What to Do When Your Confidence and Bold Ideas Get You Labeled “Difficult”

Fifteen years ago, down in a small, coastal town in South Carolina, we dipped our toes into the world of marketing to start a branding agency called Motto. We were twenty-something, had $250 in our bank accounts, and had never run a business. Everyone told us we’d fail.

From the beginning, we were swimming against a rip current of doubt. People said we were too young, too female, too inexperienced, and too broke to succeed in a world where sixty-ish admen made the rules.

The more we saw how the area’s old-school marketing shops (all run by the old guard) operated, the more supercharged we became. The creative work was as bland and forgettable as canned soup. The agencies treated their clients like transactions and cared more about the bank than helping business owners.

Motto would be different, we decided.

As two young women with wild ideas, we were already different. Being a .1% of all agencies owned by women, we were already staring down a challenge. Working out of a warehouse in a very shady part of town, we leveled with our clients about mediocrity. We pitched risky, provocative campaigns. Talked about “squishy” things like leadership, passion, and purpose. Eventually, clients started to love our intuitive, intense, daring way of creating their brands and gave us their business.

One day, back in 2005 when we were a startup, the biggest agency in town invited our fledgling agency to their office to size us up, saying they wanted our take on a campaign they were developing for a local bank. Everyone there had a leather briefcase. And there we were, at the far end of a table the size of a small country, feeling very out of place…with no briefcases.

The creative director flung the work down in front of us. “What do you girls think?” We paused, all eyeballs on us. Girls? Really? It was clear that they were expecting us to be so wowed by the opulent offices that we would gush about their work. Instead, we looked at the storyboards and mockups, then at each other, and then at the expectant faces across the table. Were these guys serious?

Ashleigh said, “Hmm, isn’t this Target’s tagline?”

Sunny said, “Do people really care if they get a free blender with a checking account?”

And just like that, the meeting was over. They escorted us out, and on the way out of the conference room, the CEO flung the door open and said, “You’ll never be successful in this town.”

That wasn’t the only time our propensity for speaking our minds and not tolerating crap got us in trouble. After a while, we started to keep score:

Times we were sabotaged by competitors? Sixteen.

Times a client fired us for the same reason they hired us? Twenty.

Times we were told our ideas were absurd? Hundreds.

Times we were written off? Thousands.

Fifteen years, hundreds of clients and a truckload of awards later, we’re still throwing down brave ideas. That agency that had us escorted out isn’t. And finally, we figured out why.

The Rare Breed

In working with one demanding, brilliant company leader after another, we uncovered a truth about success. If you look at the entrepreneurs, creative minds, and innovators who’ve changed the game, they’re not well-mannered, by-the-book types. They’re unruly evangelists. Arrogant hotheads. Disrespectful, combative perfectionists. These people didn’t succeed despite their abrasive, antisocial qualities but because of them. We called them the Rare Breed, and we’ve written a book about them.

Since then, we’ve discovered something else: It’s a lot more acceptable for a man to be a Rare Breed than a woman. Back in South Carolina, our smart-mouthed challenge to the ad agency status quo — and the trail of bruised egos we left behind us — would have barely been an issue at all if we had been men. There would’ve been some resentment, but eventually, hands would have been shaken and we would’ve earned the grudging respect of the old boys’ network. Because we were young, fearless women, we were just “difficult.”

In any workplace, the qualities that define a Rare Breed — guts, candor, a rebellious streak, obstinacy, a provocateur’s sense of humor — are much more acceptable in a man than in a woman. Arrogant, confrontational men with big ideas and bigger chips on their shoulders get called mercurial geniuses. Women with similar qualities get called things we can’t write here. If you’re familiar with that experience, and you’re as tired of concealing your true self as we were back in Motto’s early days, follow us. We know the way out.

Know What Kind of Rare Breed You Are

We’ve identified seven subtypes of Rare Breed:

  • Rebellious
  • Audacious
  • Obsessed
  • Hot-Blooded
  • Weird
  • Hypnotic
  • Emotional

The mainstream sees these qualities as troublesome — as vices — but they’re really Virtues. They’re your superpowers for creating standout success. But if you want to use them to your advantage, you need to know where you fit in that taxonomy. Are you a Hot-Blooded rabble-rouser who shoots first and apologizes later? A Hypnotic charmer with the power to manipulate even the most cynical person? Are you Emotional, driven by deep, personal convictions? The better you know your secret strengths, the more you can build on them to get what you want.

Break Your Approval Addiction

Of course, there are brilliant, formidable, outspoken women in the worlds of business, media, and the arts who have risen the top because of, not despite, their forceful personalities. Lena Dunham. Women Who founder Otegha Uwagba. Maya Angelou. Malala Yousafzai. THINX founder Miki Agrawal. Marketing guru/healthy sex advocate Cindy Gallop. #MeToo founder Tarana Burke. There are women who sit on all-male boards, run companies in male-dominated industries, and command the same respect as any man.

But how? How, when that seems like a bridge too far for so many of us?

