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Kerrying On

You Don’t Belong!

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Preston Coventry, one of the more popular kids in the ninth grade, had invited me to the grand opening of his neighborhood association’s swimming pool. When the appointed day arrived, I hiked across town to the posh facility where I was greeted by a tall fence and a stern guard. After I waited a couple of minutes, Preston approached the gate, gave a quick nod, the guard pushed a button, and I was granted entrance.

Preston and I spent the entire day playing water games and chasing girls with squirt guns. It was perfectly wonderful. I had no idea that such a life even existed. But then my thoughts turned to the long walk home, so I changed clothes and headed toward the exit. As the gate shut behind me, I turned around. Then I grabbed two of the metal bars, stuck my head between them, and smiled at Preston. (I was lobbying for an invitation to return.) Preston glanced back at me and abruptly stated, “You can’t come back.”

“What?” I managed to ask.

“You’re not allowed to return,” Preston repeated. “You don’t belong.”

“What do you mean ‘I don’t belong’?” I asked.

“You don’t belong to the association. You’re a guest and are only allowed one visit a year. You’ve already had your turn.”

I managed a feeble “thank you,” extracted my head from the gate and walked home. With each step, the words, “You don’t belong,” rang painfully in my head. Then it hit me. Up until that moment, my friends and I had largely played in empty fields and open waterways. It was all free, so we were all equal. Now there was a pool, a fence, a gate, a guard, and rules. The “haves” played gleefully on one side while I trudged down the long dirt road that snaked into the heart of the valley of the have-nots.

You might think this event turned me into an avid socialist, but it didn’t. I didn’t fault the wealthy for locking the gate. Who could blame them? But it did put a question into my fourteen-year-old brain: Where did I belong? I pondered that question for quite some time.

Two decades passed until I eventually decided I belonged at a university. At least a part of me did. So, in 1980 when I finished graduate school, I accepted a faculty position. At last, I had found a home—a place where I belonged.

Before I gave my first lecture, I decided that it was time to take precautions. Having been raised by parents who had lived through The Great Depression, and spoke often of its soon-to-arrive sequel, I began the semi-paranoid task of transforming my entire backyard into a massive vegetable garden. Let the Great Debacle arrive—I’d have zucchini! So, when the first day of the semester rolled around, instead of poring over my lecture notes as most faculty members did, I borrowed a truck from my neighbor and hauled pig manure to mix with my garden’s depleted soil.

All morning long I hauled loads of “compost” from a nearby pig farm and flung the disgusting muck onto my garden bed. Then I frantically changed my clothes and hustled to campus to attend my very first faculty meeting. I couldn’t believe it. I—the poor kid who lived down the long dirt road—would be part of a faculty meeting where acclaimed educator Stephen R. Covey was scheduled to lead the discussion. He had been developing ideas about several key habits and was eager to discuss them with the rest of us.

As Dr. Covey launched into his presentation, I couldn’t help but notice a horrible stench in the room. Soon everyone started to squint, cough, and look for the source of the smell. Then I noticed my socks. Uh oh. When I changed from my farm clothes into my sports coat and slacks, I had neglected to change my manure-tainted socks, which were now emitting a repugnant odor.

It wasn’t long until my colleagues began to eyeball me—the apparent source of the smell. I fessed up. I told them about my garden, its depleted soil, the pig manure, and my socks. After a moment’s reflection, everyone laughed, I slid over to a far corner of the room, Steve moved on to turning ends into beginnings, and I thanked my lucky stars for having escaped untarnished.

But then Preston Coventry’s jarring voice hit me. The words, “You don’t belong!” reverberated through my insecure soul. One look at the scholars in the room and I was certain that none of them had ever flung pig manure and then carried the stench to a faculty meeting. These folks were polished and sophisticated. They had lovely homes, pools (probably locked), and pedigrees. They belonged. I didn’t. It took only a glance to see that.

Later that evening while visiting with my mother, I told her about the stinky-sock debacle and admitted that I didn’t believe I belonged at a university. She wouldn’t have it.

“The idea of belonging to anything is just plain silly,” Mom argued. “Sure, clubs set rules about who they let in, but in things that matter, belonging is irrelevant. It’s not how you measure up to others’ standards that matters; it’s how you feel about yourself—and that comes from being comfortable with what you do.”

“Yeah, but look what I’ve done,” I responded. “I went to a faculty meeting reeking of pig manure. Then to make matters worse, I admitted to the mistake in public.”

“Precisely,” my mother said, “And that makes you unassuming, not unworthy.”

