GOING ALONG WITH THE WAY THINGS ARE MAY GET YOU BY, BUT IT WON’T PUT MUCH HOP IN YOUR GET-ALONG.
The world – especially business – is designed as a haven for sameness, perhaps even a refuge for mediocrity. That’s because all of us are conditioned to be afraid of being different. By design, the world makes it harshly unnerving for an individual to consciously think and act outside the norm. Being ostracized is the threatened punishment for those who are out of step with the accepted and expected. This conditioning for compliance starts with the young and relentlessly continues to the end, when every headstone is the same.
The most strident apostle of sameness is the business world. Corporations are all about process and procedure in search of uniformity. It is this stultifying pressure to accept what others say is the way things should be that led Henry Thoreau to write, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way; you can and should sing your song now. Yes, being different in a world of sameness can be challenging, at times lonely and discouraging, but it can also be great fun and lead to some amazing achievements. Sameness is boring; it’s being different and discovering new ways to do things better that gives life to life.
Form Versus Freedom
Certainly society, organizations and businesses need structure and a certain amount of compliance to function. But when they apply – as they often do – these “rules of society” in a way that is intended to mandate conventionality and traditionalism, they become dishonest and are ripe to be confronted. These norms are fair game for challenge, not only because they discourage creativity and innovation, but because they destroy the very spirit of the individual who is cowered into compliance. Besides, it is devilishly fun to throw down the gauntlet in defiance of outdated orthodoxy. In the end doing so can be better, not only for the individual’s psyche, but for that of society and businesses as well. Just remember, it’s always better to be a sheep shearer than a sheared sheep.
The point is that as difficult and daunting as it might be to be different, the prospective rewards are far greater than the risk of being written off as “different.” In fact, the real risk is the frustration and desperation that can emerge when meekly submitting to the sameness of the expected. When it is all is said and done, history only celebrates and remembers those who achieve success by being different.
Being different can change the very way things should be and create a new and better sameness. For example, during most of the 20th century the accepted technique for high jumping in track and field was the “straddle approach” that called for approaching the bar and with a scissor-kick to roll over the bar face-down. Every high-jumper was taught and expected – indeed required – to use the same technique. Then in 1968 along came a jumper by the name of Dick Fosbury and his approach was totally different. He would move towards the bar at an angle and then at takeoff turn his back and “flop” over the bar.
At first, Fosbury was castigated and ridiculed by those in the track and field world. His different approach to scaling the high-jump bar brought on criticism suggesting he was just a “kook” who would be a flop. But when Fosbury easily won gold in the high jump at the 1968 Olympics, the disparagers quickly turned into fawning followers. Almost overnight the “Fosbury Flop” became the new “sameness” that virtually every high-jumper was expected to comply with — and still do to this day.
It is important to note that Dick Fosbury was not a rebel who sought to overthrow the track and field world. He wanted to do the exact same thing other jumpers wanted and that was to go higher. The only difference was that Fosbury was open to the idea of being different. He did not accept sameness as a way for him to be successful and happy. Due to a one man’s willingness to be different, the “Fosbury Flop” is now considered the most revolutionary change in track and field of the 20th century. It’s a pretty sure bet that Dick Fosbury had a lot more fun and success being different then would have been the case if he had submitted to sameness. And Fosbury, 66, continues to be involved in athletics as president of the World Olympians Association.
There are countless other examples – in society, sports and business – of the influence, success and fun that has been enjoyed by those who were willing to risk being different. While managers can be “successful” managing sameness, the only way to achieve transformative change and success is to be different. Being different is the only true path to success, and here is why:
- Without a difference there can be no change
- Without change there can be no innovation
- Without innovation there can be no progress
- And without progress there can be no success
One additional benefit that comes from being different is a natural aura of leadership. The very essence of successful leadership is to be different. When everyone is thinking and acting the same way it is difficult for leadership to emerge. Managers – whose job is to make sure everyone is doing the same thing the same way – can function effectively in this environment of sameness, but it does not engender true leadership. But with an ability to see new things and a willingness to act differently to improve the way things are comes a natural sense of leadership that others will instinctively follow. Dick Fosbury did not set out to be a revolutionary leader in high jumping – he just wanted to win a medal – but the success of his different approach to the sport caused all others to follow. His willingness to be different allowed him to meet the other competitors in the same space where they were, but then lead them to a different place where he wanted to go.
The same attitude can work in career and business.
When an individual has the ability to look at things in a different way and challenge the generally accepted understanding of how things should be, they can be stimulated by the test of being different. Life becomes a joy, not drudgery. Only to the extent that an individual is willing to expose themselves to the ridicule of being different can real change and accomplishment be achieved.
So what does it mean to be different? The truth is that in today’s world of sameness it comes easily. We are not talking about being different to be an obstructionist, but to be a constructionist for change. A radical, rabble-rouser will not accomplish as much as a radical thinker.
Being different is, first and foremost, a mindset, a way of thinking. It may seem strange, but all it takes to be different is to always ask: Why? or What if? Why haven’t we put wheels on this luggage? What if we did? Being different is to challenge accepted assumptions and not accept things the way they are, simply because they are. Those who are different don’t yield to what has been done; they yearn to find a way to do what has not been done.
Coupled with this inclination to be different is a passionate desire to find a difference that makes a difference. It is not just incremental change, but the excitement of being able to jump to the next horizon that stimulates those who are open to be different. The US Postal Service delivered mail for over 200 years making incremental changes from foot to horseback to rail and to air. Fred Smith and FedEx also sought to deliver mail, but by thinking differently Fred Smith leapt to the next horizon and instituted change that made a real difference.
The person who is focused on using the path of difference to achieve their goals is not concerned with what others are doing. They recognize that because of the system of sameness, few others think or operate in their space and the only competition they have is in their own ability to be different. So the next time someone seems to castigate you with the question, “Why do you have to always be so different?”, take it as a compliment.
And the Moral of the Story …
Can you imagine anything more mind-numbing and depressing than being required to do the same thing over and over again? To have no ability to control when, where and how the task is performed. The only thing that could be more depressing is the recognition that you don’t have any other choice, because you fear being looked upon as “different.” It’s not crazy to be different; it’s the meek acceptance of sameness that leads to the insanity of quiet desperation. The only fear we have a right to fear is the fear of sameness.
Being different does not mean that an individual has to challenge, question and wage war on everything all the time, but to be different, the individual does require that mindset. It is the only way to be attuned to what needs to change and to be open enough to finding a better way.
The great fun about being different is that if you are right about what you passionately believe needs to be done to make things better, then soon those who are stuck in boredom of sameness will be motivated to be the same as you.