Are You Raising or Mentoring a Non-Conformist? My heart goes out to you. It is truly the most thrilling, wild, wonderful, rewarding and hair turning grey experience you will ever have. Behind every successful artist, entrepreneur, inventor, and world changer is an exhausted parent and or mentor. I know because I have raised three of my own and mentored many more.
This article will try to explain how to spot a non-conformist, how to shape and encourage them and how to survive the experience.
How do you define a non-conformist?
A nonconformist is someone who doesn’t conform to other people’s ideas of how things should be. They don’t walk to the beat of another drum, they dance, hop, and twirl to the beat of another drum on another planet. Highly creative people are found to exhibit personality traits such as being intelligent, non-conformist and unconventional, and open to experience. They have strong egos, and even have a mild form of madness. (source Wiki and Raising a Creative Child)
In a world of brown hippopotami, they are the pink flamingos. They are pretty easy to spot. Unfortunately, brown hippopotami do not understand, nor do they like pink flamingoes. The non-conformist has no trouble thinking outside the box because for them there is no box. In fact, in the first 20 years of their lives, you will spend your life applauding them for thinking outside the box and at the same time, trying endlessly to put them back inside the box.
For them to survive the institutions of life and all of the conformists in the world, of which there are many, you have to teach them to respect the boxes that people will build for them. At the same time, you need to encourage them that the way that they see the world is correct. Remind them that not everyone will see the world the way that they do and that is okay.
The really difficult thing is that these misfits and troubadours are very sensitive souls. It is hard for them when they are misunderstood. In my experience adults, teachers, leaders are sometimes the harshest critics in their lives when they are the ones that should be the biggest cheerleaders. They are often misunderstood and seen as a threat to adults. As a parent, you must teach them to show respect to these adults who often annihilate them. You see, they must survive the system so that they can eventually stretch their wings and fly above the system.
These incredible souls are the problem-solvers, magic makers and wonder painters of the world. They see things through different lenses and paradigms. They are usually right and often blow you up with their rightness until they learn to control their volume. They hate injustice and they can’t abide ignorance. They don’t only see the world in new and innovative ways, they see normal boring things and are able to make them new.
Adam Grant gives a great example of what I am trying to say. He talks about ‘Vuja de’.
“I think my favorite strategy is ‘vuja de’ [a concept named for its opposite, déjà vu. It’s when you enter a familiar situation but feel like it’s all new]. You try to look at something familiar in a new way. You’re standing in line waiting for a taxi and you see these cars passing by, which all have empty seats in them. You’ve seen them a thousand times before you start to say ‘why can’t I have one of those seats?’ And Uber is created”.
The hippopotamus and pink flamingo illustration came from a conversation I had one day, a long time ago, with my daughter in love. To fill in a bit of back story, Rachel had spent a decade training for the Olympics as a gymnast and had spent 4 years performing in the exclusive Cirque Du Soliel show in Las Vegas “O”, as an aerial performer. When she returned to Melbourne she was attending a conservative fundamentalist church. Some of her ‘acquaintances’ decided to give her some ‘feedback’ about how she could be more spiritual and mentioned that possibly her performing career was impinging on her spirituality (I’m trying to say this nicely).
She called me one day close to tears and frustrated about her inability to blend in, to conform or please these ‘acquaintances’.
NOTE to all parents and mentors of nonconformists. THEY ARE THEIR BIGGEST CRITICS. They punish themselves far worse than you ever will. She was devastated because unlike these ‘other’ adults, she would have been praying, journaling, and Christianing 100 times more than they would have been. Their words cut her to the core.
ME…. trying not to hunt down these ‘friends’ and give them a piece of my mind. Diplomatically came up with an illustration to try and help her see, that she was incredibly amazing and that she did not need to take the advice of the muggles.
This is how the conversation went.
“Rach… do you like brown darling.
Rach..”No, no not really”
“Then why are you trying to be a brown hippopotamus when you are a pink flamingo?” (mike drop).
Rachel is currently traveling the world as a successful online coach/aerial instructor and is performing in Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Luzia’. She is also one of the most spiritually switched on people I know. (insert protective mumma growl). Photo of Rachel Hunt below.
Dame Gillian Lynne was a choreographer who transformed musical theatre. Lynne’s entry to dance came in a most unusual way and was courtesy (it seems) of a most unusual doctor. When she was a child, her mother took her to the doctor because she fidgeted and could not concentrate at school. Gillian felt hopeless, her teachers were exasperated, and her mother was at the end of her tether. She was on the brink of being enrolled in a special school as she was failing in the institution.
Out of desperation her mother took her to see a doctor and thank God this doctor was able to think outside the box (remember this was the 1930’s). Her mother explained that in class Gillian could not sit still and would move around the class disturbing the other students. The doctor simply got up, turned the radio on, and asked the mother to join him in an adjacent room to observe her daughter. Gillian’s mum watched her daughter begin to involuntarily dance to the music from the radio.
Gillian went on to be one of the most famous of dancers and choreographers. She moved from dance to choreography and direction, she choreographed for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Opera House and English National Opera, numerous west end shows such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and choreographed three Lloyd Webber musicals, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and Aspects of Love.
Let me just say that I barely survived my sons’ going to high school and you would not believe half of the stories I could tell you. The recurring theme of high school for both of them was. Yes, you are right the teacher did the wrong thing, but you still need to obey and attend class. Yes, what you said was totally correct, but it was too confrontational and can you understand that you made the teacher feel foolish. Son, do you understand why you are in detention, suspension, expulsion? and on and on it went. I do NOT miss high school.
Mitchell my eldest son exploded into the world and I have been running to keep up with him ever since.
Scenario: Me calling Mitchell at school to remind him of a dental appointment. Mitchell is 15.