“No, that makes me a hick, and a stupid one to boot.”

I continued to put up a fuss, but eventually decided that I would follow Mom’s advice and work on being satisfied with what I had done and who I had become, rather than where others thought I belonged—or worse still, where I thought they thought I belonged.

For the most part, this strategy has served me well, but I’d be lying if I said I’m always comfortable in my skin. There are days when I feel as if I’m that kid standing outside that swimming pool, desperately gripping the bars, and peering into a world that doesn’t want me. And then on those odd occasions when I happen to gain entry, I’m haunted by the feeling that I’m going to be asked to leave.

But then I think of the pig manure and the wonderful crops it nurtured. It helped grow a cabbage so large it didn’t fit into a bushel basket. The beets tasted like candy. My kids still talk about the sweet corn. It was heavenly.

But best of all, the pig droppings came with a lesson. If you want to be content in life, you have to be able to fling manure without looking over your shoulder to see who approves. If you can’t do that, life is a long, lonely stretch. People will continue to suggest that you don’t belong, and you’ll believe them. So give up the silly notion of belonging and think of who you are and the wonderful things you do. That’s where you’ll find satisfaction.

Oh yes, and don’t forget to change your socks.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

64 thoughts on “You Don’t Belong!”

    1. We all want to belong at one time or another but it should be because we want to not because we have to to feel good about ourselves.

  1. It’s always a pleasure to read these powerful and meaningful stories from Mr. Patterson. I can relate to the “you don’t belong here” – even after earning a college degree and having a successful career, I still feel that way sometimes. Mr. Patterson’s mom was right though – it is just plain silly – but probably keeps us humble.

  2. Thanks: That was entertaining and thought provoking. I’m a little bit more inclined to lean socialist than you are — hence my hatred for “gated communities” and for the kind of people who want to tell you that you don’t belong. But I loved your essay.

  3. Thank you, Mr. Patterson. That is a wonderfully relatable story. If we don’t appreciate each other for our unique meanings (Duffy, 2009) – I can’t imagine us getting much more done than the ants – all thinking alike and ending up with pretty much the same product for millenia.
    Duffy, J. (2009). Quality Caring in Nursing. New York: Springer

  4. Mr. Patterson always has an astute way of expressing what many of us feel. And funny enough, the fact that so many of us feel the same way, makes us all belong together.

  5. Mr. Patterson,

    I have said it before, but you are about the only person that I cannot wait to read their blog when it comes out! You are the standard for writing, storytelling, and why you really write, giving us good points and thoughts to think about and apply, both in our personal and business lives. I so appreciate you, and again, wait with great anticipation your stories!

    Thank you for your insights and thoughts!

    Respectfully,

    David Nicholas

  6. Wonderful story. Your comment “…I would follow Mom’s advice and work on being satisfied with what I had done and who I had become, rather than where others thought I belonged—or worse still, where I thought they thought I belonged” resonates deeply with me. Thank you, Kerry.

  7. This is a wonderful story and I wish schools have taught and my bosses just let me myself instead of telling me what to say and do in dialogue sessions with big bosses!

  8. Kerry,
    I can so relate to your story of “not belonging” and being uncomfortable in certain situations!!!!! It also makes me question as to how to help my students in similar situations, and teaching them to overcome.
    You have set me on a path of thinking……and it was your generosity in sharing that started me down that path….so thank-you!
    Laura Robinson

  9. your story brought tear to my eyes. I’ll share it with my 10-year old son. he may not fully understand, but he may surprise me too.

  10. What a great story. Thank you for sharing. I often feel like I don’t belong in my position, department and in certain social settings. I have worked very hard at my career and I am happy with how far I have come.

  11. I really enjoyed this. Reminds me of “the power of vulnerability” by Brene Brown. Such powerful stuff! Thank you.

  12. I just loved this story, very inspirational. I struggle with self-confidence and this is great comment on acceptance.

  13. You have a wonderful way with words regardless of the state of your socks! You’re thoughts are so true and are good to be remembered, thank you.

  14. Dear Sir

    Thank you for an interesting story – discussion point. Having been on both sides of that gate – it is funny that the same feelings are there. Most people think that they will be found out and all of sudden be on the other side of the gate, then you have the others that can not think of life outside of that gate.

    Was flying, when I got on the plane – people that were poor had their belongings in boxes and cheap bags but wonderful people to talk with and share a long plane ride. When I landed – several flights later – they were people complaining that the airline had scratched their suitcase.
    My thoughts – really – that is what you life is about.

