The tragedy of the nonconformist

“One of the greatest regrets in life is being what others would want you to be, rather than being yourself.” – Shannon Alder

In today’s world, nonconformity is often considered a virtue. And rightly so, as lots of extraordinary achievements directly result from individuals not submitting to culturally-determined standards. As such, we might do well to think different, as Steve Jobs would have put it. Être extraordinaire!

Be that as it may, as with all virtues, one must be cautious of gravitating towards its dark side. In the case of nonconformity, this happens when one isn’t just diverging from group norms, but is downright allergic to them. Here the nonconformist is adhering to the same rules as the conformist but simply acts inversely. This is unproductive as well as hypocritical, and I think it completely misses the purpose of diverging from norms in the first place: intellectual freedom.

I wrote a short story to illustrate this point.

 

The tragedy of the nonconformist

Imagine yourself as a tall, proud sheep who has recently been moved to a new herd. This new herd is somewhat different from the ones you’re used to and you started to notice an anomaly.

Every day, when the shepherd rings the bell to announce that it’s time for dinner, all the sheep become excited and start rushing to the food, pushing and squeezing. Making dinner a less than pleasurable experience for you.

Seeing this happen daily, you are quick to judge this behavior and, being the stubborn sheep you are, decide to want nothing to do with it. So, every day, whenever that bell rings, rather than walk towards it, you turn around and stare into the empty planes.

It goes on like this for a while, with you typically eating last, all by yourself. This gives you mixed feelings. You often feel lonely and wish you’d made some new friends. But at the same time you feel a gratifying righteousness. You feel special, different from those limited minds who participate in that same stupidity every day. You see yourself as a nonconformist, and it makes you feel superior.

Months go by since you first turned your back on the dinner-scene. Then, one day, the shepherd is late with ringing the bell, causing a particular excitement and restlessness in the herd. This makes you feel additional contempt and disgust, anger even. Can’t those stupid sheep see how dumb they look?

So when the bell finally rings and all the sheep make a run for it, you don’t even bother turning around. You simply stare at those morons, pushing and squeezing.

But then you see something, something you hadn’t noticed before: some of the sheep aren’t pushy at all, they just smile when the bell rings and join the back of the line, chatting with their neighbors in amusement. They don’t seem irritated by the other sheep at all and are having a great time. In fact, they are having a much better time than you are having. They seem approachable too, like they wouldn’t mind talking to you at all, as if the thought of you being different, for better or worse, has never even occurred to them. One of them even winks at you.

And that’s when you realize what a fool you’ve been. You were looking down on the others while being just as reactive as they are. You decide, there and then, to become like those sheep in the back of the line. Who just go with the flow. Who haven’t so strongly judged the behavior of their fellow sheep and alienated themselves as a result.

You decide to let go of your judgments. Sure you’ll have an opinion, and you probably won’t ever count yourself among the pushy ones, but you won’t judge them harshly either. You realize that life is way too short to live in contempt, that you’d rather become someone who is loving first and a critic second, that a nonconformist is only that when there’s no contra-reaction, no allergy.

You compliment your mind on the incredible self-deception that it is capable of. You decide to just be. You’ll be able to enjoy being part of this herd now.

So you start walking. Step by step. Excited to join the party and meet those inviting eyes. You step into the queue next to the guy who winked at you. You nod and smile. It’s a beautiful day and the sun is shining down on you. Life, it never ceases to surprise. What a wonderful miracle.

If I can do it then you can too

“Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.” ― Albert Einstein

If I would have to rank common sayings by how little sense they make to me, then one of the top contenders would certainly be: “If I can do it then you can too”, which is widely used by famous people, inspirational gurus and so called self-development ‘experts’ to encourage us nobodies to take action. However, as much as I’d like to believe in the feasibility of dreams, I think this saying is not only untrue but also potentially dangerous.

 

Why this saying fails

First and foremost, this saying doesn’t capture the concept of probability. Nor does it address the complex interaction between an individual and its environment that leads to a certain type of success. The saying suggests that ‘you’ (anyone) could—by adopting a certain mindset—reach the same level of success, which implies that the person stating it:
1) knows the exact recipe of his/her own success,
2) assumes that this recipe is one-fit-all,
3) fails to recognize the improbability of their success, i.e. the overwhelmingly large contribution of ‘luck’.

The fact of the matter is that a lot of successful people worked very hard to get to where they are. This makes them biased towards thinking that hard work was solely responsible for their success. However, they completely neglect to take into account the people who worked just as hard (and smart) and then failed. A group that is typically magnitudes larger than those who succeeded. This is where eyebrows should be raised, in particular on the faces of the scientific minded.