“Mum I can’t take your call right now I am having a business lunch”
Me.” What… it’s lunchtime at school what do you mean a business lunch”.
Mitch. “Well my boss and I are discussing a couple of gigs coming up and what lighting we will need. I can’t drive mum so Darren has to come to me”
Or me calling to check how the school excursion to Canberra was going.
“Mum I can’t take your call I’m late for a meeting with a member of parliament” (he was in grade 5).
OR the time we went on a family holiday to Tangalooma Stradbroke Island Resort. Warning bells should have gone off when Mitchell had more luggage than everyone else and he wouldn’t let anyone help him with his extraordinarily heavy luggage. Warning bells DID go off when on the second day we were informed that we had a $500.00 telephone bill and we had only been there two days. WHAT
I marched back to the unit, past the other 5 children running for cover when they saw the look on my face. Upstairs to Mitchell’s bedroom. Open the door, look inside the cupboard to find….. computer, hard drive, keyboard and multi function printer, (we are not talking small laptop – it was the days of big computers and fax machines). He was fifteen years old.
Mitchell. “Mum.. I can’t afford to take time off work. I have proposals and lighting plans to do.”
He had bought his office with him on our Island holiday. Of course, he was disciplined. But here is the dilemma. You are usually disciplining them for something that in and of itself is good. IE:. good work ethic in this situation. BUT the ethics and morality around it are what needed to be shaped.
I use the word shape because these things that they do will ONE day be good, so you have to shape the skill set that they have, not destroy it. In this circumstance he was disciplined about the secrecy, the inability to sustain his vision financially and at 15 it was okay to have a holiday from work. (see how complicated this can get). Mitchell is one of the most successful, innovative and incredible humans that I know. He is now a Director of Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Luzia” and has been traveling in North America with his wife Rachel and the show for over 2 years now. If you are interested in what Mitch does at Cirque here is an interview with him from Projection Sound and Lighting News.
Jordan. My other amazing and spectacular son.
I will give you one example concerning this mighty non-conformist. Jordan, my charmer, my smooth talker, my quiet achiever. My ‘to cool for school son’. Honestly, I nearly did not survive his high school years. I seriously did have therapy and cannot think about some of the things that he got up to even now.
Scenario: Jordan is about to turn 18. His grandfather left him some money when he died which Jordan was due to inherit in the form of money for a car. He was a couple of weeks into year 12.
Me. Jordan, you are not having a big party. You have to focus on year 12. You can have a family afternoon tea and we will celebrate your 21st with a big party.
Jordan: “But mum I am already organising a big 18th birthday party with the ‘eastern suburbs'”.
Me. Well son, you will have to cancel it. IF you go ahead with this 18th party you are on your own. You will be grounded and you will not receive a car for your birthday.
Of course, he went ahead with the party. Unbeknown to me he hired a hall. Hired 6 Melbourne cricket ground bouncers. Placed students with clipboards in several schools around the area taking money and selling tickets because….. yes pause here…… he was CHARGING AN ENTRANCE FEE.. to attend his 18th. It was February so he had to arrange portable air conditioning, a band, lighting, food, and alcohol. OF course, there were queues around the block to even try to gain entry. Of course, the party was gatecrashed and of course, he made a profit.
I found out the morning AFTER this happened.
Me: I cannot believe that you went ahead with this knowing what would happen.
Jordan: “Mum… all my life you have told me that I need to find out what my gifts and talents are. Well, I have realised that I am an entrepreneur. How can you punish me for finding out what I was put on this earth to do?”
Jordan is now director and sales manager with an innovative company Connecting Entrepreneurs & Business Leaders. He is one of the most charming, loyal, hilarious and smart humans I know.
Picture Below: Jordan and his partner Tori who is also a genius creative non-conformist, but she will kill me if I tell any of her stories (she carries a gun), (It’s actually a tiny 2 cm gun tattoo on her finger), (oops sorry Tori). Peow Peow.
What are some strategies for raising creative, non-conformist children who might grow up to be innovators?
Step one is to focus more on values than rules.
“One mistake a lot of parents make is they basically prevent their children from thinking for themselves by saying ‘these are the rules you have to follow.’ What parents of highly original children do differently is they focus on values and say ‘these are the guiding principles in our family, now let’s have a dialogue about what this means to you.’ You see kids get to take ownership over their own values and principles. Then when they grow up and confront other people, they’re comfortable standing their ground”. Adam Grant
Step Two: Give kids broad exposure to different ways of thinking. Think hard about what they are saying to you. Usually, they are right but need help learning delivery and timing. Also, they are usually one step ahead of you but never let them know that or your life is over.
Step Three: Protect them from the Hippopotami. Especially when they are under the age of 25. They are resilient and flexible but highly sensitive. Don’t let the muggles screw up their uniqueness.
Step Four: Remember that they will most likely punish themselves before you do. Think creatively and fairly about how to shape them.
Step Five: Nurture their creativity especially when they are young. Don’t worry about mess and conformity. Childhood is the time when your kid is still developing his powerful brain. It is also the time when they can freely explore and grow in the direction they want, and not be constrained by how society wants them to think.
Step Six: Teach them to relish solitude and quiet times. This teaches them to know how to refuel and recharge their batteries and huge brains. Otherwise, they burn themselves out.
Step Seven: Get a good therapist. YOU will need it. Actually, they will also need it from time to time. All of my kids have seen psychologists from time to time. It’s healthy for them to get a different perspective and it also gives your brain a break.
Step Eight: CELEBRATE these amazing and incredible humans. I do and I struggled not to cry as I thought about them while I was writing this. I am so incredibly proud of my two sons and their partners, my daughter, my three stepsons, their partners and my three granddaughters – Lily, Georgia, and Luzia. The best part of my life now is spending time with these incredible souls.
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