Are you the square peg trying to fit into a round hole in your career?
I have been working with quite a few square pegs. They just do not fit into the traditional roles that corporations define.
Some try to squeeze themselves into those roles. Some are very successful. Unfortunately, they usually end up unhappy and unhealthy. The stress of making themselves fit wreaks havoc on their physical and mental health.
I am starting to realize that I am—to some extent—one of these square pegs!
Note: This post was originally published in October of 2015 and was updated in August of 2018.
Becoming an Actor
For many of us when we started our careers we became actors. We were hired to play a role and if we stayed in character long enough we started to think we were that role. I have often written on this blog about becoming an extrovert in order to make more money. I am a closet introvert.
When I was in my 20s, 30s, and 40s, I could stay in character for long periods of time. When I reached my 50s staying in character became exhausting. I found that periodically I would become completely exhausted which seemed completely out of character. I would then need to take time to recharge. Unfortunately, I kept on getting exhausted and it took longer and longer to recharge.
In 2004, I went off to teach high school math in an inner-city high school in Austin, Texas. That first year was exhausting and I really did not understand why. I had convinced myself that I was an extrovert. You can learn more about this from my podcast From High-Tech Training to High School Teacher, and Why I Left.
That summer I really focused on resting and relaxing. I needed to recharge. When I returned in the fall, I thought I was ready but I was not. I left teaching at winter break and it probably took me a year to recover.
I had become an actor and continuing to stay in character was exhausting.
Have you been an actor at work?
Square pegs come in many forms, but let me describe their most common characteristics.
- Creative – They have a very high interest in music, art, and/or literature. Many have abandoned those interests because they do not fit into what our economy values or is willing to pay for. Instead, they often express their creativity in colorful spreadsheets or attractive PowerPoint presentations.
- Structure – They do not like staying between the lines. They want the freedom to do it their own way. They are good in chaotic situations where they get to make the rules.
- Introverted – They work best when by themselves or on a small, cohesive team. If you ask them to make a presentation, give them plenty of time to prepare. Consider Steve Jobs who was very introverted. Jobs would rehearse and rehearse and rehearse before every product announcement.
- High Empathy – They are kind, caring individuals who want to be treated similarly by their colleagues. I have worked in the high-tech field for most of my career. High empathy people are not generally welcomed or considered the norm.
- Low Authority – They would prefer having a colleague to a boss. If you try to micromanage them, it is not pretty!
Do you see any of these characteristics in yourself?
These personality traits are largely incompatible with today’s work environment.
- Today’s work environment does not highly value an interest in music, art, or literature.
- You are supposed to follow the rules.
- You are rewarded for being an extrovert. I am a closet introvert! But, I have learned to behave like an extrovert in order to succeed.
- Emotions are not welcome in most workplaces.
- Strong leadership is valued in the workplace, but some of us just want to left alone to get our job done.
Another issue I currently see is cultural dyslexia. These are people who were born into indirect culture (Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc.) but were then raised in their teenage years in a direct culture (the U.S. and Europe). They attend western universities and acquire some western personality traits.
The problem is that they do not feel they belong in either their birth culture or their adopted culture. I call this cultural dyslexia and we will see a lot more of this issue as people move around the world.
Does everyone suffer from cultural dyslexia who make this transition? No! However, I have seen it enough and how it causes them great angst in trying to fit in that round hole.
Cultural dyslexia is just another form of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.
I worked with a client who was a top-flight IT project manager. She had been seduced into multiple jobs only to have it end in a nasty divorce. She would take a position, run a project for a year and then her boss would give her the same kind of project again.
She would say … “well, ok.”
After another year the project would come to an end and her boss would put on another similar project. She would get angry and say, “NO!” Her bosses response was to think, “we are putting you in your comfort zone.”
The problem was her comfort zone was always to do something new. I hate to tell you but for the average project manager that is very unusual. She did not understand that she just did not fit the hole that her boss was putting her in.
Do you see yourself in any of these examples?
Are you a square peg?Marc Miller
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I enjoyed this post a great deal, Marc. The square pegs I work with often find becoming their own boss works best for them. They still need focus, a plan and heart but often creating their best career involves creating their own peg board so they can fit into the holes. I think many entrepreneurs would easily agree they were square pegs at some point in their careers. Love your blog, by the way!
Most square pegs need to find a way to work for themselves. For many this is really scary!
Please write more on this topic! I’ve known I am the square peg for many many years now. The entire traits list fits me spot on. I spend my days freelance writing and life coaching now. I wish I could have known such things about myself before, I would have put more into my natural talents instead of hiding and trying to change myself. Is there any help for us squares? Is freelancing/ working for ourselves the only way?
It is about finding an environment that fits you. It will most likely come from working either for yourself or find a small business that has like minded people. It is about find kindred spirits.
How do you find such businesses? I have no idea where to look. When I run through possibilities it becomes discouraging quickly.
