184: No Difference, No Distinction

184: No Difference, No Distinction


How a Disney screenwriter and a Spanish-speaking Indian founder teach us how outliers can use their unique qualities to create magic.

Happy January. I hope your holiday season was merry and your inboxes are not too filled with coal / annoying emails.

I took an uncharacteristic 4 weeks off from the newsletter to think about its future—more on that shortly.

The end of the year had me flying from Bangkok back to NYC for a hot second, seeing my parents in the city, then shipping off to Atlanta to visit in laws before returning to Bangkok once more.

The upside is, I've mastered the long flight (pro-tip: get yourself Timeshifter app).

I've also continued to find conviction around writing about outliers, and that's what today's issue is about as well.


As an immigrant from China, I've always a felt strong connection to this country as an adopted citizen.

After my first startup folded, I had the incredible opportunity to join the Presidential Innovation Fellowship program. Established under the Obama administration, the goal was to bring technologists, entrepreneurs, and designers into government to work on important projects.

I was staffed at the Smithsonian, where I was the second youngest member of a class of 40 fellows that included venture capitalists, tech CEOs, and senior engineering leaders. I was also one of the few truly Silicon Valley style entrepreneurs.

I was a young Asian dude in his late twenties sporting a faux hawk and brightly-colored stretch button ups from H&M. I stood out.

Why is that shirt so tight???

I vividly remember one particular meeting early on. We were all making our introductions to a group of Smithsonian staff members and after I shared by background, I was asked by an older museum staff member how old I was, because I didn't look like I had graduated college.

Come on. What was the point of that?

But it's a reminder that being different is more easily rejected than it is celebrated.

Don't let being othered dim your shine.

Working with the two other fellows in our group, we helped launch and grow a number of projects, including the Smithsonian Transcription Center.

We pushed them to ship early, embrace the crowdsourced nature of the platform, and engage with the community to encourage more contributions. Very common Silicon Valley tactics, but brand new for the academic world of museum curators.

It worked.

To this day, 85,000 volunteers have transcribed 1.3 million pages of historic content letters, notebooks, coins, and scientific papers into digital archives.

The lesson:

Our differences, our unique qualities, perspectives, and backgrounds can be incredible advantages. Because they add what is missing. And when you are the missing key, you can unlock so much possibility.

Jennifer Lee was a 40 year old writer with little animation experience when she was added to the struggling "Ice Queen" film project at Disney. She ended up rewriting much of the narrative and played a crucial role in the creation of the hit song "Let It Go" which of course helped make Frozen a smash hit.

This success propelled her to become the first female director of a Walt Disney feature animation and eventually the chief creative officer of the entire company.

Not bad for one-time graphic artist who designed audiobooks for a living.
Similarly, founder Deepak Chhugani went from out of place to in the perfect place.

Despite not attending a prestigious college, he fought his way into a coveted job at Merrill Lynch. Two years later he quit and started a startup that would help recent grads without the fancy degrees break into Wall Street like him.

But the company's growth wasn't enough to warrant a venture scale business. So he went to pivot and leveraged his unique background as an Indian kid who grew up in Ecuador and spoke fluent Spanish.

This led him to establish Nuvocargo, a revolutionary U.S.-Mexico cross-border trade shipping company that has raised $50M+ in funding to modernize the old-school industry.

These stories reveal the power of outliers. And the need for resilience to navigate unexpected changes.

It's not enough to possess distinct qualities and unique strengths.

We need to find the right place and the right way to unleash those strengths upon the world. And we have to adapt to what is out of our control.

Oftentimes, outliers become demoralized because you're not making the progress you want or you feel unfulfilled in your projects. This might be because you're not fully utilizing your strengths and trying too hard to fit into the expectations set by those around you.

So, I encourage you to reflect on where you are and what you're doing.

  • Are you in a place that embraces and harnesses your distinct qualities?
  • Are you in a position to apply your strengths to their maximum potential?

It's crucial to find an environment, whether it's a product area, a market, or a company, that allows you to leverage your unique abilities and generate incredible results.

Without difference, there can not be distinction.

Go get 'em outlier.


Recent Issues & Social Posts

  • 7 parallels between entrepreneurs and executives (LinkedIn)
  • You never forget your first bully (LinkedIn)
  • Setting up a personal board of advisors call (LinkedIn)
183: Face Plants
Falling on your face hurts less than you think. And a few other thoughts about living life on your terms
182: Kryptonite
How effective outliers manage and mitigate their weaknesses
181: Strong Suit
Three ways to make your outlier obsessions an advantage you as an outlier

How I Can Help You

As most of you know, I'm now a full-time coach and CEO at Refactor Labs. I have a couple ways I can help you.

🧢 Executive Coaching: 1:1 + small group sessions that unlock transformational growth through extended partnership.

🛠️ Participatory Workshops: Interactive seminars designed to learn and practice crucial skills for navigating complex transitions—storytelling, emotional intelligence, experimentation and more.

🎤 Keynote Talks: High energy presentations that challenges audiences to dream bigger and act bolder in the pursuit of excellence.

Coming soon: Templates, exercises, and other low-cost ways to build resilience and develop your outlierness.