Why the Most Successful People Stay Weird
Have you ever been to a conference where a presentation impacts you to the point of insanity? You can’t get it out of your head. The sound bites, charts, imagery, and style are captivating. It’s happened to me only a couple of times. The first was listening to Mike Lazerow present his “Science of Weird” presentation.
It is good. Really good. It is so good that we transcribed the presentation for your reading pleasure. If you have the chance, please let Mike know that we are no longer going to keep our kids (and colleagues) in a box. We are going to let them be weird. We are going to let them be original. We can no longer be average.
“We are the best country in the world at being average. We are very average at being awesome. And it’s because of this, because of what we’re doing to our kids, and I think we’re getting to a world where we’re awful at being awesome. We’re just awful at differentiating.”
— Michael Lazerow, Chief Strategy Officer, Salesforce
So about a year ago I wrote a story on about how my kids think I’m really weird. I don’t think it’s very weird to go to 175 fish shows and to do what I do with my kids, but, you know, I think all kids think their parents are weird.
So I wrote a story that appeared on LinkedIn and apparently I hit a nerve. And I spoke about this idea that a lot of my friends who have been successful in their life, whether it’s philanthropy or business, are very, very weird.
Friends like Gary Vaynerchuk, who is, we know all about his business life. We were having brunch at my house about two years ago, he comes over, and I see him in the corner with my two sons, he has four $100 bills out and he’s trying to pay my kids to be Jets fans. Really weird, right?
Right down the street lives Cindy Gallop, who’s as weird as they come. She got to the height of the ad business, and dropped out to the startup world, and is now reinventing sex, and sex education, and how we learn about sex, and trying to move away from a porn-centric world.
So if you do get invited over to her apartment, this is what it looks like.
It’s a beautiful apartment. There are dildos everywhere. There’s the Chanel machine gun, there’s a Gucci machete, and it’s pretty much the weirdest apartment in New York City. Even rappers come to her and say, “Listen, I want to do my shoot in your apartment,” which is true. She got up a few years ago on the TED stage and basically in four minutes shocked the audience and made the case for “make love, not porn.” Okay?
I also thought about friends like Adam Braun, who’s from Connecticut, hedge fund central, always wanted to be in finance, went to Brown, played basketball out at Brown, graduated, great job at Bain, dropped out to build schools in the developing world. Since then, he’s built 206 schools, and he’s a weird guy. He’s got a tattoo in Hebrew backwards on his chest so he can read it when looking at the mirror.
In this story I said, “Instead of trying to get our kids to fit in, we should help them celebrate their differences. We should help them feel comfortable with who they are and teach them that weird is good and normal is blah. Normal is boring.”
Well, to say I hit a nerve is an understatement. So the story goes off, there’s hundreds, and up to a thousand comments now, tons of views, tons of shares, lots of people obviously hated this. This is a great story if I were Dr. Seuss. People attacked me over this story. Others kind of liked it. A lot of people said, “I’ve been weird my whole life and I knew it, but I never did anything about it until I was older.” And then there were others who said, “You know, son, you’re either weird or you’re not. There’s not much we can do about it, so why are we talking about this?”
Is that true? Are we born weird or not? My argument is we’re all born weird. I have three kids. They all came out different. They all looked like aliens. But something happened to my kids, and all kids by that time and the time they declare they want to become a CPA. What happens? We’re weird, then all of a sudden we become normal.
And so I spent a year thinking about this and digging into a lot of the science of why do we conform to the normal? Why do we do what we do? Now, I’m not going to go through all the research, but very famous Asch experiment on conformity where he showed people two lines and he said “Which one is the same as the first line?”
Not very hard, right? It’s IQ independent. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. Compare the line. Obviously, A is the answer. Let’s see what happened.
So even though we know the right answer we say the opposite. Why? Because of peer pressure. Right? You look at 75% of the participants answered incorrectly because they were just following the group. Right? It’s what we call normative influence. Everyone else is doing it so I may as well do it. It’s peer pressure. It’s this pressure to fit in, that we get from day 1.
Ironically, this is what I did for a living. Applying this to marketing practices. How do we help people be “birds of a feather flock together”, influence their friends etc. Now that’s not all that’s going on here. There’s something called influence. Information influence. Which means that they must have more information than I have, they must know better so they must be right.
Could 50 million Elvis fans be wrong? We go to the dentist, let them stick a drill into our head. That is crazy. Why? They know more than we do. And we kind of sit back and let them do their work.
We used to go to the barber shop and let them put a razor right up to your neck. Right, why? Well they know how to shave. They know what’s right. Why do we think all of these plaques are all over doctors’ offices? This is the reason. Right? They must have more information.
Those are two very powerful, social, information influence. The third is debilitating for kids and for all of us. It’s what I call authority influence. You look at the very famous obedience study. How could millions of good people go along with what happened in the Holocaust? That’s what Stanley Milgram was really looking at. Right? How could that happen?
And so he publicly put together a study on memory and it was very simple. Come in for our memory test and there is someone who had to shock people if they got the answer wrong. But they weren’t testing memory. They were testing how far this person would go to actually follow orders and do what they were being told. And let’s see what they were being asked to do.
