On Being Weird

Everyone has their quirks. Their weird habits. Their weird interests.

Most tend to hide them, somewhat ashamed of admitting to themselves & others that they may be different.

My quirks:

  • I’ll have a bit of every type of food on my plate with each forkful
  •  I’ll count the number of letters in a sentence I just said (whether aloud or in my head) and keep dividing the sentence in half to form mini-sentences or words

What is the point? I’ve got no idea. I just do them. I also suspect everyone else has their own quirks. I’ve also come to the conclusion that there are two groups out there:

1. There are those that treat them as dirty little secrets

2. Those who just don’t give a shit.

The latter rightly think there are more important things to worry about than what others think of them eating pizza with a knife & fork.

Like those guys, just learn to embrace your quirks & stop worrying about the opinion of other people. As long as you’re not harming anyone else, more than mildly offending their opinion, then it’s just part of your nature.

You don’t need to tell everyone you meet about your keen interest in Yu-Gi-Oh, or that you still eat plain mayonnaise sandwiches now & again, just don’t worry about letting the cat out the bag.

Celebrate Your Weirdness

The weird habits themselves are not something to celebrate. The thing to celebrate is the individuality that they represent.

Your quirks are a sign that you don’t follow the crowd, that you’re not just faceless, lacking identity, in a mass of humanity.

That you are willing to stand up & do whatever you want to do, to act as you want to.

Also, do you really want to end up being called ‘that nice guy’? Nothing remarkable. Nothing special. Nothing really to say about you. Just ‘that nice guy’.

Nice = boring.

Don’t kid yourselves into thinking otherwise.

Embrace your weirdness & others will too. If you are fine with it, others will be too.

Your Weirdness Provides Strength

It’s a slippery slope if you start worrying too much what others think.

Where does it stop? Do you worry about every action? Everything you say? Constantly on edge in case you slip up?

If you start worrying too much, you’ll live a life racked by anxiety, because you can never please everyone. Someone, somewhere will judge you. Will call you weird. Will disagree.

Life is full of people. And people tend to disagree, to be irrational, to enjoy conflict. It’s a losing race to try & please everyone.

Embrace your weirdness & you’ll find that:

1) you will find it incredibly liberating to just do what you want

2) you’ll very quickly find you develop a thick skin to anything thrown your way.

 

In essence, you’ll start to not give a shit what people think. You’ll stop acting as you think society & those around you want you to. You’ll free yourself from the immense pressure to conform that society — and we — put on ourselves. You’ll start thinking as you want. Doing as you want.

It’s sounds like a small thing, right? Admitting you regularly dance around the house alone?

Once you feel the liberating sensation of not giving a shit, however, you’ll realise it’s not.

What’s my story?

Without a story compelling enough to make you stop, remark upon it & pass that remark on to somebody else, you’ll get nowhere.

Whether you’re building a product or building a personal brand, at some point you’ll realise that people just don’t care. There are 7 billion of you milling about the world, all thinking their lives are the most important thing that’s ever happened.

Fuck the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars, the invention of TV, the Twin Towers, the internet.

What about that fucking guy at the checkout aisle last week that pushed past me? Why can other people not understand how big a deal that was?

Because, as I said, there are 7 billion of you. No-one does — nor should they — give a shit.

 

So, to become noticed — to deserve to be noticed even — you must tell a compelling story that resonates with them.

You must tell a story that aligns with the stories they tell themselves.

Let’s take an example:

Imagine you write a quality blog about how to recycle better. You send it to a group of environmentalists. They’ll read it & they will listen.

Send that article to a right-wing, oil industry lobby group, however, and it’s going straight in their junk mail.

That’s because the stories you tell, your ideas, align with the stories the environmentalists tell themselves. A story of preserving the planet, of limited resources.

The oil industry lobby group, on the other hand, tell themselves a different story. A story of infinite resources, of the supremacy of financial gain, of protecting their vested interests.

Back to the drawing board

So when I sat down to write, thinking about what story I wanted to convey to the world, I realised I must tell one that clicks with my audience.

It could not be one that was self-indulgent, ego-driven & irrelevant for an outsider.

It would be a story of injustice. Of getting fired. Of having principled that would not be swayed. Of standing up to a fraudster.

I don’t know in which theatre that story will be played out, how each act will unfold, where it will take me even.

