“It may be that we are puppets — puppets controlled by the strings of society. But at least we are puppets with perception, with awareness. And perhaps our awareness is the first step to our liberation.” –Stanley Milgram
Last week, Michael Lazerow posted an insightful and entertaining article on LinkedIn called “Why Weirdos Outperform Normals.” This article got me thinking about how little weirdness most of us encounter in our work lives. Sure, there’s the weird dude in the cubicle next to you who always walks around the office in bare feet. And there’s that odd woman whose walls are covered in photos of penguins. But that kind of weirdness isn’t particularly illuminating. I’m talking about life-affirming, assumption-challenging, third-eye-opening weirdness, the lack of which just might have dire consequences for the world of work.
In his article, Lazerow cites several examples of successful weirdos he knows — Wine Library founder Gary Vanynerchuk, professional iconoclast James Altucher, PayPal padre Peter Thiel and Cindy Gallops, the quirky-brilliant founder of Make Love Not Porn — and makes the case that their weirdness is what makes them great.
And yet, in the world of work, most of us have made a habit of hiding our weirdness. We send emails that sound like they were written by robots (“attached please find…” — who talks like that?). We carefully choose our words in meetings so that we sound like we’re thinking critically when we we’re really afraid of rocking the boat. And we put most of our energy into fulfilling the requirements of dull job descriptions that don’t come close to representing what we could actually do, if given the chance.
And this is where the danger lies. When we suppress our weirdness and focus on conformity, we cheat ourselves, those we work with and those we love. In our weirdness — the ways in which we go against the grain, don’t fit in, don’t conform — lies our greatest potential to actually add value and maybe even make a dent in the universe.
To prove my point, like Lazerow, I could point to successful entrepreneurs and leaders. Or I could cite examples of brilliant weirdos, hippies, nerds, rebels and misfits from throughout history who changed the world. But instead, I’m going to point at you. (Sorry; I know it’s rude to point. I promise this won’t take long.)
When was the last time you held your tongue to keep from saying what you really meant at work, and why did you do it? If it was to preserve civility or keep from hurting someone’s feelings, I congratulate you. That’s the kind of tongue-holding we could use more of. But if it was motivated by fear — of reprimand, of censure, of failure or of firing — I have a question for you: What was the price you had to pay for keeping your thoughts to yourself?
When was the last time you merely did what your boss asked you to do when you knew that it either wasn’t the best thing for the organization, or that you could do so much more? There’s a certain amount of order taking and rule following that we all must do to preserve social order and public safety, but when we do what we’re told at work, we short-change the organization at best and, at worst, we do real harm. (By the way, if the name attached to the quote that opens this article is unfamiliar to you, or if it only sparks a hazy memory from undergrad, look him up. His work shows just how dire the consequences of conformity can be.)
There’s always a price to pay for withholding our weirdness. That price is frequently organizational, and it’s almost always deeply personal. When we aren’t true to ourselves, we can’t be true to our organizations. When our fingerprint combination of quirks, tics and eccentricities isn’t fully applied, our work is just a smudge compared to our potential. When we don’t bring our whole selves to work, we might as well outsource ourselves, because the unique value we could offer is compromised.
I’m not suggesting that each of us needs to start walking around the office in bare feet or hanging penguin pictures on our cubicle walls. Instead, I’m suggesting that our best bits of weirdness could spark inspiration, innovation, exaltation and collaboration in our lives, in our work and in our organizations.
In Austin, Texas, the independent-minded businesses and citizens have popularized the phrase, “Keep Austin weird,” as a way to build civic pride around the eccentricities that make that distinguish the city. I think we should all take a lesson from Austin. If you feel like letting your freak flag fly at work, do it proudly, and keep work weird.
“To be one’s self, and unafraid whether right or wrong, is more admirable than the easy cowardice of surrender to conformity.” –Irving Wallace