Tim Ferriss (Author; The 4-Hour Work Week)
“A strong will to be yourself is an indomitable force.”
Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D. (Author; The Element)
“Those who follow the crowd usually get lost in it.”
Rick Warren (Author; The Purpose Driven Life)
You can’t stand out by trying to fit in better.
The nail that sticks up gets hammered down by the group. Creating a place for yourself in the world requires overcoming self-doubts and rejecting the opinions of others. You have to stop listening to the group’s answers and start answering life’s questions on your own. The problem is that the pressure to conform to the standards and expectations of your family, friends, and peers is extremely powerful. This pressure is often referred to as groupthink, which is the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity and individual responsibility. Overcoming the pressure to fit in is the only way to rise above mediocrity and to fulfill your true purpose in life.
The most famous study on the effects of groupthink is the Solomon Asch conformity experiment. This experiment was first conducted in 1951 when Asch, the psychologist, brought together small groups of college students for a “visual perception study”. However, instead of testing visual perception, the study was really testing the effects of groupthink. During the experiment, every student, except one, was a planted actor who knew the nature of the experiment. The actors were instructed to give incorrect answers to very simple questions that involved matching black lines on white cards. The real subject, who was the only one not aware of the real experiment, was asked each question after hearing the planted actors’ answers. Again and again, the experiment showed that individuals knowingly answer incorrectly, against clear visual evidence, in order to fit in with the group. Watch the below video to see the real subject (in the red jacket) give an answer he knows is wrong just to fit in. I love the expression on his face when he answers the second question.
Be A Permanent Eyesore
Choose to be the nail that wrecks the hammer. Some people will stand outside and say the sky is green if enough other people say it is green first. Don’t be one of those people. Don’t let others keep you from living your passion and fulfilling your purpose in life just because it doesn’t fit their definition of success. There will always be little support from the group for those who follow unbeaten paths. But there are individuals in the world who are counting on you to step forward. While the group is urging you to conform, real decision-makers in business and entrepreneurship are urging you to stick out. It’s impossible to conform and develop leadership skills at the same time. Understand that sticking out is the only way to leave an impression. This is especially true in today’s world. No matter what you set out to do, achieving your goal will require differentiating yourself from the group. Conformity is career death. Whether your goal is making money or getting hired, admitted, promoted, funded, followed, or accepted, you must separate yourself from the competition. The best way to do this is not by working harder to create distance, but by working smarter to create perspective. The key is sticking out in a way that helps you increase happiness, boost self confidence, and improve your self esteem.
Leverage Your Strengths, Ignore Everything Else
In graduate school, most of the professors and other students I knew reinforced the idea that all scientists are nerds, dressed in glasses and tweed, with massive inferiority complexes and bad communication skills. This was the box I was supposed to fit into. I was constantly being pressured to tone myself down and spend more time doing the things I hated most. I loved doing experiments, writing from home, and giving presentations, but I hated writing at my labdesk, attending journal clubs, and discussing lab techniques I would never use. My mentor urged me to focus on my weaknesses and spend as much time as possible doing the latter. I worked really well in the lab for short 2-3 hour bursts with a break outside in between. My mentor suggested this was a weakness and recommended I work in the lab for 10-12 hours in a row (even if I was less productive).
Those who sacrifice their identity to achieve success, will end up with neither. With the help of my mentor and peers, I realized that working on my weaknesses was not enough to fit in. I also had to start downplaying my strengths. I thrived on being confident, happy, and healthy and helping other graduate students stay motivated. I used to post quotes on the laboratory walls and talk to my labmates about fitness and personal development. My mentor was against this and started removing the quotes I posted. One day, he went as far as to pull me aside and suggest that I wear glasses and loose-fitting clothing to downplay my looks. Understand that walking in someone else’s shoes is a miserable journey. It’s natural for other people to want to make you more like them. After all, the only experiences other people have to draw upon are their own. If something worked for them or didn’t work for them, they will assume that it will work for you or won’t work for you in the same manner. The problem is that you are not them. You have less in common with other people than you will ever have in common with them. Your combination of strengths and weaknesses is completely unique to you and you alone.
Clarify Your Identity
Stop comparing your strengths and weaknesses to a conglomerate of everyone else’s best qualities. I was miserable for the first 4 years of graduate school because I was trying to fit myself into some collective image of all the other scientists’ strengths. I was trying to blur the lines between who I was and who everyone else was. This made me feel like I was stuck and dying a slow death. It wasn’t until I decided to ignore everyone and focus entirely on my strengths that my life started moving forward. All great things start with a decision to ignore what other people think. I started executing experiments in short bursts in the lab and taking long breaks to go to the gym or to go home and write. I started speaking and behaving with a newfound confidence in myself. I used to lower my voice when I was sharing ideas with my labmates so my mentor wouldn’t hear and judge me. But now I talked openly about everything. I felt alive again. I knew who I was. I had my identity back. As a result, I compiled more data my last year of graduate school than my previous 4 years combined. I also wrote my entire thesis in two weeks by writing from home instead of at my labdesk.
Lean into who you are. It takes more effort to build up your weaknesses than it does to bury your weaknesses under your strengths. Looking back, I realize that this pattern of trying to fit in with a group, failing, making a decision to ignore other people, and leveraging my true strengths has occurred over and over again. When I started wrestling in college, I tried to change my wrestling style to fit my coach’s style. Instead of shooting high-crotch takedowns (my most effective shot), I tried mastering single-leg takedowns. I lost several matches because of my inability to finish single-leg takedowns. Instead of continuing to be a “brawler” who won matches by tiring out his opponents in the final period, I tried being a “technician” like the other, more talented wrestlers on the team. I lost several matches by trying techniques I wasn’t any good at. It wasn’t until I started ignoring my coach and playing up to my strengths that I started winning big matches in college. I learned this same lesson when I started working in business and entrepreneurship. First, I wanted to be like all of the other successful businessmen and entrepreneurs. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to repair my weaknesses so I could be good at what they were good at. It wasn’t until I started leveraging my strengths that things really started to take off.
Your differences are your advantages. The only way to be great and to add value to yourself, an organization, or a new venture is by taking the handful of things you are really excellent at and love doing, and leveraging them as hard as possible towards your goals. Owning your strengths in this way will help solidify your identity. Understand that your identity is energy. The more you connect with who you really are, the more energy you will have to achieve your goals and fulfill your purpose in life. Staying connected to your true identity will also help you stick out to people who matter. Real decision-makers notice strengths, not repaired weaknesses. So start showing off your strengths. Start sticking out.