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?

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  • http://www.gwern.net gwern

    This reminds me strongly of a post from years ago in which you observe that contrarians or other non-conformists (I forget which term you were using) do themselves a disservice by visibly non-conforming in multiple ways as opposed to focusing on just one, but I can’t seem to refind it – certainly not under the tags for this one.

  • http://theviewfromhell.blogspot.com Sister Y

    You can actually get away with a lot of weirdness in abstract ideas, if you are ordinary enough in manners and style.

    I think this understates the case – weird ideas, in some contexts, are beautiful, luxuriant, costly peacock tails.

  • J

    “Be regular and orderly in your life…so that you may be violent and original in your work” – Gustave Flaubert

  • blink

    You raise some important points and I largely agree, but I think the benefits of “unusual” are overstated. Yes, unusual is better when allocating existing scarce goods, but goods catering toward “usual” tastes are more likely to receive attention. One who cultivates preferences for pizza and burgers, network television, or cookie-cutter romance novels will be very happy very cheaply. The same is true for unusual talents; we simply require too much complementarity among skills before they have much social value at all. Think of knowledge of a minor language or perhaps programming skills in a country where computers are still rare.

  • Preferred Anonymous

    Sounds like a priceless bit of wisdom. :)

  • nazgulnarsil

    “Unusual tastes can often be satisfied for cheaper than common tastes”

    only in markets that don’t scale.

  • FredR

    I will only accept this advice when it comes packaged as part of a book titled “Letters to a Young Weirdo”. I don’t know who handled the “Art of Mentoring” series at Basic Books, but I suggest you contact them.

  • Tom

    I think your prior post Doubting My Far Mind, one I personally found quite valuable, makes a good companion piece to this one.

  • snarles

    “I’ve known some very successful people with quite weird ideas…” Such as?

  • Jay

    Actually, I suspect that beauty and health are largely seen as the absence of abnormalities, and it’s far from clear that humans generally prefer the high tail of intelligence in each other (plenty of fools have friends). I suspect we’re even more conformist than you say.

  • John

    I strongly dispute your claim that people prefer the high tail in intelligence. The entire Friendly AI movement boils down to imagining a thing whose only well-defined trait is that it’s more intelligent than us, being terrified by the possibilities, and then desperately scrabbling for ways to thwart it pre-emptively.

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  • Henry

    Only problem I see with this advice is that by being in the closet with your rebellious ideas your are less likely to come into contact with those who share and support your ideas. Outward nonconformity is a way of signaling and finding sympathetic people. As an obvius example, imagine the creative kids at high school school took this advice and outwardly dressed as cheerleaders ans jocks. They would find it far harder to connect with like minded peers, even know who these peers are.

    That said, I think it’s good advice, as long as it’s not taken too far.

  • kofu

    It depends on “what time it is,” socially, culturally, and politically. Someone with long hair sticks out, but is identifiable as standing for something, and can draw other non-conformists out of the woodwork including those who travel incognito. Also, for example, in the long decades since the 1960s and ’70s, long-hairs tend to find a better rapport with other marginalized parts of the population, e.g., older, culturally savvy folks in the African American community, which allows for a better flow of ideas.

    It doesn’t work for everyone, and there’s always a few hucksters, narcissists and other characters in the mix, but anyway I think we’ve learned a lot in the past 50-60 years about radical ideas and social change, and there’s no simple formula to cover all of it — e.g., look like a conformist and you can do more to make positive change around you.

  • kofu

    Just to add, there’s a cost to looking freaky and weird. It’s the cost of serving as a witness, to be visible and to upset the status quo by standing visibly. So I think for those who need to hear that witness, there is an honor that comes with standing visibly and paying that cost.

    One of my brothers, who for many years looked like a freak, paid many costs including not being able to shop without routinely getting hassled by security.

    Also take the example of the Quakers who were active in the anti-slavery movement in the first half of the 1800s. They found that their “simple” style of dress allowed fugitive slaves to reach out for assistance with some assurance that at least they would not be turned over to the slave-catchers and other authorities. Most Quakers weren’t active in the underground railroad, but it was known that they generally were more sympathetic, and no-one else was likely to stand out in such a way by what they wore.

  • Allen

    This essay is what’s wrong with the internet.

  • Robert

    This reminded me of an exchange at work years ago. Our new anaplastologist, who had a background in the arts, affected an ‘artistiic’ mien and somehwat eccentric personal habits – at least, in a civil service context. A colleague commented to me, “X is trying to be weird, but you, Robert, you just ARE. It looks better on you.”

    Granted, she had had to get used to the contrast between my restrained, somewhat aloof exterior and my blatantly unusual interior life first, but once she had she found it quite enjoyable.

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  • Solo500

    “Dress British. Think Yiddish.”

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  • Joel

    Thank you for this. Very inspirational.