A version of this article appeared in the Essex Chronicle
Bestselling author Robert Kelsey has just written The Outside Edge with the aim of helping those that “don’t belong” succeed on their own terms
What does a white male know about being an outsider at work or in business? Since the publication of The Outside Edge: How Outsiders Can Succeed in a World made by Insiders I’ve been asked this question several times. It’s a fair one: not least because the media usually describes “outsiders” as those not from the clubby world of white-male insiders that, for millennia, have carved up the upper echelons of business, politics and the arts between them.
Dominant media outlets such as the BBC assume outsiders are people like Christine Legarde – the first female head of the IMF – or Tidjane Thiam, the first black-African CEO of a FTSE-100 company. Sure, they deserve praise for reaching the top while overcoming barriers. But being an outsider wasn’t one of them. Both were brought up within elite families, and attended the best Paris universities. They knew the rules and manners of being an insider: how to behave, what to say, who to know and what doors to knock on. They had insider knowledge, in other words: a code of conduct reserved for an insider elite.
So imagine knowing none of that. Imagine leaving a mid-Essex comprehensive (one that would, these days, find itself in “special measures”) with one O’level (in geography). And imagine having the uncouth accent, manners, slouch, dress-sense and – let’s face it – attitude that came with the territory for 1980s products of what can only be described as a “lowest common denominator” education system. And then imagine banging on those same doors – trying to break into the elite (privately-educated) salons of the London media industry.
That, my friend, is what being an outsider feels like. And it’s something people from Essex know all about, whether white, black, male, female, gay or straight.
Yet that’s just half the story. True outsiders feel estranged from their own social group and even their families. No matter what the occasion, true outsiders look around them and wonder why they cannot relate. Why they feel mentally distant – even alienated – from the jollity and bonhomie others enjoy.
Outsiders are culturally and psychologically adrift – rejecting their own group or tribe, and even their family, yet being unable to find another group to call their own, though some jump between groups in the effort. It’s a common phenomenon, especially from people suffering childhood stress in one form or another (family break-up, bullying, sibling rivalry) or who, in adolescence, develop what psychologists call an “identity crisis” – one lasting into adulthood and even middle age.
For normal careers, such traits are a disaster, as you’d expect. Cynicism, disrespect for authority, rebelliousness – all combine to make us ineffective, even troublesome, employees. We end up the office clown or the bitch or laggard or blamer: all signs that we’re on the outside, looking in – feeling like we don’t belong.
And yet outsiders also have positive traits – ones that could be highly effective in careers and business if only we knew how to employ them. For instance, many – if not most – outsiders are highly creative. They see things differently, which makes them inventive. They’re rule breakers: “out of the box” thinkers, often because they struggle when thinking “inside the box”.
Essex culture produces outsiders
Certainly, that describes me, but I think it describes many Essex men and women. Something in Essex culture produces creative people that disrespect authority – potentially as a reaction to suburban conformity but also in defiance of the snobbery we face when trying to integrate with artistic London cliques.
The county’s famous for it. Whether comedy (Russell Brand, Rik Mayall, Phil Jupitus, Dudley Moore), art (Grayson Perry, William Morris, Arthur Mackmurdo), music (Depeche Mode, Blur, Prodigy, Billy Bragg), or even literature (Jilly Cooper, Martina Cole, Tony Parsons), there’s something in the culture that produces – well – culture, though subversive culture that’s novel, confrontational and somehow rebelling against the London elite.
It’s the same in business. Shut-out from the wood-paneled boardrooms reserved for the old-school-tie, Essex men and women have taken their outsider status and used it to their advantage – generating some of Britain’s most famous entrepreneurs (Alan Sugar, Barry Hearn, David Sullivan, Deborah Meaden and even Jamie Oliver).
In fact, if there’s one thing all the people named above have in common it’s that they’re entrepreneurs. Whether in business or the arts, they’ve done their own thing – often going against the advice and warnings of others to do so: the classic attitude of the outsider.
Yet outsiders succeed not because they’re mavericks. That’s just the start. What they need are the key attributes for turning their creative or business genius into success. These include:
- A growth mindset – opening your mind to learning and opportunities.
- A plan. Dreams are not enough: a routemap is required.
- A strategy for getting through those shut doors – especially the ones saying “Essex man/woman not invited”.
- Influence over others – including the gift of persuasion.
- Judgement – helping you make strong decisions.
I guess hard work can be added to this, but – if there’s one thing most Essex people have in common – it’s a strong work ethic. Certainly, we’re grafters – an Essex trait that makes me proud to put my name to my homeland. Indeed, writing The Outside Edge has made me admire my home county and all its maverick “entrepreneurs”. I guess that now includes me, which is strange because – having rejected Essex as a young man battling my own identity issues – I now realise it’s the place that made me who I am.
I get it now: thanks Essex.