Boise State on Business

Boise State on Business by Nancy Napier: 'Outsider' view has benefits, in both life and in business

Nancy Napier is executive director of Boise State University's Centre for Creativity and InnovationJune 4, 2013 

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Nancy Napier

I don't presume to understand what it's like to be a refugee, forced out of a homeland to move thousands of miles away and start a new life. But I do have an idea of what it means to be an outsider, in lots of settings. And it's something that more companies may want to cultivate in the future - this sense of outsiderness.

I grew up as an Army brat - lived in nine towns by age 17, went to eight schools, you've heard the routine. But for years, I didn't tell people I'd grown up in the Army. My dad had been in Vietnam before people knew where it was and before the antiwar movement took off, but still, it just wasn't the thing to talk about for a long time. So when people asked where I was from, they heard: "all over, moved around a lot as a kid."

I then spent a year in Germany during college. I worked in a contract research firm as one of the few women there and did some projects in Japan as a young, Caucasian female (three strikes against me). I taught for a semester in Belgium and spent a chunk of time (nine years) living in and commuting to Vietnam, where I was really the odd one - tall, white, American, female.

When my two children - adopted from Thailand and Korea - joined me in Vietnam for six months and we all spoke German together, we completely flummoxed the local barbers who cut my sons' hair. They couldn't figure out this odd team. Were we from Russia? Were the children from Vietnam? From China? No, no, no. Adopted from Korea, from Thailand. Finally, they gave up, shook their heads and said to one another: "Husband, Japanese."

So I've felt like an outsider for years, even if in small ways. And although I didn't fully appreciate it when I was younger, I'm coming to understand just how valuable it can be.

Using my outsider view, I'm able to ask weird questions that others don't think about and come up with ideas that my more traditionally reared colleagues don't. I'm not afraid of new(ish) situations, since I was always the "new kid" in school. I've "reinvented" myself, at least in terms of topics I research, because that's what kids who move tended to do - reinvent themselves. I can handle change (usually) and have learned which battles to fight and which to let go of.

Don't get me wrong. It's still not easy to be the outsider. It took a long time to get comfortable with it and finally find ways to leverage it, rather than try to "fit in."

But now I see it as an advantage and something future business leaders need to cultivate. They may miss potential recruits and business opportunities if they don't find outsiders who've had to fight their way to their own sense of what they offer and contribute.

Who may do this well? In the past, it was the farmers and ranchers who moved to town. Today, it may be the immigrants, refugees and newcomers to the region. So ask yourself, and your managers, how to cultivate a sense of looking from the outside to build a stronger inside.

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