I just know that I stand by one primary belief:

That life is too short to not seize every opportunity, to go on the attack, to pursue your dreams.

That you have 4,000 weeks in your life to do something you love with. Something that gets you out of bed in the morning. Something that makes you look forward to each day.

That you can make all the excuses you want, but you’ve got the same 4,000 weeks as everyone else, so don’t go & waste them.

Is this success?

A never-ending ascent

We tend to accept a definition of success loosely based around financial gain & social status. Being a wealthy finance executive, or a partner at a law firm, or a business magnate.

‘Success’ is narrowly defined for simplicity. There is one definition that we as a society have accepted & therefore follow.

But can such a broad definition be applied to the diverse needs, interests & goals of each individual? Is it even accurate to say that one definition exists?

Firstly, no, we can’t fit all of humanity’s diverse goals, interests & goals into one narrow definition. We are just too eclectic. Too diverse.

Secondly, even if we base the underlying assumptions that define success on social status & the accumulation of wealth, then it falls up short.

Because both these assumptions have no clear outcome, no clear goal. They are entirely subjective & malleable. You cannot say, for example, ‘I have $1 million & should therefore be viewed as a successful person’.

Wealth is relative. Social status is relative. Both are also relative to your own perception & expectations.

A millionaire will think he is poor & inadequate in a room full of billionaires.

 

Climbing up the corporate ladder, always in the pursuit of more, never seems to have an end point.

Because where’s the point that you’ve ‘made’ it? Is it when you’re highest up in the ladder? Or you’re earning over $500,000 per year? Or you’ve got a nicer car than your neighbour? Or you’re head of the company? Or you’re head of the biggest, wealthiest company in the world? Or you’re head of your own company?

It’s impossible to quantify, or when to say ‘stop’. There’s no clear peak to summit. There’s no way of benchmarking yourself & saying, ‘OK, I’ve now made it. I am a success.’

There’s always someone else with more money, or with more social status. It’s a never ending struggle to the top. Once you start playing that game, there’s no end in sight.

 

Define success yourself

It seems to me that we need to re-frame the question.

We currently look at success based on outward metrics. Based on arbitrary concepts that society says we should follow.

But this is backwards. We can’t just define success as a singular concept. Each person must define success for themselves. If my priority in life is a balanced family life, for example, then being a wealthy business leader with three estranged kids is, in fact, a hugely unsuccessful life.

Instead, we should look at success inwardly. What is it that we want to achieve as an individual? Why? How can we quantify it?

Is it based on a metric, like wealth? Or on a journey?

Are you only focused on an outcome, or are you interested in seeing how things unfold along the way?

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — Bilbo Baggins

In my experience, outcomes can be a risky business. They can be arbitrary, they can change over time, based on new information or experience, & they can be outside of your control, particularly in a fast-changing world.

Psychological studies support this, suggesting we should focus on process rather than outcomes in goal-achievement.

So, what is success then?

I can’t give you an answer. I’m neither qualified, nor do I believe that anyone else can give you an answer.

You must go, experience things, learn along the way, enjoy it, & start finding your own answer to that question.

 

The Lies & Stories That Determine Our Lives

Lies. Lies. Lies.

Lies are all around us.

We tell ourselves lies all the time. They form the beliefs we internalise & therefore guide our decisions & actions.

Others tell us lies. They want us to believe a certain story about their product, or about their lives.

We lie to ourselves. We get lied to.

 

This is because we need these lies, these stories we tell ourselves, to operate as a collective in a complex world. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in Sapiens, without Homo Sapiens’ unique ability to form communities based around certain stories, such as religion, we would never have been successful:

“Sapiens rule the world, because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. We can create mass cooperation networks, in which thousands and millions of complete strangers work together towards common goals. One-on-one, even ten-on-ten, we humans are embarrassingly similar to chimpanzees. Any attempt to understand our unique role in the world by studying our brains, our bodies, or our family relations, is doomed to failure. The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively.

This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes. We cooperate effectively with strangers because we believe in things like gods, nations, money and human rights. Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money and no human rights—except in the common imagination of human beings. You can never convince a chimpanzee to give you a banana by promising him that after he dies, he will get limitless bananas in chimpanzee Heaven. Only Sapiens can believe such stories. This is why we rule the world, and chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

 

Let’s use the example of money:

People believe that little bits of green paper are worth something. They trust them because they believe the government will guarantee them. They trust the government because they believe it has legitimate authority. If people started to stop believing in money, modern society would break down & cease to function.

