Today’s topic is near and dear to my heart: the often discussed idea of ‘immigrant mentality’. So many of the inspiring leaders, with whom I have had the privilege of working, had the experience of–one way or another–of being displaced. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I see diverse cultures now calling this place home. Including me. Home used to be a rather different culture for me. 

At our retreats, we review the formative events of the person’s life to date. Many CEOs open up about their immigrant history, either their own displacement or of their parents. Shifting to a new culture positions us to feel a little different, perhaps “not fitting in”, “alien”, or “peculiar”. In some way with more to prove. I feel all of these feelings. 

I immigrated from London to the US in 1994. I never completely felt part of the culture even in England. My family background is an immigrant tale. My great-grandfather lived the real-life “Fiddler on the Roof” story - forced out of Poland in the early 1900s. Almost everyone has a displacement story not too deep in their family history. In myself and in my clients, I’ve been exploring this feeling of not fitting in or having to do extra to belong. 

There is a constructive side but also a challenging side to this mentality.

From a positive angle – it is highly motivating to people. When we move from one culture to another, people get used to the idea of hard work and sacrifice. There is little time for jealousy or complaint. If I have to do more than the person next to me to succeed, that’s okay. Perspective broadens. Attachments are set free. The feeling of being an outsider can be quite powerful, especially for those destined to be entrepreneurs. This mentality makes you think out of the box and permits us to do something different to stand out and be great.

From the negative angle –  it’s painful sometimes. To feel like you don’t belong or have to do extra to fit in is draining. There is a constant underlying anxiety. A separation that, in spite of all the efforts to be good and do well, can never be traversed.  

Successful leaders are those who embrace this kind of anxiety and discomfort. At a recent gathering of coaches, we were the traits most commonly exhibited by our stand out clients. Our take: they embrace discomfort. Whether it is feeling on the outs, unfairly treated, or shamed even, the most remarkable leaders know how to feel it. Feel it and do nothing else with it. Use the discomfort as fuel. Of course, it is not just about immigration. There are a plethora of ways that others feel inequality–such as race or gender. Being hurt by the privilege of others is a common feeling in humanity. Even those born into obvious privilege have painful stories to tell.   

As one client (from an immigrant family) put it to me recently: “you got to cozy up to being uncomfortable”. 

Today I invite you to explore this within yourselves. Feel into the ways you are an outsider. Be willing to experience that discomfort. Maybe it feels like anxious or alone, unfairly treated or not good enough, a disappointment or a hurt, even special or superior.

Stay with it long enough to access the positive motivational power that is in us and the people we work and live with. When we access that outsider energy, that immigrant mentality–consciously being with it without acting from it–we can inspire people to feel more energized or think differently! To extract the power from the feeling… cozy up to the discomfort.

All the best,

David Lesser