A lot has been written, both in print media and on the internet, about the importance of being different, or simply being yourself. My first encounter with this philosophy came in high school and we were studying Walden, hence the world view of Henry David Thoreau. He stated famously,
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
I agreed with it then, and I agree with it now. It’s far more important, in my way of thinking, to find happiness and fulfillment in life by following one’s heart and one’s dreams than to march in lockstep with the rest of the crowd for the sake of comfort and security. Unfortunately, most of the business and corporate world worships conformity. The image below graced the front of Scott Adams’ Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook.
For most businesses and large corporations, the working philosophy is “don’t make waves, don’t be different, or (as they say in Japan) “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
“Deru kui wa utareru” – found at Nichiren Buddhist. “Japan is a country that typically prides itself on conformity, and sees anyone who is outspoken and holds different views to popular opinion as a potential threat to the rest of the group. This lone voice must be knocked back into line. It doesn’t even matter if the difference is the teaching of a great philosophy or something that can be harmful to society, as long as you are different from the mainstream, you must be put in your place.”
Indeed, other thinkers have an entirely different take on originality; In his 1999 novel Invisible Monsters, Chuck Palahniuk wrote: “Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everybody I’ve ever known.” Palahniuk is certainly correct in positing that we are all heavily influenced by our environments and whatever we have incorporated into our encyclopedic knowledge of our surroundings, but I disagree that originality is a scarce commodity. Much of it is simply drowned out in the vast sea of conformity that surrounds us. And like any other skill, the art of thinking creatively can be taught, and learned, and practiced, and developed.
A good example of thinking “outside the box” is the classic nine-dot puzzle.
The challenge is to link all 9 dots using four straight lines or fewer, without lifting the pen and without tracing the same line more than once. Like “Columbus’ egg,” the solution is easy when you know how, but many people will struggle with the puzzle because they can’t get their minds outside the borders created by the dots.
The traditional solution (although there are others) is below:
Other organizations, among whom are found religions, are also opposed to the concept of free thought. The cartoon below by Calvin Grondahl describes almost exactly my mother’s experience in Sunday School as a young girl:
As a result of this and some other similar experiences, she never darkened a church door again.
The good news is that even in the corporate world, there are those who promote, foster, and encourage difference. Apple Computer is one of these. I remember well the 1984 advert which launched the Macintosh line:
Apple’s philosophy has continued to celebrate difference – the following dictum is often attributed directly to Steve Jobs, but was in fact written by Rob Siltanen with participation of Lee Clow, and used in a couple of different advertising campaigns:
The Crazy Ones
Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.
But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.
Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?
We make tools for these kinds of people.
While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
To me this makes a lot of sense. One of my Facebook friends posted this today, which got me thinking down these lines in the first place:
Another one which I saw earlier and saved off is below:
Naturally, we’re not talking about real mental illness here, which is no laughing matter, and which continues to get short shrift in social and health circles – but rather the simple joy of being oneself, regardless of what the world around you happens to think. Dr. Seuss had it right,
and Fred Rogers spent a lifetime encouraging children to celebrate their uniqueness:
Naturally, for every good philosophy there will always be caveats:
This notwithstanding, the purpose of our existence is to find joy. It is my firm conviction that Tony Gaskins was right when he said,
“If you don’t build your dream someone will hire you to help build theirs.”
Given the emphasis on conformity, and the difficulty in breaking out of society’s molds and expectations, it should be a given that it’s not easy. But I know for a fact that it’s worth it. I have never been happier than when I was being my own vision of who I should be, rather than trying to shove myself into someone else’s mold.
The Old Wolf has spoken.
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