt in my line of work that there is rarely one right answer, and there many different ways of approaching a problem.

Two heads are definitely better than one, and I actively seek out the ideas of my team and my peers around the company to the problems we are tasked with solving. It's really helpful to compare notes with other people who might "see" the issue in a completely different way.

Don't conform...
'They laugh at me because I'm different, I laugh at them because they're all the same'. 

The other side of the difference coin is about "saminess", bland conformity. It can be easy to tone down our uniqueness in an attempt to fit in, but on the basis that we've each been given a unique remit by a loving God, our mission in life is to make the most of our specific gifts and celebrate these instead of downplaying them.

It's not just businesses who need to have a "Unique Selling Point" - every one of us has a specific role to play.

I've been inspired recently by John Henry Newman's writings on this subject.

 'I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by my name. God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.'

So this week, let's not worry about our differences, let's stop comparing ourselves to others, start embracing our uniqueness and enjoy living in the rich 'greyness' of the world around us. 

Stay different folks!


Thanks for taking the time to read The Problem of Difference. If you've enjoyed it please share it with your friends on social media! Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here). Please nominate my podcast for an award during July 2015 - press the big red button here.

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Emily Twin Mummy and Daddy said...

Lovely post. I agree it's easy to compare and make judgements, but we're all the same inside. Totally agree about not worrying about our differences. #anythinggoes

Mum's Hideout said...

I'm pleased to know my fear of spiders may have a scientific basis, I feel a bit less silly now!
I enjoyed reading this very thoughtful post.

Random Musings said...

Really enjoyed this. I agree society on the whole doesn't like people who are different. I think life would be really boring if we all had the same opinions on everything!
Thanks for linking up to #AnythingGoes

Unknown said...

Great message there. Celebrate differences and embrace them. I try to teach that same message to the children in my class :) #bigfatlinky