Robert D. Mather, Ph.D.

The Conservative Social Psychology Blog
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW with Olga Khazan, author of "Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World"

When the COVID-19 pandemic began its full force lockdown of Oklahoma in March of 2020, I was awaiting the arrival of the latest psychology book I had pre-ordered. When it arrived a few days into the massive collective panic, we were all receiving mixed messages about how to protect ourselves from the newest coronavirus. People microwaving their mail was a real thing at that time. In that context, I decided to open the box anyway and begin to read the book I had been impatiently waiting to be released to the public.


What book could be worth risking my life to read? The book “Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World” did not disappoint me. The author of the book, Olga Khazan, is a writer for The Atlantic. I had read a number of her articles on health and psychology years ago and one day she contacted me for an interview. After that, she interviewed me for a few more articles. She is one of the best writers of psychological science in the business. Her politics don’t align with mine, but guess what? I am a scientist and she is a science writer and our science aligns. As a conservative writer, I engage in political discussions (and fights) all day long most days. Having discussions about science with other scientists and science-knowledgeable people is as good as it gets for me. That’s the reason I got into psychology. In my social psychology courses I always told students about the importance of Hollander’s concept of idiosyncrasy credits and that no one ever talks about those. In her book, she became the first person I have encountered has made reference to that important concept. Perhaps that means that academically we are “weird” together!


In the book Weird, Khazan highlights the advantages and disadvantages that can come from standing out and being different. She talks about her own experiences growing up in Texas in a Russian family. She discussed a woman who had left the Amish and joined non-Amish society. She discussed a trans-gendered politician in a small conservative town, a former Mormon missionary and a plus-sized model pioneer. She discussed many people, all of whom would be considered “normal” if they weren’t living among a different group of people. Some left the new group and some stayed. Some had found their advantages as outsiders who thought differently and stood out, and some could not overcome or reframe that experience.


The most important thing is that she interviewed people who were all special, strong, and resilient in some way and all of whom make a difference in their sphere of influence, however large or small. The book reminded me of the story of the ugly duckling, who was different than the other ducks and turned into a swan. That children’s story gives hope to those who are different. “Weird” does the same. 

Her book is entertaining, emotionally powerful, and mixes in a great deal of empirical research from experimental psychology. Everyone feels left out or isolated at times and thus anyone can connect with the human elements of pain and pride in the stories she has collected. Khazan’s self-disclosure creates a strong bond with the reader and is a literary tool she used quite effectively. I suggest that you read her book.


I had the opportunity to interview Olga Khazan about her book. Here is our discussion.


RM: How did you become interested in writing about health, science, and psychology?

OK: I've always had an interest in it, from what I can recall. In college, I was torn between majoring in psychology, journalism, or pre-law. I'm lucky I have a career that combines elements of all three.


RM: What are your two favorite articles that you have written for The Atlantic and why are they your favorites?

OK: I really enjoyed writing this one because it brought me back to Midland, Texas, where I'm from, to report on teen pregnancy prevention, which I'm really passionate about. And almost every woman I know identifies with this one, about how men view women's humor.


RM: What do you think is the hallmark of a good journalist?

OK: Curiosity. Understanding what pisses you off and why.


RM: You wove other people’s stories around your deeply personal narrative. Was it scary to disclose so much of your own insecurities and pain? Was it therapeutic to put it on paper in such a way that you could deeply reflect on your own journey?

OK: It wasn't that scary, because I write in a pretty self-confessional style on our site and on my Twitter account. I did wonder if people would end up with the wrong impression of me or something like that, but some people will choose to misread anything, no matter how careful and opaque you are. It wasn't really very therapeutic, but I don't really write for therapy. Usually I only write about something if I've already processed it on a level beyond therapy or even what I would talk about with a friend. Once I heard a good memoirist (I forget who) say that you shouldn't write about something you aren't ready to talk about. I think that's good advice.


RM: What was the most personally powerful story that you encountered from one of your interviewees? Did that story change you in anyway?

OK: The story of Emma Gingerich, the woman who ran away from the Amish, really stayed with me. I think she's one of the most tenacious people I've ever met, and she had to overcome so much. Obviously, all outsiders face hurdles, but the twist to her story was that she was raised in a different time than everyone else. She hadn't used a computer or phone until she was practically an adult. Whenever I feel like what I'm facing is just too much and I'll never be able to do it, I think about everything she overcame and muster that last bit of energy :) 


RM: Is it rewarding to think that your book can help others who feel left out and inspire them to reframe their experiences? What message do you have for those who find themselves “weird”?

OK: I would say the big takeaway is that what you tell yourself matters. As I write in the book, a big strength that the more successful "weirdos" have is that they're able to tell themselves better narratives about whatever is happening to them. Rather than being a victim, they're the underdog who's poised for a win. Rather than an oddball, they're the creative genius. I don't mean to make this sound easy—I'm a pretty negative person, and I find it hard to put a happy face on things. But *trying* to come up with a better story for your life is a really good way to tap into those last reserves of resilience and make it through a difficult time. (Actually, it's okay if you're even lying to yourself a little bit, as long as you're not so delusional as to be hurting yourself or others.) When the poop really hits the fan in my life, I've started telling myself, "at least I can write about this." It's my own version of coming up with a more positive way of seeing things.

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