You want to fit in with the crowd.
But you want to stand out from the crowd.
You mock weird people you know who do things their own way.
But you admire stars you don’t know who do things their own way.
You love totally quirky characters in movies.
But you allow yourself only minor personal quirks in your daily life.
You feel like dancing over personal good news.
But you won’t dance unless other people agree to join you.
We revere people who have the courage to follow the beat of their own drum. But it’s also obvious that 99.99% of the population is completely unwilling to do that in any meaningful way.
The mystery is why humans exist in this state of tension between wanting to belong to a group, but also wanting to be known as unique and different. The lone wolf lifestyle calls to us, but like sheep we only glance and turn away, returning – as always – to the protection of the flock.
But even those of us with sheep instincts can get a little piece of the lone-wolf action, if we are brutally honest with ourselves and commit to a few simple steps.
Our desperate need to stand out. Our crushing desire to fit in.
Are you a loner? Or a joiner? Do you think loners are losers? Or do you think joiners are sheep?
The truth is, you think a lot of contradictory things about belonging/not belonging, and it pretty much boils down to this, your personal mission statement:
“I want people to think I’m special, but only in slightly quirky, socially acceptable ways. Special is good, weird is bad, because I can’t tolerate negative judgment. I crave the safety of following the crowd, and even though I don’t want to believe this of myself, I’ll only deviate from the group in inconsequential ways.
“In short: I want everyone to admire me for being the most interesting and daring person they know, but I absolutely won’t risk my social standing or my livelihood to achieve that.”
~ You (plus me and everyone we know)
Everyone thinks they have the makings of Elon Musk or Prince or Teddy Roosevelt inside of them. Everyone thinks they could do what these trailblazers do…if there was:
- Absolutely no risk of failure involved
- No chance that people wouldn’t like what they create
- The money would be guaranteed to flow
The conflict behind our drive to “be with” while seeming to “be apart” is fascinating. It’s deeply rooted in our psyches, and I’ve experienced my share of it.Humans desperately want to stand out, but can’t stop striving to fit in. Why? How to break away. Click To Tweet
My personal rebellion (lite beer version)
I’ve never felt like I fully belonged to any organization I’ve been a member of, including:
- A college fraternity
- The U.S. Army, including the 2nd Ranger Battalion (hooah!)
- Fortune 500 corporations
I’ve mocked the groupthink and rolled my eyes at the contradictory orders and shifting priorities from leaders. I’ve fancied myself as someone who could not only see the forest for the trees, but also see the man behind the curtain. I’ve been a man apart, a man with vision who can see the truth. A swallower of the red pill who defiantly spits the blue pill out, no matter how many times an authority tries to force it down my throat.1
Note: Always click on these → 2 for additional, slightly off topic but still interesting stuff. Go ahead, try it.
But in spite of these deeply-held feelings of superiority (yes, I’ll admit to that), I’ve still spent a lifetime plugging away with the crowd. Feeling different, but acting, in general, the same.
As I said above, I’m not alone in experiencing the inner voice that says, “I’m special, dammit!” I recall a conversation with a co-worker during the time I commuted to work on a vanpool. A guy who worked in the same cubicle farm I did proudly stated this:
“Sometimes the mood strikes me to drive to work. But when I do, I never take the freeway. Everyone else takes the freeway, but I take Sprague Avenue. Some people thinks that’s crazy, but that’s me – I’m a little bit of a rebel.”
I can imagine the movie based on his life: Commuter Man – Rebellion in Spokane. But his self-image demanded that he somehow distinguish himself from the other cubicle dwellers and vanpool riders. It was a stretch, but you gotta work with what you have. And it was a safe rebellion.
Whenever a trait affects the entire population of the planet, you know there’s an evolutionary reason for it. Let’s psychoanalyze our ancestors. Cavemen in conflict – one of my favorite topics!
The conflicted caveman in all of us
Our ancestor’s approach to belonging was molded by their experience with a million-year-long conflict: tribal survival vs. individual survival.
What a tribe requires to survive
Tribes needed leaders and risk takers in order to remain viable and have direction. Not just physical leaders such as hunters, but also thought leaders who came up with new ways to gather or store food. So it’s programmed into us to venerate these risk-takers and, at some level, want to strive to be like them to fill this evolutionary slot.
Change didn’t happen much during the long eons of our prehistory, but it happened often enough (catastrophic weather, geologic events, droughts) that tribes needed people who could step up, make decisions, and guide them to safety. So the need for leaders was constant, and tribes who lacked the motivation to be led often didn’t survive.
Ergo: leadership worship (or at least admiration) became encoded into our genes to further the survival of the tribe, and thus the species.
What an individual requires to survive
But our individual programming also “knows” that doing things differently is risky. In a time when literally nothing changed in a person’s lifetime, let alone generations, trying something new was likely to cause death by unpleasant circumstances.
- How many times did humankind mess disastrously with fire before they got the hang of it?
- How many people died trying out new roots and plants before their uses were all identified?
- How often did the migration to new hunting grounds end in starvation?
Doing anything different from the proven path of our ancestors was laden with risk. People who rocked the boat in any way by challenging the status quo were risking their lives and the lives of everyone around them. Those people were not winning tribal popularity contests, and if they persisted in their agitating, they didn’t win the local dating game.
Ergo: risk avoidance became encoded into our genes to further the survival of the individual, and thus – again – the survival of the species.
Our internal conflict
What a brutal filter: Any person who desired to become a tribal leader had to want to stand out so badly they could overcome an instinctive revulsion against standing out.
This conflict still exists in all of us today. It’s just that most of us don’t want to stand out badly enough to overcome the disapproval of our fellow humans who are discouraging it. But we still imagine we could if we wanted to.
