Unapologetically You: Forget About Fitting In

by Jennifer Paros

July 2016

Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.

~ Tina Fey


When our oldest son was in elementary school, the principal told me he was a “square peg” struggling in, apparently, a round hole of an environment. Her suggestion: find him a square hole. I knew my son wasn’t always the most cooperative or conforming, but I was also not convinced her perception was fully accurate or useful. Because our financial resources were limited and we were uncertain as to where he should go, for better and for worse, we stayed the course.

Though things did improve, it wasn’t easy. For a while he regularly used the phrase, “My Miserable Life” to describe his experience. But once in middle school, he confessed one day that his life was no longer miserable. And the Square Peg was on his way – his way.

If the expectation is that we are here to fill a pre-made slot conceived by others, then concern about not fitting in is logical. But we don’t have to believe that. We make and own the space we occupy by fully being ourselves. My son didn’t need to contour himself to fit a standard made up by someone else; he also didn’t need to fight against that which didn’t fit him or demand that it contour to him. We fit in when we are comfortable with ourselves and encourage others to feel the same.

There are ways of being in an environment in which the climate does not exactly suit us, and still thrive.

On the television show, The Voice, (for the unfamiliar) there are four judges who select team members from those auditioning. The judges then coach and mentor the singers. Every week there are sing-offs, and some singers are chosen to continue on. In its most reduced form, the show is a contest.

In season 8, there was a sixteen-year-old named Sawyer Fredericks. Sawyer lived on a farm and was being homeschooled. He wrote, played, and sang his own music. His ability stood out right away, though he, himself, was an unassuming, private presence. In many ways, he did not fit with the climate of a big, public contest. In a post-show interview, he said, “When I was on the show, I didn’t really think of it as a competitive thing . . . I really wasn’t worrying about going home or moving forward. I was just thinking about it as a performance, and enjoying the moment.” When Fredericks didn’t mentally participate in the competition aspect of a competition, he gave himself creative control over his own experience. And so he was able to both not fit in, and fit in perfectly, so perfectly that he won.


I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations. They generally produce their worst work when they do that.

~ David Bowie


How does one participate in a competition/contest and not think about competing? Because of his focus, Fredericks was, essentially, playing his own game under the umbrella of another. In such a situation, the ready-made shapes, expectations, and even rules of external systems no longer determine our personal experience.

In an interview with Tina Fey on co-creating and writing the series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Fey describes her decision to mentally disengage from a current societal construct with which she disagrees. One of the shows offended a number of people and the Internet came to life with the accusation that the episode was “racist”. This is how Tina Fey responded.

“My new goal is not to explain jokes . . . they need to speak for themselves. There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”

Creative, innovative people sometimes don’t blend well with trending thought or the status quo, but it is because they are more consciously invested in their individuality, striving instinctively to be unapologetically themselves. The squarer peg is less interested in ready-made ideas and more excited by his own for a good reason: he is aware of needing those ideas to do what he most wants. In turn, he naturally customizes his place in society.

We are society and we are creating society. There is nothing to fit into. Diversity is a reality of life – and fitting into diversity is effortless. The drive to create from our own singular ideas, though more blatant in some, is in all of us. And there is no need to apologize for that drive – for being ourselves is our most valuable contribution.

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.

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