When I got out of college, I spent two years in construction management in Northern California. It was a stressful period for me - I was out of my element, alone, and over my head - and I struggled to fit in with the employees and subcontractors that I dealt with on a day-to-day basis.
It was towards the end of this time that I heard Tom Wolfe's 1987 interview with Terry Gross, in which he described the benefits of standing out. It's something that's stuck with me since. Emphasis below is mine.
Wolfe: I have discovered that for me - now, maybe it doesn't work for everybody - for me, it is much more effective to arrive at any situation as a man from Mars than to try to fit in.
When I first started out in journalism - in magazine work, particularly - I used to try to fit in. I remember doing a thing on stock car racing. I went down to North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, to do a story on a stock car racer named Junior Johnson. And I tried to fit in to the stock car scene.
I wore a green tweed suit and a blue button-down shirt and a black knit tie and some brown suede shoes and a round Borcelino hat. I figured that was really casual, it was the stock car races.
And after about five days, Junior Johnson, whom I was writing about, came up to me. He says, I don't mean to be rude or anything, he says, but people I've known all my life down here in Ingle Hollow - that was where he came from - he said, they keep asking me: Junior, who is that little green man following you around?
And it was then that it dawned on me that A, nobody for 50 miles in any direction was wearing a suit of any color; or a tie, for that matter; or a hat. And the less said about brown suede shoes, the better, I can assure you. So I wasn't - you know, I wasn't fitting in to start with.
I was also depriving myself of the ability to ask some very obvious questions if I thought I fit in. I was dying to know what an overhead cam was. People were always talking about overhead cams, but if you were pretending to fit in, you can't ask these obvious questions.
After that, I gave it up. I turned up - always in a suit and, you know, many times a white suit, and just be the village information-gatherer. And you'll be amazed, if you're willing to strike that role.
GROSS: When you were doing the research for your book "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," which is about Ken Kesey and the psychedelic acid trips, were you dressed like that, too?
WOLFE: Oh, yes. And actually, to have tried to fit into that scene would have been fatal - perhaps literally, fatal.
Kesey had this abiding distaste for pseudo-hippies or hipster -there was really no such term at that time, but we'll just call them pseudo-hipsters - you know, the journalist or the lawyer or teacher who on the weekends, puts on his jeans and smokes a little dope and plays some Coltrane records, and tries to be part of the scene.
And so he had a device called testing people's cool. And I remember once witnessing this. It was on one of these weekends. And he said: All right, let's everybody get nekkid(ph) - that was his word for naked - and get on our bikes and go up Route 1. This was in California.
And they did. They took off all their clothes, they got on their motorcycles, and they started riding up Route 1. Now, this separated the hippies from the weekend hipsters, if you will, very rapidly. But now, I didn't have to worry because I was in my three-piece suit with a big, blue corduroy necktie. And the idea that I was going to take any of this off for anybody was crazy.