Swimming Upstream

When I was in high school I had a teacher tell me I liked to swim upstream. I remember thinking it was a compliment and felt pretty good about myself. I'm not entirely sure why I assumed this was a good thing, but I do remember being glad to know I wasn't falling in line with everyone else.

Then one day in college during an interview for an internship the editor asked me about my opinions regarding print journalism. It was 2004 and digital was just starting to emerge. I told him I thought newspapers were in trouble, that if editors didn't take the web seriously they would be out of a job in a few years, and that it was time to admit brands were going to be able to make their own content and bypass typical channels. 

He almost laughed. Not so much at me, but I think at the conviction I had. He hired me, but in our exit interview a few months later when I asked him what he thought of me, he told me I was going to have a hard time probably. Mostly because I was someone who liked to swim upstream and beat to my own drum. 

It felt a little less good to hear that this time. 

Since then I've been told this countless times. I've been told I need to just understand this is how the world works, and that I need to stop pushing and maybe something positive will happen. I've been told I think different, but don't think different and therefore am always trying to pound in a nail that won't go in. 

And to be blunt every time I hear it, it stings a bit more. It sting because on one side it's a reason people are drawn to me and my inquisitive nature. It's what gives me permission to ask questions and be a critical thinker. But the second that engagement is over, it's as if my critical thinking and questions are in the way of the next step. 

Now in no way is this a please-feel-sorry-for-me piece. I'll wear the fact that I'm swimming upstream proudly, and it's served me well over the course of my career. Rather, I bring this up because as leaders we are quick to tell others who they are and how they fit into the box we believe is the correct format. 

My challenge is to think about the narrative you have in your head, and how that narrative translates to the feedback you're giving your team. Is there a box you are trying to fit everyone into? Is there a group of employees that don't fit that mold? Are you telling them they are swimming upstream? 

If so, I'm curious, where are they going? And is it important for you and your organization?