I like to think I’m pretty unique.
Actually, let me rephrase that more accurately. I’m afraid of feeling not-unique. I have something you might call FOBN — the fear of being normal.
In everything we do, I think there are the motivations we externalize. These are the motivations we cite for doing the stuff we do when we talk to other people and convince ourselves, things like our passion, charity, curiosity, and making the world a better place. But behind them, I think we always have internal motivations, the ones we’re driven by, but don’t think about too much, things like wanting to meet specific people, wanting to move away or start something new, and wanting appreciation or recognition. We may be embarrased by them, or feel weird admitting that we’re driven by these sometimes selfish or narcissistic motivations. But they’re also hard to identify, and even harder to escape.
One of my stronger internal desires for a lot of what I do, I think, has to do with my inherent desire not to feel normal, not to feel like a commodity. (And lest I forget, the desire to not fit in is already a privileged desire to have. The fact that I can sit here and write about why I despise fitting in while there are people desperately trying to feel normal and fit in baffles me, but, let’s go on for now…)
Among the basket of things I do, from coding to composing, there are a lot of things I do just because I’m passionate about them, and because I enjoy them. Actually, I do most of the things I do because I love to do them. But there have been goals I pursued — and no doubt, they still exist — purely because I wanted to stick out, to prove to myself that I wasn’t replaceable with some random “normal” person, if there ever were such a person.
Really, I think the fear of being normal is the fear of getting replaced, or feeling like I could be replaced. I was chased by the idea of someone just as talented or just as creative taking my place. Looking back, that’s an incredibly short-sighted fear, isn’t it?
Because it’s impossible to stay at the top at anything for any reasonable about of time, without getting stressed and drained and tired that you lose any other motivation you had to be good at that thing in the first place. It’s an irrational and useless fear, because at some point, it either makes you an uncontrolled workoholic or makes you feel worthless, neither of which are particularly great outcomes.
Here’s the thing: there’s a difference between being normal and being replaceable. There’s a difference between being unique and not fitting in. And while I was trying not to be boring and replaceable, I was convinced that that required me not to fit in. That’s not just misguided, that’s wrong.
In our world of seven billion unique stories, each with something I can learn from, being different doesn’t mean being better than everyone or having a special talent or trick. It means realizing who I am, what I want to do, and walk confidently in that direction. By virtue of the fact that there are infinitely many possible lifetimes’ worth of stories, my own life is unique. And whatever I choose to do in that story, it should be about what I do, not how different it can be.
I’m going to borrow a page from Emerson’s playbook here. He said:
Every man I meet is my superior in some way. In that, I learn of him.
In other words, every person has something new to teach, something new he could learn from. Maybe a new perspective or an interesting story.
Success isn’t a one-dimensional measure. It’s a canvas on which each of us draw and paint with pops of color and strokes as diverse as our stories and our dreams, and our goal shouldn’t be to be ‘unique’, however you measure it — we’re kind of already stuck with the fact of being different.
Instead, we should strive to make each of our story as thrilling, as exciting, as funny, as impactful, as we can make it. That should be how we measure our lives — not with copy machines and comparisons, but with conversations and character.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, The value of the Gap.
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