THINKING CAP 1
You are not alone in wanting to be alone (and belong at the same time). A guide on how to stay sane through growing pains
As a kid, I became aware of the existence of groups by finding out I wasn’t part of one. If you rode a time machine and visited 1998, you’d meet a round-faced little girl who was raised on Disney movies and spoke English better than she did Filipino, and the rest of her Grade 1 class who’d decided to ignore her for being maarte.
Our school had a strict policy for uniformity, which they said was a way to curb jealousy and fighting among students. Everything from our bags to our shoes and notebooks had to be bought from the school. The result: a mafia of clones, or at least as mafia as a co-ed Montessori school could be.
People ran in crews, and there was a very specific recipe to be accepted: Don’t smile while you’re walking. Don’t own anything imported. Don’t eat Froot Loops; eat cornflakes instead. Wear uniforms two sizes too big and hike the sleeves up like a tough guy. Look like you’d rather be elsewhere. Don’t try too hard. Don’t try at all.
Over the course of my grade school education, I ditched the accent, learned to curse, intentionally spilled soy sauce on my clothes, and developed a resting bitch face. Ultimately, fitting in came at the cost of holding myself back. During the sixth grade, our P.E. class had a cheerleading demonstration. “Smile!” my mom was yelling from the audience.
No! I thought, waving the pompoms. Don’t you know what they’ll do to me?
We do crazy things to fit in. A 2014 study by The Pew Research Center, a non-profit think tank, found that we’re less likely to share and discuss unpopular opinions on social media—even less than we’d do so in person. “The spiral of silence,” they called it. We pretend to like movies we’ve never seen. We hate on albums we haven’t listened to. We smooth our edges to meet new people. We fake cultural literacy out of a loyalty to the collective. I’ve never seen a Daniel Padilla telenovela, but for some reason I feel like he’s a little prick.
At some point, we’re all just saying yes to the dominant person or ideology in the room. Or to word it in a way we encounter every day, whatever’s #trending.
Or we can go in the completely opposite direction, giving up on the collective in favor of radical individualism. When I moved to an exclusive, all-girls Catholic high school, everything was in reverse. Pretty was pretty, cool was cool. All my energy at trying to be part of the in crowd had been used up by then, so I resorted to the next best thing: Everything else.
With a massive student population (400 students per batch compared to my grade school’s 90), there were lots of subcultures to discover. I became a party platter of different interests: black nails, a carefully curated iPod, debate club, ladybug costumes for Halloween, essay contests, a love for French films, a band that had only one gig ever. I even trained as an altar girl just to find out what communion bread tasted like; I’m not even Catholic.
For the first time, I didn’t feel the need to be cool or part of a group. I was happy to have that freedom. The downside? After a few years, being different became a crutch. I realized this during my freshman year in college, when I went to a salon and chose the most outlandish haircut in the catalog. The thought: I can’t be vanilla. And so I ended up with a bowl cut that was a cross between Spock and a bowling ball. Consequence: No photo of me was taken for the next six months.
Fast-forward a few years and I’d like to think I’ve mellowed. I still like French films and Incubus, but I’ve given up on short hair and have come to terms with the fact that I don’t have the skills for musical theatre. I’d rather err on the side of individuality and the freedom it brings, but now that the awkward years are out of the way, collectives don’t seem so bad.
Just as groups can bring out the worst in us, they can also bring out the best in us. What makes the difference is the culture within a group. Google’s working culture, which is built around employee freedom and play, has been singled out as one of the best in the world for encouraging creativity. Locally, student groups raise funds for the victims of typhoons and earthquakes. And at the risk of oversimplifying things, battles were never won alone.
“For (productive interactions) to happen, you also need to shape a community,” analyst Ben Waber told The New York Times. “That means if you’re stressed, there’s someone to help, to take up the slack. If you’re surrounded by friends, you’re happier, you’re more loyal, you’re more productive. Google looks at this holistically. It’s the antithesis of the old factory model, where people were just cogs in a machine.”
After my bowl cut phase, I began to open up to groups again. Since then, some of my most rewarding experiences have been as part of a team: joining the university paper, working on GMA News TV’s Biyahe ni Drew, and running
Kamusta?, an alternative travel magazine, with college friends. I recently changed jobs to work at Bad Idea, a branding firm whose open culture reminded me of Google’s. No more intentional soy sauce spillage!
In all my experiences with “good collectives,” what they had in common was that the team didn’t tamp down on individual creativity but instead encouraged it.
Perhaps the answer isn’t to pick sides between the collective and the individual but to seek a culture—whether in the school, the workplace, the society, or in ourselves—that balances both. In other words, it’s collaboration: working towards the same goal but being brave enough to do it your way. In collaborative cultures, the collective does not impose a monolithic ideal (i.e. “Don’t eat cornflakes”) but instead facilitates individual thought.
With the right environment, we step up to do our best. After all, we do crazy things to fit in.