Money is just a story we tell ourselves. It is a lie. It is not necessary a bad thing, but it is just important to be aware that we collectively tell ourselves a story about money that doesn’t have any inherent truth to it.

 

We Need Lies

We need these lies. Without them society wouldn’t function. I need you to believe what I tell you. You need someone to believe what you tell them. We need to believe what society tells us, or government, or our neighbour.

None of it’s true. We can never know what is really true. Every belief we have stems from our specific socio-political context.

We think slavery was barbaric. In two centuries time, they’ll think that eating meat was barbaric.

But don’t worry. You don’t need to go into a spiral of self-doubt, nor question your very existence. We have to believe something, or we can’t really operate.

 

Simplicity from Complexity

We live in an ever-more complex world. As a result, it’s become easier for us to tell ourselves bad lies.

Good lies would be those that are, to the best of our knowledge, help pursue your own, as well as society’s, interests. A good lie would be to recycle, because you want to protect the environment & feel good about it.

A bad lie are those where you are un-informed or mis-informed. Where you think you are pursuing only your own interest, or where somebody else has manipulated you into thinking something despite the facts. A bad lie would be buying an expensive cleaning product that is supported by fake scientific data, for example.

There are so many things. So many decisions. So many ridiculously complex things we need to do ever day that we simplify to cope.

We can’t read up the relative pros & cons of one shampoo, spending weeks reading into the scientific data, testing it ourselves, running peer-reviewed trials & studies, etc. We just want to buy some shampoo. Ideally in under a minute.

So we tell ourselves a bad lie. We make a snap decision based on appearance, based on first impression, on what someone said last week about it.

We follow the company’s lie: We believe the story they told us about their rigorous testing method, the fruity-ness of the ingredients, the foamy-ness of their foam.

 

The Pursuit of Better Lies

You can’t always tell yourselves good lies. But you can tell yourself better lies.

The world is complex. It’s only likely to get more so. You can’t inform yourself about everything. You can’t question everything.

But you can pursue the truth in things that matter. Maybe don’t worry about the shampoo, or the toothpaste brand.

But do worry about the big things:

Is the career path you’ve chosen based on bad lies?
What about that relationship?
The people you hang out with?
Your rampant consumerism?
That new car?

 

(Most of the lies I’ve written here come courtesy of the lies Seth Godin passed on to me in his thought-provoking book All Marketers are Liars.)

Focus on the foundations

We tend to focus on the small things & ignore the big things.

When building a product, we skip over the problem in our excitement to build a solution – any solution.

When building a team, we skip over the principles that we must share to keep us together on the journey.

When building a company, we skip over building a clear, long-term vision.

It stems from impatience. Everyone rushes ahead, worrying about the little things, willing things to move fast. Busying themselves because they lack the patience, to stop, to observe. They allocate time & resources in a flash, rather than approaching it as methodically as a chess grandmaster would.

Fear also plays a major part in this. It’s hard to face the big issues. The structural problems in your company. The toxic culture. The lack of leadership you have provided.

It takes some deep self-examination. It takes questioning your ego. It takes making hard decisions that are going to upset a lot of people.

It also means confronting the possibility that things might not work out. That the underlying problems have become too big.

But it’s got to be done. Those problems will rear their head at some point. And you’ll be unprepared for it. You’ll act surprised, shocked even, but you always knew they were there. You just tried to ignore them.

So be patient & build your foundations properly. Without strong foundations, it doesn’t matter how big you may get, at some point that first storm is going to head your way.

And it’s going to blow your company right over.

What’s your story?

Anyone starting a company knows — or at least should know — the power of story-telling.

A product — let’s say an ice cream brand — could focus on marketing the ten scientific reasons why it is better than any of its competition.

These clear facts may even be understood & accepted as true by the potential customer.

The customer may even like their fancy packaging, the drool-inducing images & the warm, welcoming branding.

But they don’t give quite enough of a shit. They still buy the more expensive, objectively less healthy version on the next shelf.

