“People don’t realize that one of the greatest gifts you can have in life is being an outsider,” said South African comedian, author, and political commentator Trevor Noah to a packed ballroom in New York City last Thursday night, June 13.
“When you’re an outsider you acknowledge that the world you’re existing in is not your own,” said Noah. “You understand that you are trying to get to something that belongs to someone else. You are the other. And when you’re the other you become comfortable…”
Noah added: “When you’re an insider, few things are more terrifying than being threatened with being an outsider. You feel as though people are taking away something from you. You feel like you’re losing your grip on being part of.”
Noah, who hosts the The Daily Show on Comedy Central, made his remarks during an interview with Ali Wentworth, actress and comedian. Wentworth was filling in for her husband, George Stephanopoulos, as MC at the Toigo Foundation’s annual gala dinner in the ballroom of Cipriani Wall Street. (Stephanopoulos had been called away by ABC News for his exclusive and now-notorious interview with President Donald Trump.)
Some 1,200 people attended the dinner. Its theme “Mission Possible” reflected the 30-year-old Toigo Foundation’s success helping women and minorities break into careers in financial services.
To be sure, white males with sterling academic pedigrees still dominate sectors of corporate finance such as private equity and venture capital. And Noah knew that many in a packed room of women, minorities and their supporters would identify with the feeling of being an outsider. He had plenty of advice and wisdom for them. Here are highlights:
Leverage your outsider status: Not being a part of the tribe leaves you free to marshal fresh ideas and perspective, without fear of rejection. Acknowledging he’s an outsider to American politics, for instance, Noah said “I exist in a space where I try to be an honest observer…I have no vested interest per se other than being a human being who hopes that we’ll all be treated equally…Because of that [I’m] able to navigate ideas and spaces in a different way because [I’m] not wrestling with the idea of being a part of.”
Use adversity as a springboard: “Adversity, although painful, can become one of the greatest galvanizers of the tools and skills that you can possess as a human being,” Noah said. “Every person of color knows what I’m talking about. All women know what I’m talking about…You move into a space that has been dominated by white men–comedy, finance, whatever it is…What you then possess is the ability to move between worlds…You can speak to different customers in different ways. You can understand ideas that go beyond one homogenous idea” of who people are. When the world changes, Noah said, those who’ve mastered more than one culture have the skills to change with it.
Have patience with the pace of change: “When you come from a space where you’ve been held back…your instinct is to try to radically change the environment,” Noah said. “I’ve come to find in life that radical change is often rejected. You see it in the cells of every living organism. Mutation is rejected. But when you look at the idea of slowly evolving a world…it becomes sustainable.” Noah added: “If somebody feels as though your presence means they’re going to be replaced, those people will have a vested interest in making sure that you’re not successful. But we’re starting to see in business and entertainment that the inverse is actually true. The more you include women, the more you include people of color, the more the market expands, the more the world expands.”
Deploy humor: “I grew up in a country where freedom wasn’t always guaranteed, I grew up in a country where equality was something that we didn’t have, I grew up in a country where humor was the one thing you could [create] for yourself whether you had resources or not. So I grew up in a family where we laughed through pain, where we laughed through suffering. Our nation laughed even while there was oppression…Anyone in this room who’s come from tough circumstances knows what I’m talking about. No matter how tough things get, humor is the one thing that can get you through that. It’s another thing that reminds you of who you are.”