Yes, that’s what you need to do. It *is* hard for introverted people to reach out, but in my personal experience, it is well worth the effort. I actually landed a job this way! I reached out to well known nonprofit, inquiring whether they needed assistance with improving their website (that was my conclusion – that they did indeed need help with that!). My email was forwarded to the CEO, and he called me! So, you just never know. Ok I just realized that my comment may be interpreted as a job search tip or something. I guess I’m just stressing that surprises of a good kind can happen when you start reaching out to others. However small.
Completely. Introverted, highly emotional, break under too much stress (moreover so called medicines just make me sick but do nothing for this), high-average IQ/above average on bell curve, but no way to apply it (bad at STEM to the point of absurdity and HATE the typical “nerd” field – Information Technology)
Don’t even get me started on being a higher functioning autistic and having the empathy of a rock 🙁
And honestly I function with just enough guidance to tell me how to do something/when and what I’m doing wrong, and correct, too much/too harsh and I break, too little and I break from stress anyway/freeze up because I won’t know what I’m doing.
I hate the arts MORE than I hate STEMS, I like science, but I’m not good ENOUGH at it…. I just plain don’t like artistic endeavors, and the social justice climate of the humanities completely turned me off to it.
So here I am, mid life, single, and feeling hopelessly trapped without any guidance at all as to what to do jobwise/what would be GOOD for me instead of a disaster…..
With most of my “experience” in marketing and PR, which, are obviously a bad fit (and I hate them to be honest)
How in the world do I find where I fit/what I’m good for?
When I looked at your LinkedIn profile, it appears you received your MBA in the last few years. Have you considered starting your own business?
I see myself as a square peg too based on this article. It is very exciting when I read this and I am also interested in research about Multipotentialite. I presume I am a multipotentialite and a square peg who has abilities of idea synthesis, rapid learning and adaptability. I am, however, facing difficulties in career plan. That is, I have not positioned myself to fit in specific career environment.
I can be creative. I have great interests in business, finance, fashion, arts, exercises and music. I majored in business and minored in finance in the bachelor degree, while I was a one-year marketing intern in a technology company.
To start up my career, I chose to be a financial specialist. But I was refused by many local banks as they said I am too unstable and they thought I will not stay in the position for a long time. Then, I entered fashion industry as an international production assistant since I only knew I like to work in the global market with people from different world. Fashion never showed up in my life in the past and my curiosity and ambition helped me learn it rapidly. My boss even assigned me to another country for one month to learn more about it. After 4 months, I got an offer from a bigger fashion enterprise. I stayed in the bigger company for only 8 months and I wanna advance my skills. Therefore, I applied the top fashion school in London and achieved the master degree as well as completed many international projects. In the last three months in London, I worked for three different companies as part-time sales consultant and temp marketing intern. I found I can combine skills and knowledge from different area.
I am a excellent learner with high adaptability. I am doing fashion illustration, exercising and also learning to play piano in my leisure time. My piano teacher said I learn it very quickly and I found I am not afraid to learn new things or to be a beginner. No matter in the technology company, the fashion manufacturer or the department stores, I can adapt myself to them very well since I can get compliment from managers.
It was very weird that I got an interview from a very big financial holding company but no one from fashion companies after I finished master degree in London. Since the fashion companies in my country need experienced people with more than 5 year working experience. Now I got lost and you can see my unpersuasive resume with many temporary working experiences. I am not sure I should choose to be an international fashion production specialist or maybe to be a marketing specialist in a department store, or maybe to be involved in advertisement agency. Or, I think too much and need to grab the offer to work straightly since my international and diverse background become a weakness in the environment.
The viewpoint of square peg or multipotentialite is very inspiring. The modern society, however, is looking for experts with great leadership. I hope I can persuade local employers to hire me and fit myself to modern society.
You are very young with a long career ahead of you. You will find your square hole that fits you.
Edward G Gallegos says
I relate to one of the characteristics Marc which you describe as, “You are rewarded for being an extrovert. I am a closet introvert! But, I have learned to behave like an extrovert in order to succeed”..
I realize this describes me to a “t”! All my career I would tend to rather hang back out of the limelight, a kind of false modesty I suppose. When push came to shove I would do well as an extrovert, but quite unwillingly.
The problem for me is I am now over 60. Behaving like an extrovert is TIRING!!
pigbitin mad says
This sounds a lot like me as I am not talented enough to create art/music for a living, but always wanted to be involved in those industries (mainly because I hate corporate America with the intensity 1000 suns). However, thanks to technology all the roles for introverts are being taken away. I hear it everywhere. The jobs of the future are all service and people oriented which I absolutely despise. (To whoever said that automation would eliminate the unpleasant tasks and leave us only with the pleasant tasks was not an introvert).
I am reasonably technically proficient at a lot of software packages (and I I learn new ones a lot quicker than most people) but I am certainly no coder and I have been told that there are no jobs for someone like me. Add to that that I am now 55 years old and I am beginning to think I should kill myself while I still have the ability.
