How to Learn from People Who Aren’t Like You

Deliberately or not, it seems we choose to work with people who are just like us.

“You subconsciously look for points of similarity in everyone you meet because similarities make you feel safer”, crowed a recent Forbes article

The article reminded me of those distant times when I recruited the wrong people, just because something about them felt ‘right’.  In reality, I’d probably sensed that we were a bit alike, not that they’d be any good at the jobs I was advertising for.

(Particularly those jobs that didn’t require an innate sense of awkwardness, a seething hatred of small talk, and an annoying ability to criticise the little things).

(To all my former employers, I’m sorry).

I’ll confess that even now, the clients I like the most are the ones who are similar to me. 

If I have to explain my thought processes, my working methods, or the way I calculate my costs in too much intricate detail, a tidal wave of indignation washes over me.

They don’t get it.  We’re not the right fit. 

The real truth is this: I don’t want anybody to question or challenge the way I am.  That way, I can stay in my bubble and not have to change.

(I’ve been assured that that’s normal.  Honest).

Where this approach really falls down, however, is when it comes to learning new things.  If we choose only to work with people who are like us, how can we possibly stretch ourselves in the right ways?

It’s fine, if you’re learning in name only.  If all you want is to say you’re working on something new and exciting, so you can talk about how clever you are on social media.

I’ve definitely fallen into that trap before.

But since I’ve been working for myself, I’ve had to step right outside of my comfort zone, if you’ll excuse the bland turn of phrase.

I suppose it all started with Careershifters, and the intensive, eight-week course I took when I realised a career in HR was no longer for me.

The process involved joining a private Facebook group consisting of over 100 people – something that, as a confirmed introvert, I would never normally choose to do.  I worried about being drowned in a sea of clamouring voices, and I considered cancelling the course before it had even started.

I stayed put only because I had no idea how to change career on my own, and I was desperate for something interesting to happen.  So I held my breath, I threw myself into the group, and I actually became one of those clamouring voices I worried so much about.

The result was that I did manage to change my career, and I’m still going strong as a freelance writer almost four years later. 

It happened mostly because I followed advice and learned from the experiences of people who were nothing at all like me.

These days, if I want to learn something new, I don’t try to find someone just like me to teach it.  Instead, I think about everything you need to be really good at it, and then I seek someone out with those exact qualities.

That’s how I ended up learning how to be more personally creative from a vibrant, extroverted coach who doesn’t live in her head, but out in the real world.

I became sharper, less distracted, and focused enough to write and publish three books, partly because I took a course created by a computer science professor who specialises in tech-free living.

Then I learned how to be more engaging and spontaneous through joining an improvised comedy group, full of warm, funny, and interesting people.

(I also learned Russian from a fearsome native speaker, but I fear her terrifying qualities were far more like mine than I’d care to admit).

The moral of the story?  No matter how scary it seems, learning from difference will benefit you much, much more than the comfy mediocrity that similarity brings.

So, as we head into a brand-new year, what would you most like to learn?

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