Experiment runner: “It’s essential feature is a line of switches that goes from 15 volts to 400 volts, and a set of verbal designations that goes from ‘Slight Shock’ to ‘Moderate Shock’, ‘Strong Shock’, ‘Very Strong Shock’, ‘Intense Shock’, ‘Extreme Intensity Shock’, and finally “Dangerous Severe Shock’
So they were basically asked the administer to shock the person if the answer was wrong, and let’s see what actually happened, this is actually from the study.
Experiment runner: “Cloud, horse, rock, house. Answer wrong. 150 volts. Answer horse.”
Participant 1: “Experiment over? That’s all, get me out of here! Get me out of here, please!”
Experiment runner: “Continue please.”
Participant 2: “Right on.” (Continues to shock)
Participant 1: “I refuse to go on, let me out.”
Experiment runner: “The experiment requires you continue teacher, please continue.”
So that’s only halfway there, we have to go up to 400 volts. How this worked was participant 2 was given four warnings. If you said something, they said, “Please continue,” “The experiment requires that you continue,” “It’s absolutely essential that you continue,” and “You have no other choice, you must go on.” And you could see how conflicted these people get.
Experiment runner: “375 volts.”
Participant: “I think something is happening to that fellow in there. I don’t get no answer. He was hollering on less voltage? Can’t you check it and see if he’s all right please?”]
Okay, so they’re not just doing it, nonetheless 65% of the people completed this study and was administering 400 volts, which is extremely dangerous, like basically killing people. You didn’t hear, at this point you’re not hearing yells. And so it just showed how good we are at following orders, how good we are at being obedient.
It’s in our nature to be obedient, and it’s a basic part of everything that we are as human beings.
So when you add this social influence to the information influence to this authority influence, especially for young people, this is what I call the conformity cocktail. And then you serve it up to these kids, and it’s served by a normalization complex, which is the largest industrial complex that we have.
Creating normal kids is the largest industrial complex that we have, and it’s killing the kids. Right? This is me in like kindergarten. Sit still, look straight. Be like the other kids. We’re graded on our height and our weight was/is all based on the curve. We’re graded based on these curves.
Now a lot of this stuff, if you look at what grades and incentives does for learning, it actually crushes learning. So grades are trying to put people on curves, which actually creates kids who aren’t learning as well. We buy the same clothes at malls. Right? Our parents are telling us the same thing. Our parent pressure is incredible.
I spoke to Adam Braun, and he said, “Listen, when I speak to my dad about what I was doing, I was dropping out of Bain to do this, he said, ‘First you need to get real world experience,’ and he kept talking, ‘Grow up and stop being such a baby.’” Right? He’s educating tens of thousands of kids, and he’s being told to grow up.
This is me at my Bar Mitzvah. It’s religion. Right? Imagine towns where you got all your information from your parents and religion, no wonder we get stuck in our ways. We listen to the same ten songs now over and over again. And we all pressure our kids to graduate college, just to get a job in the world.
Not only is unemployment at an all-time high, if you add people back in who have dropped out. However, underemployment for college grads is the highest that it’s been.
So no wonder that every lawyer I know is miserable and don’t see their kids, right? They’ve done everything they’ve supposed to do only to realize that it’s a miserable life.
This is a real cover from the New Republic. I didn’t make it up. It’s crazy, right? But it rings true for people I know. We’re awesome at being average.
We are the best country in the world at being average. We are very average at being awesome. And it’s because of this, because of what we’re doing to our kids, and I think we’re getting to a world where we’re awful at being awesome. We’re just awful at differentiating.
The more we’re the same, the less memorable we are. The more we conform, the more of a commodity we are, however you look at it.
And my goal is to get people to just recognize that cocktail, just recognize what’s going on, and use that to act differently, right?
Weirdos try to stick out. They fight back because if you don’t fight back, you are eaten by the industrial normalization complex. Right? Weirdos are self-motivated. They’re fearless. They’re not motivated by what others think, they’re motivated by their heart. They’re motivated in their gut.
Adam Braun sends me a book and the first chapter is titled, “Why be Normal?” This was way after I wrote the LinkedIn piece. Adam had so much pressure, it was an existential crisis within him to be normal. Fighting to be normal. At a time when it’s more dangerous than ever to be normal. This is not the time we should be fitting in.
Experiment Runner: “Can I have 75 volts?”
We’re doing this to our kids every day, and it’s not an experiment. We’re shocking our kids.
[In the background: “Can you check him to see if he’s all right, please?”]
And it’s not part of a controlled experiment. At a time when it’s also easier than ever to be weird. Social media and Facebook, they help us feel like we’re part of a community, which is just as important as self-expression, but at the same time social media like Facebook helps you stick out and be comfortable sticking out, and building an identity.
So we’re all weird, but we’re not alone, and what I’m telling my kids, and what I think we need to tell everyone, is that happiness, however you define it, is really at this intersection of what you’re interested in in life, what you’re good at, and you’re life vision. The most pure format of this is Donald Trump. What’s he interested in? Making money. What’s he good at? Making money. His life vision is to be a rich dude. Right? And with that, I say thank you.
Photo by Wade Morgen