Olga Khazan: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider’s World

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Did you know that pregnant women are scientifically shown to become more xenophobic—fearful of outsiders—during their first trimester? Turns out, that’s when they are most susceptible to infections so the body actually has what researchers call the “behavioral immune system.”

And there’s wisdom to get from studying how we do this thing that humans love to do which is divide people into groups…to label others as either safe or unsafe, friend or enemy.

In this episode of The Soul of Life I speak with Olga Khazan, a talented writer that covers health, gender and science for The Atlantic. Before that she wrote for the LA Times and the Washington Post. And she just published a book called Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider’s World.

We talk about her personal experience as an outsider growing up a Russian Jew in widely evangelical West Texas and some of her interviews with people who don’t follow the crowd and it works in their favor, the way it did for a survivor of the Jonestown massacre: 

“I had this totally different impression of Jonestown. I thought people were totally brainwashed.”

Khazan chronicles the people who stand out, who don’t fit in, and so doing illustrates how loners and outsiders are not really alone.

“Even in a cult, you can have someone who’s like “I’m not going along with what someone else is doing.”

Olga’s a talented, award-winning writer and yet she cautions about letting ourselves be lulled into mistaking the stories and knowledge we consume for real action that changes people’s lives.

Olga Khazan

Olga Khazan’s Weird is a gem of a book that contains a wealth of stories about the power of knowing that you belong. So many authors in my field of psychology approach this topic from such a pointed angle that it makes their readers tear the front cover off the book while they read it on the subway, hide it from their partners under pillows, and generally run for the hills. Books about the life-impact of shame and not-belonging have their place. But Khazan knows how to surgically handle shame’s radioactivity—mentioning that powerfully evocative word only five times. She risks herself for our benefit, leading with stories about herself and about others who realized that they can be true to their real selves AND be good at adapting rapidly to the pressures around them. When you’re done reading, she’s softly rearranged only a handful of molecules deep in your soul, and yet you somehow have x-ray resolution to trust yourself and trust others to be there for you when you take risks. Weird is not about people who don’t belong, it’s about all of us—awkward, amazing, burned, beautiful—we are all weird.

Keith Miller

Olga Khazan is a staff writer for The Atlantic, covering health, gender, and science. Prior to that, she was The Atlantic’s Global editor. She has also written for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Forbes, and other publications. She is a two-time recipient of the International Reporting Project’s Journalism Fellowship and winner of the 2017 National Headliner Awards for Magazine Online Writing.

“I think it’s kind of a testament to the Black Lives Matter Movement, that they have been so successful at raising awareness effecting real change. But they didn’t do it through Malcolm Gladwell books. They did it through direct action, and protest in the streets. Not just clicktivism.”

Olga Khazan, author of Weird Tweet
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Episode 5