I am going to do it too if I do not get a very convincing reason why I should not give up. And the old standard BS about stopping the “negative self talk” is not what I am looking for. The self talk is negative for a good reason. Namely, that even when I was young during a good economy I was practically unemployable. Now, it is truly hopeless.
Well, I love your handle and e-mail address. You probably need to forget working for someone else and work for yourself. Let me know if you would like to discuss this.
Mino Akhtar says
Hi Marc, thanks for your blog and article!
I was intrigued by your term cultural dyslexia, and sort have to disagree with you- sorry! The way I see it is:
– cultural diversity within a person or a team increases not just cultural intelligence, but also innovation
– we live in a global interconnected world and the more worldviews you have been exposed to, the more flexible and adaptable you are
– and personally, I grew up on 4 continents which has been my greatest education and asset
Would love to dialogue more anytime!
I have been all over the world but my formative years were in a single place. Cultural dyslexia is caused by how and where you grew up at different times in your life in different cultures. You cannot use yourself as an example for everyone because we develop differently at different speeds.
A simple example of this when I met a Italian who spoke English with a flawless British accent. Most accents are caused by how the palate hardens in the 1st 5-6 years of life.
It turns out he was born in Italy but his family moved to England when he was 2. He learned English but moved back to Italy when he was 6 or 7. He forgot all of his English and relearned it in school in his teen years. He still had that very distinct British accent even though he was Italian. 8^))
You will see this with behavioral patterns but the timing is really important.
Happy to chat with you about this.
Yup! I am a square peg. I don’t like people including my boss telling me what to do. I work best when left alone but as a lecturer and scientist networking is important. I also would consider myself as culturally dyslexic. I was born.and grown up in Germany but the n married Malaysian. I like this country but working here goes against my “Germaness”. It is a continuos struggle but luckily I am blessed with a high ability to adapt.
Thank you for your comment. The good thing is you know are a square peg which is half of the battle.
I am quite happy I ran into this article. I’m currently 25 and have been unemployed for close to 6 months after my last disastrous job in customer service. I never knew there was a term for people like me. I’ve spent a lot of time feeling bad about ‘not fitting in’ in that time, being a Dutch university graduate with a BA in Japanese and not even remotely knowing what to do with it. I’m currently still living with my parents while all of my friends/peers have their own place. (Some even own houses now.) Career-wise I haven’t really been successful in the way I would’ve wanted to be by now but I guess that’s also why quarter-life crises exist.
I’ve been taking part in career counseling lately to figure out my next step. Let me tell you, every hole you could fall into mentally while thinking about stuff like that, I’ve been there. Guilt about not having one particular thing you want to do, feeling like no regular job would ever fit right but not knowing what to do with it on a practical level, vague ideas about starting your own business but being insecure, and not to forget, feeling bad about not having done a certain thing by a certain age. Luckily my counselor and I are very like-minded so talking to her has helped a lot in grounding myself and re-evaluating my talents.
Over time I’ve learned that it’s okay to take your time but I do hope I’ll figure something out soon. I feel like I’d be capable of something meaningful but figuring out what is a grand task on its own. I guess I’m just in a hurry, haha. Thanks for writing this. It means a lot.
I looked at your LinkedIn profile and you appear to be an “interesting person”. I mean that in the nicest way. You probably will need to find that strange shape hole to fit in but you will find it.
Thank you for the reply. I am not quite sure what makes me an “interesting person” in your eyes but since you say you mean it in a positive way I’ll take it as such. Thank you.
Sue Rose says
I wish I could find a job description that fit likes and dislikes:
The parts of starting a business I like:
Having a plan
Figuring out the budget/income/sales
Discussing ideas with others, idea sharing, aha moments
Connecting with people in meaningful ways
Designing the brand (All creative)
Working off a list
Leading or guiding others
Having good ideas
Making a marketing plan and implementing it
Spending money for growth
Being the owner and feeling at ease
Having help I can count on
An organized space
Giving great service
Developing systems that work and flow
The parts I don’t like:
Having too much on my plate
Dreaming work at night rather than resting
Having to “sell” vs. it sells itself
Having too many things to do
Having it only be me to do everything
People who don’t believe in vision
If I’m a boss, I’d a square peg. After all, I’m tired of all hip and trendy stuff. That’s why I favor straitlaced and prudish types who are obsessed with rules and aren’t very sociable.
Julia Scott says
I am definately a square peg.
There was one annual performance review where the partners didn’t know what rubric to use for me. They jokingly said “you’re not a square peg or a circle peg”.
My rather cheesy reply was “that’s because I’m a star peg; I poke holes in what I touch and let the light shine through.”
Sometimes I think that the square pegs are really stars that cut something about themselves off to attempt that fit. Then I think circle pegs are stars that have grinded down their unique points.
I give you five ‘stars’ for your response! Ha ha!
Seriously, I can totally relate to your definitions. I am currently a circle peg, whose unique points are totally ignored and undesired at the job, trying to fit into a square peg. Oh fun!