By not caring about winning anyone’s approval. Many women are “approval addicts” who, rather than make provocative leadership decisions that might bruise egos, compulsively seek praise and pats on the back. They try to be everyone’s friend, obsess over critical feedback, and wave the white flag if anyone disagrees with them. But disagreements and turf battles are part of promoting new ideas and change, so when we worry more about making friends and keeping the peace we rob ourselves of the power to fight for what we care about.

Expect conflict and learn to relish it.

Rare Breeds march to the beat of their own drummers and make their own drums, so butting heads with managers, executives, and peers is inevitable. Don’t assume things will go smoothly when you demand that work be done again because every detail matters or push back hard against policies that are unethical or self-defeating. See conflict as a sign that you’re being your best — challenging people to think differently and be better, something that always comes with resistance. According to the Society of Human Resource Managers, conflict in the workplace can be a positive force and a source of energy. Accept that and you’ll be more comfortable speaking your mind.

Know your values and stick by them.

We kept building Motto despite predictions of failure because we knew we were bringing important changes to our profession. It’s hard to stand strong when you hear, “You should rock the boat less,” or “You’re just not a team player,” in performance reviews, but pushback is a natural reaction to dangerous thinking. Resist giving in and be clear in your own head what you’re fighting for: recognition for your ideas, an innovation that adds value for customers, social justice, whatever. Knowing you have a bigger purpose makes it easier to resist the people who just want you to “shut up and behave.”

Find your people.

You can be weird, impulsive, and difficult, but if you’re also right most of the time, and you’re fighting for causes that you know will benefit your company or industry, there will be people who think you’re awesome, even if they don’t dare make their admiration public. Harvard behavioral scientist Francesca Gino used the example of an Italian chef who offended all of Italy by violating longstanding culinary traditions — and eventually won national acclaim. If you need support (and we all need support) to keep being yourself and speaking your truth, find out who’s in your hidden tribe of fans. Let them support you as you support them.

Dive Into the Intimidation Zone

Journalists Claire Shipman and Katty Kay have been writing about women in the professional and political world for two decades, and they agree that many of us lack confidence. Writing in The Atlantic, they say, “We have between us interviewed some of the most influential women in the nation. In our jobs and our lives, we walk among people you would assume brim with confidence. And yet our experience suggests that the power centers of this nation are zones of female self-doubt — that is, when they include women at all.”

We’ve got medicine for this: something author and technologist Linda Bernardi calls the Intimidation Zone. The IZ is any territory where you’re cut off from support, unsure if your skills and talents are relevant, and at risk, with only your own resources and character to help you survive. Rare Breed women confront intense, sometimes vicious resistance, and if you’re unsure if you have the courage to keep pushing, stride into the Intimidation Zone.

This could mean taking on project where your skills are tested, leading a new initiative where you have no experience, or accepting a task at which everyone else has failed. In other words, you’re sticking your neck out, scared to death that you don’t have what it takes…except that you do have what it takes, and going deep into the IZ and then finding your way out is the only way you’ll prove that to yourself.

Instill confidence in others.

Of course, to do big things you need your colleagues or employees on board, but how can you do that when they’re threatened by your Rare Breed nature? Do it by jumping into the IZ and leading them to outcomes that they desire. This will fill them with confidence that even if they don’t care for your personal style, you’re still the one who can help them get what they want. If you’re the woman who can get it done when no one else can, people will follow you.

Develop your ISB.

However, boosting your own confidence isn’t the goal here. In fact, Harvard research has found that moderate self-confidence is more conducive to success because you’re more willing to accept feedback, plan thoroughly and be humble. We’re talking about impervious self-belief, the certainty that no matter what other people or circumstances throw at you, you’ve got what it takes to come out on top. How do you develop ISB? By venturing into the Intimidation Zone again and again. The more you come out in one piece, the more you’ll believe you can do anything no matter what the haters say.

Adopt mantras that remind you who you are.

We’re busy and stressed and we doubt ourselves, just like you. But we keep going and never forget what we stand for. One of the ways we do that is by writing personal mantras that remind us who we are.

Some of our favorites:

  • “Never eat your soul to fill your belly.” Don’t surrender your values for a payday.
  • “Massage the octopus.” To be great, obsess over the mundane details.
  • “Leave your ghost in the halls.” Make an impression that lasts after you leave.
  • “Show teeth.” Be ready to defend what matters against attacks.

Write mantras that reflect what you love, hate, or are passionate about. Make them smart and sharp and catchy and use them to stay true to yourself when the doubters get you down.


Get Our Book!

If you’re inspired by this episode and ready to turn your vices into virtues, get your hands on a copy of our explosive new book, Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous and Different. It’s available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Target, and Audible.

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Sunny Bonnell

Founder & Chief Vision Officer of Motto. Author of RARE BREED: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different (HarperOne). GDUSA Top 25 to Watch. Featured in Inc., Entrepreneur, The Breakfast Club, Forbes, The WSJ, The New York Times, and more.