    Living in many places in the world (over 30 and counting) has taught me that it is my attitude about myself that matters. It helps me do my profession – talking to a low educated / low paid worker in one hour, then to the Executive VP of an international corporation on the next hour.

    Regards,

    Michael

  15. Thank you for sharing your insightful story! Prior to accepting my current position 19 months ago, I was confident in, and recognized for, my leadership skills and ability to turn around dysfunctional work teams. I was hired into a new agency as an outsider specifically chosen to make needed changes; however, I’ve been experiencing workplace bullying in my new position to the degree that I had come to doubt my abilities. Your story reminded me that I need to get back to feeling comfortable in my own skin, be proud of my accomplishments, and to look for a workplace that is both accepting and worthy of my efforts.

    Signed, New Outlook

  16. Bless your heart, Kerry, I love your transparency and humanness. The issues you speak to resonate with me in my daily life. Please keep on writing to us, Dear Friend.

  17. I enjoyed your story – We all at times feel out of place – but as your mother said it’s more how we feel about ourself than letting others dictate how we feel Thank you!

  18. Kerry, I love your honesty regarding your story about your friend Preston. I’m reminded of the 80s advertisement slogan of American Express, “Membership has its privileges.” Belonging is a human need, in my opinion. A person should not have to pay to belong. Belonging to a gated community, golf club is a wonderful thing but it is not belonging. In my mind, Preston confused in his thinking or communication communicated, “You don’t belong here.” with the implication that you don’t belong to our friendship. So, allow me to push back on your statement that belonging is a “silly notion”. I agree that it is a silly notion if it is to to have Preston’s idea of belonging. Thanks for spurring my thinking here. I’m going to keep slinging the manure and keep focusing on what I do even if it causes people to not want me to belong.

  19. Great story with a great lesson. I washed dishes for minimum wage at the country club where I grew up and learned first hand many of the lessons you so eloquently bring forth. Now I am raising my own kids as members of a country club worrying about how to ensure they learn these key lessons in life from inside the locked gates.

    Would love some guidance on how to keep my kids from being a “Preston.”

  20. I so look forward to reading these stories… thanks very much Mr. Patterson – I could listen to you talk (or read your stories) for hours!

  21. Kerry

    I often enjoy your stories but this one in particular carries great meaning and insight for me!

    Kerrie Douglas

  22. You have no idea how timely this post was for me on a professional level. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  23. Thank you for this thought-provoking story. I would like to suggest that your feelings are universal and your mother’s wise advice should be a universal strategy. Our whole world is trending toward divisiveness, and demonizing people who don’t belong to one’s own self-identified group. I suspect that the Prestons of the world have the same experience of feeling a lack of belonging in a yet more exclusive group.
    I am not making excuses for him, but it could be that Preston was pretty clueless about the impact he made with what he said to you. It sounds like he might have been inviting various boys one-by-one to be one-time visitors at the exclusive pool. Maybe in his neighborhood he was someone who did not “belong” with the local boys. It might have been a disappointment to him that he had restrictions on who he could invite as guests. Had he been more mature, he might have explained this to you up front when he made the invitation instead of shouting this out through the gate as you left. We all need to be careful that we avoid inadvertently being a Preston in the many other situations in our lives.

  24. Interesting how experiences early on stay with us, shape us, and guide us for what we chose to do, how we behave, how we may dress, and how we react in life. As in this case, the “no/not” word in “you DON’T belong” is yet another example of how it affects and has lasting effects on our actions. As a manager and as a mentor, my number one piece of advice is to “leave the NOT word out of your vocabulary when presenting and communicating”. The “not” word is the first and or only word that is heard as soon as it is said (can’t, haven’t, don’t, wouldn’t, won’t….). There are plenty of other ways to say “I’m on it… I’ll have it done in x minutes”, “it is next on my list”, “instead of doing that, I am doing this…” Portraying a “can do” mentality versus a “can’t do, haven’t done it” is personally and professionally better.

  25. This story is how i feel almost everyday. Not belonging is very powerful. It’s not easy to believe you belong when others around you don’t.
    I’m 53 years old, not a kid. My whole life i felt this way. I would buy friends with candy.
    When i was 30-40 i had friends or i think i did. Then a few years ago something changed. Now i don’t belong again. You’re correct when you said the years are LONGER when you don’t.
    Thank you for the story, i just wish i could follow your suggestion to believe in myself.

