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12/15/2014 10:43 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How The 'Quirk' That Caused You Grief Can Lead To Something Wonderful

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By Alexandra Robbins

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Taylor. When she sat down to eat lunch in her school cafeteria, the girls she'd once called friends stood up and moved to another table. They had cast Taylor out of their clique because instead of going to parties with them on weekends, she'd stay home and write songs on her guitar. The outsider landed a development deal with a record company and moved with her parents to Nashville. She would go on to become the first artist since the Beatles -- and the only woman -- to record three consecutive albums that spent six or more weeks at number one. Taylor Swift (maybe you've heard of her?) is still writing songs and once told a Nebraska audience, "What does it matter if you didn't have any friends in high school when you've got 15,000 of your closest friends coming to see you in Omaha?"

Swift is a spectacular example of what I call quirk theory: the idea that the differences that might make young people feel alienated are often the ones that win them admiration and respect in adulthood. By quirk I mean an inborn quality, desire, or interest you can't deny. I came up with quirk theory after interviewing hundreds of quirky students, tracking some of them from high school into college; asking quirky adults about their transition from student to grown-up; and poring over psychological and sociological studies to determine why some kids are excluded and what they have in common. Here's my discovery: Each of the adults said the difference that caused them grief in school eventually led to something wonderful. And when they kept nurturing that quality, it continued to give them an advantage.

Swift's quirk was a deep passion for music, but for you it might have been a talent for drawing that kept you in the art studio during lunch period or high-flying ambition that had you studying on Friday nights. Maybe you had an offbeat sense of style. Or loved nothing more than Space Camp. Or were really into Dungeons & Dragons.

In adolescence, any kind of difference can cause you suffering. An eighth grader I interviewed told me, "I have to be the same as everybody else, or people won't like me." Children and teens prize sameness because their still-maturing brains haven't fully developed the ability to navigate complex social relationships. Kids believe that their circle is stronger if their friends are similar. Plus, the process of figuring out how we fit into the world makes us understandably insecure -- and one way to deflect insecurity is to point out others' differences to shift attention from our own.

But once you're an adult, being different can give you a huge leg up. Management consultant Gary Hamel, who's been called the world's most influential business thinker, writes that the path to success for companies includes leveraging what sets us apart. He encourages people to see "with eyes undimmed by precedent" -- a point of view we can use to embrace what makes us unique. After all, what defines every Next Big Thing? A spirit of innovation. And what lies at the heart of inventive thinking? A knack for seeing the world in a way no one else does. Difference is the quality that sets you apart on first dates and job interviews, that signals your singularity to potential friends. Embracing your quirk helps you become the you-est version of you and share that you-ness with the world. It's just a matter of figuring out your particular thing.

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