We are paying good money for advice, but most of it exists under the false paradigm of replicability. Whole industries are build on our insecurity. And worse than that, we put our day-to-day happiness in jeopardy. It’s hard to imagine a less rational world than one where millions of people are competing for recognition, and feel worthless in its absence. We are better than that.

 

A more appropriate way to think about success

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t pay for advice, or strive to be better versions of ourselves. Nor am I saying that it’s completely useless to study what successful people do. I’m sure there exist facts to be known about success in a particular field, at a particular time in history. What I am saying, however, is that we should avoid believing in the lie that we can all be the greatest… if only we tried hard enough.

The probabilistic nature of the matter won’t be addressed by exclusively studying success stories. We should recognize this whenever we read the latest analogue of ‘Think And Grow Rich’, and find ways to contribute that are both valuable and distinctive to our respective talents and skill sets.

So sure, let’s study how many shots Michael Jordan took before he won five Most Valuable Player awards. But let’s always be skeptics and find our own ways. Let’s be motivated by the successes of others but not be the consumers of their latest, cutting-edge magic pills. We can, by definition, not all be extraordinary—nor should we aim to be. Ordinary is exceptional enough. Work hard, ask questions and be a curious observer as your story unfolds itself. Ultimate control is an illusion, it’s about time we realize that.

Walk the path, any path

“The farther you go on your own path, the more you understand every other path. At the end, they all converge.” – Philip Toshio Sudo (from: Zen Guitar)

Not many things are as liberating as letting loose the perpetual and urgent sense of having to do more. Whether due to an underlying belief of not being enough, or simply the addictive dopamine rush of the next new thing, this sense is able to wreck contentment, work-performance and ultimately even the principal prerequisite of a fulfilling life: your physical health.
 

The path of the heart

The self-improvement industry counsels clichés like “follow your heart”, which, however true they might be, are surprisingly useless. I highly doubt that the answer is found in more of what the heart wants. Perhaps we ought to actually follow less of it, to save ourselves from drowning in the youngest of numerous passions and allow the heart to reveal its essence.

And what is this essence? It sure isn’t some preexisting, godsend calling to become a yoga-instructor (although if it is, that’s fine, yoga is great). Nor is it a job title, life-altering insight, or newfound mission statement. It’s something else, something greater.

In fact, it’s the path itself, or perhaps I should say ‘a’ path, any path. For it isn’t the label that the heart truly desires, it’s the experience. It’s the process of deeply plunging oneself into something, anything. To be captured by it wholly.

And to be good at it too. Not good in the sense that you’ll be loudly applauded by the many (although, again, if that’s the case, good for you sir), but good in the sense that you find a deeper means of self-expression and life-appreciation in it. That you may forget about everything else. A kind of craftsmanship if you will.
 

Depth over width

The heart longs for such immersion, and it can only be found by doing less rather than more… by not allowing your attention to wander all over the place, checking Facebook first thing in the morning, or watching Game of Thrones, while texting your spouse and answering the last few emails of the day.

It can only be found by being. Right here, right now. And allowing single-minded focus to seduce you into its captivating arms. It’s by appreciating depth over width that the heart wins. May it kindly light your way.

 

The grand paradox of acceptance

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Watts

Consider these three equivalent statements:
• Accept a situation completely and unconditionally as is, in order to move past it.
• Give up the need for change in order to change.
• Cease to force growth and growth will be catalyzed.
They describe a paradoxical force of nature that is independent of any deliberate human resolution: the deceptively simple act of acceptance. In my experience, it’s hard to overestimate its benefits. Acceptance comes with a mighty wave of serenity, which can ridden at any time but is more typically neglected. I wonder why… and I think we should change that.

 

To acceptance

Could we simply be observers as the secrets of the future gradually reveal themselves to us? Or would we rather hold on to the conceivably illusive notion of control. I think that answers to such questions matter.

One point of view may encourage negligence and passiveness, whereas the other might be the very root of our suffering. Every day, every minute, every moment we get to (feel like we) decide where we stand on this spectrum. Do we seize or release? Contract or relax?

As with most things, the truth of the matter is far from absolute. And the answer can probably be found somewhere in the middle. However, I wish to conclude with a gentle reminder of how good a life of acceptance can be, because I think that’s what the world needs a little more of right now. A soothing exhale.

“Stress is caused by being “here” but wanting to be “there,” or being in the present but wanting to be in the future. It’s a split that tears you apart inside. To create and live with such an inner split is insane. The fact that everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it any less insane.

If you have to, you can move fast, work fast, or even run, without projecting yourself into the future and without resisting the present. As you move, work, run — do it totally. Enjoy the flow of energy, the high energy of that moment. Now you are no longer stressed, no longer splitting yourself in two. Just moving, running, working — and enjoying it.” – Eckhart Tolle (from: “The Power of Now“)