I’m aware of the irony of publishing a list of instructions on how not to conform.
And I confess to the glaring paradox of a non-conformist like myself publishing a blog post that teaches people how to conform to a standard of non-conformity.
BUT TWAIN WAS RIGHT: Don’t assume you’re on the right road just because it’s a well-beaten path.
AS WAS EINSTEIN: Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities.
AND SO WAS EMERSON: A man must consider what a rich realm he abdicates when he becomes a conformist.
Here’s how to be a monument to non-conformity:
1. Discover what drummed the magic out of you. Indoctrination starts early. Very early. Usually long before you’re old enough to realize there’s a shiny watch swinging above your head. The trick is to travel back in time and pinpoint the person, institution or dogma that first hypnotized you.
Then, to honestly admit how that conditioning affected your choices as you grew up. My friend Richard, a therapist and life coach, asks his clients: “Name the first person that told you that who you were wasn’t okay.” Oof. Not a smooth path to walk down. Crappy self-confrontation.
Still, this kind of exercise yields tremendous insight into your (subconscious) conformist beginnings. And without such reflection, you run the risk of compromising your truth. “Becoming vacant in the eyes as you conform,” as Chris Whitley sang in Din of Ecstasy. Are you willing to look in the mirror and ask yourself when you stopped thinking for yourself?
2. Avoid fitting in. “What could I do – in this moment – that would be the exact opposite of everyone else?” This is the guiding question of my decision-making process. Has been since I was a kid. But now that I’m thirty, I don’t even think about it anymore. It just happens.
The question is forever engraved upon my bones like a cosmic serial number. And that’s my argument: Simply standing out is only half the equation. You have to actively avoid fitting in, too. How are you converting yourself into a square peg?
3. Work outside mainstream thinking. Is fitting in such a high virtue? No way. Don’t refuse to become anything other than what to group tells you to be. Make a conscious choice not to be a ditto. An echo. A copy of a copy.
Ask yourself (and your organization) to complete the following sentence: “The way we challenge the status quo is ____________.”
Then, post your answers on your website. After all, the answers to that question are the building blocks of your monument of non-conformity. Have you publicly refused to occupy the middle?
4. Practice positive deviance. That means believe what you believe because you (actually) believe it – not because somebody told you to believe and you mindlessly followed.
That means free yourself from the constraints of heartless orthodoxy.
That means make yourself the exception to as many rules as possible.
That means approach everything with a healthy dose of curiosity and aggressive skepticism.
However: Don’t deviate just for the sake of deviating. Mindless contrarianism isn’t much better than mindless conformity. I urge you to bleed for what you want, but not for the sole purpose of staining the rug. Do you know when to break the rules?
5. Hack a new path. My friend Genuine Chris wrote a brilliant blog post related to today’s topic. Here’s an excerpt that made my stomach drop:
“The difference makers are the people who are indifferent to what the crowd does or thinks. They create the world and mold it regardless of resistance. They ignore the persistent tether of the mediocre and don’t brag about seventy hour weeks, but brag about how much of their mind, soul and spirit they engaged to solve a problem.”
Lesson learned: Don’t live with the results of other people’s thinking. Push beyond group norm constraints. Are you following an existing path of safety or going where there is no path and leaving a trail of blood?
6. Be unafraid to court controversy. Again, not because you want to make noise – but because you want to keep rein on your individual. To show the world that you refuse to stand mute. And to “throw off the shackles of non-conformity and shout a throaty no to anything non-wow,” as Tom Peters wrote.
My suggestion: Take contrarian positions on more issues. Hell, on all issues. Make yourself a model of courageous living and thinking by constantly asking yourself: What do I risk in presenting this message? Because if the answer is, “not much,” you lose. Your monument to non-conformity crumbles under the weight of gutlessness.
Remember: Going against the grain welcomes splinters. Have your tweezers ready. What risk are you going to have to learn to live with?
7. Big isn’t necessarily beautiful. The bigger you get, the fewer risks you take. There’s just too much pressure to be predictable. That’s why smaller organizations, freelancers and one-man shows – who choose not to conform – win.
They’re not prisoners of their own bigness.And they’re the sole shot-callers. Thank God. After all: Who says monuments have to stand five hundred feet tall? Small is an acceptable destination. As Seth Godin wrote in Small is the New Big:
“Changes in the way that things are made and talked about mean that big is no longer an advantage. Big used to matter – and then small happened. And small means the founder is close to the decisions that matter and can make them quickly. As such, small is the new big only when the person running the small thinks big.”
Remember: If size mattered, dinosaurs would still be alive. How can you be a monumental without being monstrous?
8. Shields up. When you do decide to stand out, prepare yourself for inevitable slings and arrows from the people around you. It comes with the territory of occupying the margins. You’ll find that many of them will become uncomfortable. Or feel threatened by your distinctiveness. They’d much rather you fit in – that way they could ignore you.
Unfortunately, because you’ve sculpted yourself into a monument of non-conformity, people are (now) confronted with just how boring they really are. Good. Maybe that will disturb them into action. Maybe Steven Pressfield was right: “When we see others living their authentic lives, it drives us crazy because we know we’re not living our own.” Are you prepared to be hated?
ULTIMATELY: Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.
That’s what John F. Kennedy said in his address to the UN General Assembly on September 25th, 1961 – and it still holds true today.
I challenge you to contest the conventional.
I challenge you to drum up a delightful disturbance.
I challenge you to make yourself into monument to non-conformity.
Your voice will be heard by the people who matter.
LET ME ASK YA THIS…
What do you do to go against the grain?
LET ME SUGGEST THIS…
For the list called, “99 Questions Every Entrepreneur Should Ask,” send an email to me, and I’ll send you the list for free!
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That Guy with the Nametag
Author, Speaker, Entrepreneur, Mentor
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