Why? Because our first product has no soul. It has no narrative to match the brand. Where did it come from? Who worked their arses off to get the milk churned, to hand-pick the fruit, to send it off to you with love, care & dedication?

I don’t even particularly like ice-cream, but if I buy it, I’ll buy Ben & Jerry’s.

The names are fun, true. But I buy it because I remember reading the back of the pack fifteen years ago & it resonated with me. Two guys, on an organic farm, raising a couple of cows, coming up with crazy recipes. What is not to love?

And what’s more? I don’t even know whether it’s organic, nor how many cows they have, nor how they come up with the recipes. It’s probably all just done in a factory by a team of guys in lab coats.

But my ten-year old self created that image in my head & it’s still the same one my twenty-five year-old self envisions.

 

So start telling your story

So any entrepreneur or marketer knows the value of story-telling. Yet we still don’t f**king do it!

And that’s OK. I have ignored it myself. And that’s because it’s a really hard art.

 

Find something remarkable

You need to find something that is compelling enough for people to go & tell their friends. This can happen with luck, but generally happens with a decent understanding of psychology or with the experience of trying one hundred ideas & seeing if one sticks.

We live in a crowded world. It must be remarkable, something worth remarking upon, in order for people to stop & notice.

 

Remove your ego

In order to stumble across an idea that is clear & compelling though, you must remove your subjective opinion as much as possible.

What you assume is interesting about your own story is unlikely to interest others. That life-changing trip? Those years in that shitty job? Unless it really clicks with the audience & comes across as incredibly humble, you are just going to put people off.

Again, we live in a crowded world. People have heard all the sob stories. Someone somewhere has probably had the same experiences. Your audience have already been there, done that.

 

Go out there & tell people

And don’t expect to hit the ball out the park in your first go. Just start telling people what you do, what your story is. See how they react. And I don’t mean their nod of approval or supporting words. They are bullshit. They are just being nice to you.

Really see what their true reaction is. Do they tell other people? Do they visit your website? Do they get in contact with you after?

If 10 people react indifferently, go back to the drawing board.

 

I’m not a marketing guru. You’ve probably heard this advice before. Yet you didn’t actually go & follow it. Find a story, test it on a few friends, go back to the drawing board, test it on as many people as you can find.

Because if you hit that one idea, that one thing that resonates, it does all the work for you.

The Genius Myth

“Genius is only a superior power of seeing.”

– John Ruskin

 

Companies aren’t run by Steve Jobs-type visionaries.

Many people may think they are Jobs reincarnate, living up to the over-exaggerated, inaccurate myth of the lone visionary, forging ahead to create his unique, compelling vision of the world.

Most of them are kidding themselves.

The bad leaders pretend they have vision & know where they are leading you because they can’t be bothered – or are unable to – either share what that vision looks like in a clear, concise way, or they simply have no vision.

They’ll try to stifle dissent & silence the questions because they purport to know what they are doing.

The good leaders are the real geniuses, however. Not because of IQ, not because of having solved some infamous scientific problem, not because they won a nation-wide spelling bee aged 11.

They are the real geniuses because they are able to see what others are not. They are able to see where the future is heading & have a clear vision to match how they, you, your company, will adapt to that future successfully.

 

They may not be the smartest person in the room – they probably aren’t – but they are the ones able to create a clear vision, convey that vision to others & work out the main steps they need to take to get there.

Despite all the noise. The distractions. The competing voices around them. The uncertainty the future holds.

Despite all of it, they can see where they need to go.

How to stop people stealing your time

It’s not just at work that you find yourself led astray. You sort of expect it there. You watch out for it.

Maybe your boss asks you to stay in late to finish that project. Maybe a colleague asks you to help out with some seemingly important task that throws your to-do list off for the day.

But maybe it’s also your friends, your family. The people you love to spend time with, but maybe you spend up spending too much time with.

Whether it’s a holiday or long weekend away, there’s always the risk of other people throwing you off course for a few days. And it takes a few days to get back on it.

They want to do everything together, as you do too. But you’ve got to meditate, to journal, to write that article or record that podcast. They are just in full-on escape-from-work mode. They want to disconnect. Not hear the words ‘productivity’ or ‘creative’. They just aren’t interested.

Which is fine, but you’ve got keep those habits up.

