When I was five I attended the pre-school run by the early childhood development psychology students at my parents’ University. One day they called my mother asking her to come observe me. My teachers were concerned about my behavior and my lack of “fitting in” with the other children.
As she sat behind the two-way mirror, my mother watched as I set out to play with the blocks. After a few minutes of play, the other children followed. I then left the blocks to play in the miniature kitchen. Again, after a few minutes, my classmates followed. I left the kitchen for the reading nook where the other children soon tagged along… you get the picture.
“See?!” they were triumphant. “She’s anti-social!” As if they’d identified the next sociopath in training.
My mother took a deep, patient breath.
“Laura has two younger sisters at home,” she explained. “Maybe she doesn’t want to share?”
My mother is the oldest of four. She knows about the need for space. Thank God for her practicality. I could have endured a lifetime of medication, special classes, tutors, therapy and general scrutiny when all I really wanted was to be left alone to forge my own path and leave the pack behind.
Listening to my mother tell this story years later I thought – “What about labeling me a Leader? Or better yet, a Pioneer?”
Lord knows I’ve tried to belong, to fit in, be the same. And if you met me, you’d think I was doing a damned good job of it. I mean, for the most part, I look pretty regular.
But the problem is, I’m not regular.
And if you’re reading this, I bet you’re not regular either.
Here are some lessons I’ve learned about carving out my own life path:
Pioneers are the bridge walkers between tribes, but never feel they belong to the tribe.
My enthusiastic teachers were of the belief, and rightly so, that in order to survive, we need the tribe. And for many years I too believed I needed a tribe. But I never quite fit in to just one tribe. In elementary school my parents were pro-integration and I was bussed to Martin Luther King Jr., elementary school. Gathering among other 3rd and 4th graders singing “We Shall Overcome” I swelled with pride that we were going to change the world.
I was part of a tribe, but it never really felt like my tribe.
A few years later when I changed schools I was like that lost duck in the book “Are You My Mother?” searching for my mother duck, my safety zone of a tribe I could call my own.
I never quite fit in, although I fit in, if you know what I mean.
I could morph and change like a chameleon, mold myself to any tribe. I used to joke “If you drop me in the middle of nowhere I’ll figure out how to say enough words so people think I speak the language and I’ll start to dress and talk like everyone else.” This actually happened the year I lived in Uruguay. After about 9 months I started dreaming in Spanish and haggling at the market like I’d been there my whole life.
And then I went back to New York and put on my pearls and sensible pumps, riding the #4 train down to the financial district with my black leather Schlesinger briefcase and the Wall Street Journal tucked under my arm.
I now know I’m not here to belong to “a tribe.” I’m a gate-keeper who walks amongst the tribes, connecting them to each other. Which means fitting in everywhere and nowhere, belonging and never belonging.
Pioneers are willing to leave their zone of comfort time and time again, starting over, from scratch.
For each life transition, I’ve had to be open to learning new things and apprenticing with those who knew more than me. (And even those younger than me!) Ego took a backseat. And that’s hard, believe me. I desperately want to stick to what I know, what I’m good at, where I have expertise.
But Pioneering is not about pulling out your resume and long list of credentials, it’s about forging the path into the unknown. The ego (MY ego) despises the unknown.
(For more on this see my most recent blog, There is No Net)
Pioneers are catalysts, always on the edge, blazing a trail.
I can’t tell you how many people have acted on an idea I gave them, or succeeded at something I suggested and not even realized it came from me. For a while I felt like I wasn’t getting the credit I deserved, but I now realize my role is to catalyze people into motion. It doesn’t matter how it happens, it just matters that it happens.
Pioneers don’t reap the benefits. They – well, Pioneer – they are the pathfinder, the initiator, the trailblazer - bushwhacking through unknown territory with a machete, getting all bit up by mosquitoes. They search for that next ridge over the horizon to see more clearly ahead, while others settle down and build camp.
Pioneers reap the rewards from the journey, not from the outcome.
Pioneering in and of itself is the reward of being out on the cutting edge. I’ve learned that in order to pioneer change for others I need to be willing to leave the comfortable cozy nests I’ve built ... And precisely in the moment when I feel like I should be reaping the greatest reward for all my hard work and effort, THAT is exactly when it’s time to move on. This may sound self-sabotaging, and I am sure others might have thought that about some of my crazy leaps in life.
But I know it’s soul-reclaiming. And that with each venture out of the box of normalcy, conformity and tribal expectation, I grow exponentially.
In the moments of my greatest discomfort I discover what I’m truly made of.
Are you Tribal? Or do you walk amongst the tribes? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.
“A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things
more than the things themselves.” –Willa Cather, O Pioneers
I’ve created a lovely women's retreat – a temporary tribal experience if you will, for those seeking to connect more deeply with themselves, nature and other powerful women on a path of transformation in Northern California October 24th-27th if you feel called, I’d love to have you join us. Click here to read more and see if it’s something that speaks to you. We have space for one more person.