Stealth non-conformism: Dear Young Eccentric

Thanks to economics professor Robin Hanson for this post, originally posted on his blog Overcoming Bias.

Dear Young Eccentric

We humans are conformist — we typically prefer folks who fall in the middle of distributions, and avoid those from the tails. Yes, we prefer the high tail of health, beauty, intelligence, etc. But for most other traits, we prefer the ordinary.

This situation can seem pretty discouraging to those who find that they are naturally weird. Weird folks are often tempted to give up on grand ambitions, thinking there is little chance the world will let them succeed. Turns out, however, it isn’t as bad as all that. Especially if your main weirdness is in the realm of ideas.

First, being unusual can be an advantage. Unusual tastes can often be satisfied for cheaper than common tastes. If everyone wants to go to the beach, but you just want to hike in the woods, it won’t cost you as much for a nearby hotel. Unusual abilities can also be in more demand than usual abilities. And weird folks can be especially creative, a trait valued in certain occupations like marketing or research.

Second, people who are weird about ideas tend to care more about ideas, and so over-estimate how much others care. You can actually get away with a lot of weirdness in abstract ideas, if you are ordinary enough in manners and style.

I’ve known some very successful people with quite weird ideas. But these folks mostly keep regular schedules of sleep and bathing. Their dress and hairstyles are modest, they show up on time for meetings, and they finish assignments by deadline. They are willing to pay dues and work on what others think are important for a while, and they have many odd ideas they’d pursue if given a chance, instead of just one overwhelming obsession. They are willing to keep changing fields, careers, and jobs until they find one that works for them.

Their conversational styles are also modest and polite. While they are quite willing to talk about their weird ideas, they do not push such topics on uninterested others. They do not insult people around them, nor directly challenge local powers that be. They don’t lash out randomly and scare people.

Of course being modest isn’t enough for great success. You’ll also need some extraordinary abilities. Like being extra smart, articulate, hard-working, insightful, etc. But having weird ideas isn’t nearly as much of a liability as it may seem.

Think of it this way. When some folks go out of their way to show off their defiance and rebellion, others go out of their way to publicly squash such rebellion, to assert their dominance. But if you are not overtly rebellious, you can get away with a lot of abstract idea rebellion — few folks will even notice such deviations, and fewer still will care. So, ask yourself, do you want to look like a rebel, or do you want to be a rebel?