So find yourself a few hours, maybe before everyone is up. Go to a café, do some writing, carve out those 1-2 hours you need to create something. Be focused. Leave it at 1-2 hours. Then go & enjoy your day.

Because, at the end of the day, you’re going to remember the experiences enjoyed with them in 20 years, as opposed to the writing or the meditating or the podcast.

But you can still do both.

Avoiding Graduate Herd Mentality

Everyone seems to just end up going through graduate programmes. A large amount of students end up going to the one or two firms that starting making their pitch the earliest. Maybe whilst you were still in first or second year.

So we all just assume that we should probably do a graduate programme. I mean, if everyone else is doing it, then it’s probably right, right?

Nope. It is actually absurd when you think about it.

We end up determining the entire course of our lives by just following the herd. We just look around us & assume someone is in control. No-one ever stops to think who started heading in that direction in the first place.

No-one ever stops to think that everyone else is equally scared, clueless & over-awed by the prospect of adult life. So they just at whatever comes their way. At any sign that ‘this is what you should do with your life’.

And the corporates gladly welcome them in with a warm embrace, deliberately saving the cold, lifeless reality of grey offices with grey people, living grey lives, for a year or two in.

And everyone just ends up scared, confused & over-awed, copying other scared, confused & over-awed students.

 

Yet this is not just your responsibility. It is also caused by the deliberate, concerted effort of corporate law, finance & consultancy corporates.

They know how the psychology works.

They deliberately recruit early to create a social norm around doing a graduate programme. Everyone seems to be joining a graduate because the availability heuristic that biases our thinking tends to focus on recent examples. Because some of your friends or acquaintances recently applied for a programme, you think everyone has been applying for programmes since forever.

You see the recruitment posters, you hear about John’s £5k sign-on bonus, about the networking drinks that law firm ran last week.

It becomes public knowledge. A norm. And everyone follows norms.

So the big corporate firms invest heavily early on. They stifle competition by becoming ubiquitous. By dominating the job market in students’ heads so that they see alternative. That doing anything other than a graduate programme would be socially abnormal – weird even.

That they are the only path to a ‘successful’ life after graduation.

Which is complete bullshit.

There are a thousand more exciting things than a corporate graduate programme. Things that won’t suck the life out of you by age 25.

So you better start looking.

 

 

What value should you create for the world?

When you are ambitious, it’s really hard to settle on one thing to impact. We want to impact everything, but as a result end up impacting nothing.

We want to change the world, rather than the lives of a few people in our own backyard. We think that small step is below us. It’s insignificant.

Which is wrong. Positively impacting others’ lives, whether one or a thousand, is equally admirable.

It’s just harder to accept.

Our desire to change the world also comes, to some extent, from our ego.

We think we can dabble in a bit of everything & do it all well. Focusing on having a specific impact on a specific, small group of people is hard to accept.

Our ego doesn’t like facing up to itself in the mirror & having to ruthlessly select, in as rational way as possible, the one or two things we can do really well. It hates admitting that we are mediocre or below average at many things.

Yet we over-estimate our level of competence in almost everything. Therefore humility is the way of the truth. The data doesn’t lie.

This over-estimation is also true even when we think we may be doing something altruistic.

We just can’t help ourselves.

 

Don’t stop yourself aiming big. The bigger the impact you have the better, if that’s what your aim in life is.

Just aim big, start small.

What’s the one thing you can offer to a friend? Someone in your family? Your time? Your knowledge? What can you help them out with that no-one else can? What problems are they stuck on?

Is it starting a business? Is it help learning Spanish? Is it simply helping them out with the gardening?

That’s your unique value proposition right there. Your unique offering. For one person. And one is enough.

You’ve ticked the box showing that you offer something of value & somebody wants it. It’s simple supply & demand.

Now the question is whether you can scale it.

Can you find that second customer? What if they’ve never heard of you? What if they already use another product? How are you better? How are you different?

Can you charge them for it? Enough to pay your own bills at scale? Is it worth the time put in? Do you enjoy it enough? Can you deal with the uncertainty?

Starting a business & having an impact on the world isn’t rocket science. It just requires you to start small & ask simple questions at each step.

The tricky part is keeping your ego in check & maintaining discipline – and just realising that you need patience.

That you take small steps for years in order to get to the big steps down the road.

And unfortunately there are no shortcuts, despite what you might see on Dragons Den.