  26. I was a bullied child throughout my school years, and deeply relate to the sense of not belonging. Kerry, I’m sure you recognize how very fortunate you were to have a mother who helped you rise above the judgement of others. For many bullied kids, the problem starts at home, and there are is no one to throw that child a life ring. He or she grows into a wounded adult with deep and persistent scars. For me, even as an adult businesswoman, running up against office cliques or the “good ol’ boys network” triggered that deeply rooted shame and anxiety that told me that somehow I was defective and would never belong.

    The issue of “belonging” goes so much deeper than class or privilege. Humans seem to have a deep need to sort ourselves into groups, and many derive their personal power from attempting to make others feel less than themselves. I was very fortunate to finally find a strong counselor and coach to help me value my achievements and feel comfortable in my own skin, so that I could learn how to project confidence and make sales calls. For a long time, I had practice “fake it ’til you make it” – until it became a habit, and eventually I started believing in myself. At age 54, making sales calls still isn’t my favorite activity, but now it’s not because I don’t feel worthy, but I simply have other things I’d rather be doing!

    I appreciate your story, and hope everyone who reads it takes away this: we all carry the baggage of past hurts and slights by others, but those experiences don’t have to define who we become. Parents, teachers, ministers, counselors, neighbors – if you ever witness an emotionally wounded child, offer them this lifeline: you are worthy. A few words at the right moment could literally save their life.

    1. Thank-you! I appreciated your thoughts! I always try to be on the look out for anyone wounded…
      I was also intriqued that of the people that responded….you are 54, another was 53, and I am 52. Interesting that we are reflecting on this at this particular time in our lives.
      Shalom,
      L

  27. Thanks for sharing your story. I can certainly relate to the feeling I don’t belong. We all need a sense of love and belonging so hearing “You don’t belong.” cuts right to our hearts.

    One of the best gifts parents can give their children is loving and accepting their children for who they are. It sounds like your mom gave you that!

  28. Thank you, Kerry, for a delightful and interesting story from your youth. You have such a talent for taking common experiences and flipping them over to glean the lesson available to the observant person. I believe most people have insightful and amazing experiences, but often don’t realize the value of their personal experience. You, on the other hand, can tell a story that is not only entertaining, but insightful. Keep up the good work; I look forward to your next remembrance that you learned something from.

  29. You had me until that last paragraph, now I am lost again! Please continue…’cause I almost thought I heard, it was ok to treat others like flinging “crap” over your shoulder is ok to do?? I thought consideration of another is equally, in some cases more important. This is when people in society begin to use, it is ok to say and do whatever you want; to explain by changing a common saying, what I am left with is “my ends justify my means.” I don’t think that is what you are saying, please explain further…

  30. Thank you for another wonderful story. Your story is really touching; people tell us that we don’t belong at work, church, school, social events, etc. We must learn to feel comfortable in our own skin.

  31. Your story reminded me of a similar situation where I was made to feel less than adequate during an interview. The person interviewing me was asking me how I planned to sit at the same table as the V-Ps while not having completed my Masters degree. Would I be able to measure up or would I not fit in? It took me ages to get over that one. Then I realized I did fit in everywhere else. It was their culture I didn’t fit into to.

  32. He didn’t say to fling it over your shoulder without looking to see who it hits! He said not to look over your shoulder while doing it to see who approves.

  33. Thanks for being you Kerry. It would be wonderful not to have to worry about what other people thought of me. In reality that’s almost as hard as trying to keep my head down when playing golf. Seems like it should be easy but it’s not…

  34. “pouring” should be “poring.” You could have pored over your lecture notes, or you could have poured manure on your garden.

  35. Thank you for this story. It arrived with perfect timing appearing in my email the morning after a grueling conversation about the kind of behavior that I needed to effect to belong. Odd how your story gives me a sense of belonging, eh?

  36. My wife and I developed a family statement meant to teach our five kids to acknowledge and embrace that we as a family and as individuals in the the family are unique. I thought I would share it below.

    Our family is quirky. We believe that God is both our king and savior and we believe that his Word is the true path to “the good life.” We believe that it is crucial to develop strong, personal relationships with those who share our Christian values. And we like to spend our time outside the mainstream (family camp, woodworking, baking, sewing, gymnastics, and the farm dream).

  37. great story which emphasis the basic tenet – every individual is special – focus on those special things rather worrying about other’s judgements – life is too precious, pursue your interests and take pride in what you do good!

  38. I appreciate this story, it has helped me to understand better how much anyone values. It is easy sometimes, when you receive rejections, to start finding faults on yourself and validate that rejection received. Indeed, we overlook many times all the good we have done and start critiquing ourselves for all the good we have not yet.

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