This little voice telling us how (potentially) awesome we are sets us sheep up to be manipulated in many ways, including some that cost us money. Whenever there is the scent of strong human emotions in the air, marketers are never far away.
We’ll even pay to feel special
Marketers and salespeople love to take advantage of our desire to be Unique Individuals. Buying something that sets us apart is a risk-free way of establishing our lone-wolf credentials. But the best marketing twist is combining our two desires (standing out + fitting in) by selling us something that doesn’t make us just a standalone individual, but a member of a select crowd.
Not: “I bought something that makes me a special, distinct person.”
Rather: “I bought something that makes me a member of a special, distinct group of (superior) people.”
The 1984 Super Bowl ad introducing the Apple Macintosh computer is a perfect example of this. You have to watch it:
It’s almost impossible not to buy into the message that you will be this distinct person if you buy the Mac, standing out from the legions of IBM PC users:
“Yeah, that’s totally me! I’m a rebel, a disruptor! Someone who isn’t afraid to break free of the crowd! Throwin’ the sledgehammer, baby!”
But how do you achieve that? Easy: buy the same product that hundreds of thousands of other people are buying (a Mac) vs. the product that millions of people are buying (an IBM PC). And pay more for the privilege, too.
Cha-ching! Brilliantly manipulative. Apple has been fostering this image ever since, and the approach has been copied in every category of consumer goods…and in your social network, as well.
You knew I’d have to talk about your social sharing habits sooner or later, right? Let’s get to it.
Social networking for rebels
It’s no surprise that social networks have cemented most people’s approach to standing out / belonging. No matter what we are into – crafting, travel, cooking, photography, woodworking – here’s what we are saying when we post something:
“I did something unique. But I want everyone’s approval to reassure myself that it’s okay.”
The feedback loop, of course, affects what we do in the first place: If something is not likely to gain approval, we are not likely to share it. And since we feel compelled to share everything, we’ll tend to not do anything that risks disapproval.
Over time, life becomes a carefully-curated set of activities that establish and maintain our safe niche of “differentness” within the larger context of “not too different.”
It’s time for some self-examination. To begin, we need to dissect the lone-wolf mythology.
The lone wolf lifestyle
Why does the lone-wolf lifestyle sound attractive? The reality in nature doesn’t seem to be much fun. According to Wikipedia:
In the animal kingdom, lone wolves are typically older wolves driven from the pack, perhaps by the breeding male, or young adults in search of new territory…However, lone wolves have difficulty hunting, as wolves’ favorite prey…are onerous for a single wolf to bring down alone. Instead, lone wolves will generally hunt smaller animals and scavenge carrion. (yum)
So: Isolation and difficulty making ends meet. Sounds a lot like the typical human lone wolf (e.g. artists and musicians), even down to eating unpleasant things to avoid starvation. Whether they are driven away or choose to strike out on their own path, it’s a risky endeavor.
Just look at the wreckage of peoples’ lives who grasped for stardom – maybe even briefly touched it – but then crashed to earth. It’s a hard, hard road to travel, and few make it to the end. It’s easy to sing, “Better to burn out than to fade away,” but either outcome sounds dismal, and they both happen frequently.
My willingness to walk my own path has increased with age, which comes with a huge helping of “I don’t give (as much of) a crap anymore what anyone thinks about me.” But still…if I were willing to be a total rebel, a lone wolf, I’d have done it by now, damn the consequences.
But that’s not me. And it’s not you, either.
Here’s the thing: It’s not a binary decision: sheep or lone wolf. There is a third category, a hybrid: A lone sheep. More on that in a bit. If you want to get a little, risk-free taste of rebellion, you must first “know thyself.”Everyone wants to be a lone wolf. But almost no one is willing to leave the safety of the pack. Click To Tweet
Accepting yourself and understanding your destiny
It doesn’t work to go completely against human nature – or your own nature. The most you can do is bend nature by acknowledging what type of risk-taker you are, then working to stretch your inherent constraints to their limits.
I’ll reiterate, to make sure you get it:
If you were genetically someone who could blaze their own trail, you’d already be doing it. Instead, you are reading this. And I’m writing it, so we are in the same boat.
Like so many other people, I have at times fancied myself to be a risk-taking individual. But after several decades of living with myself, I know that I have a limited risk-taking capacity. It’s not in my personality to cast all caution to the wind, commit all my financial resources, and go all in on a do-or-die proposition.
I do follow my own path through life, but it is a calculated-risk path, not a throw-caution-to-the-wind path. I’ve always got backup plans.
Can you admit that to yourself? Can you accept it?
Good. That’s the first step. It doesn’t make the desire to stand out go away, but it gives us a starting point.
What you and I need is a happy medium: Somewhere between total Insider and complete outsider. A place where we have some of the safety and guarantees of the group, but also some of the benefits of independence.
This place exists. It’s the spot I’ve occupied for many years.
Plotting risk (And donuts. And sheep.)
A scatterplot will illustrate my point. You’ve seen scatterplots before; they are distinct data points that, when graphed, reveal correlation or a trend. Like this:
Get it? Now, let’s redefine the data points and relabel the axes:
But we are concerned with another type of risk. Remember: Despite our fears of standing out, we don’t want to live a boring life. So our scatter plot needs a donut hole:
And now, for my ultimate perversion of statistical representation, I’ll change the data points:
And this is me:
Yep…the lone sheep I mentioned earlier. You need to watch this video. I summarize what we’ve learned so far, and add an important twist about black sheep. Seriously, watch it:
Video: Sheep vs. wolves
6 minutes, 7 seconds | subtitles available
As I explain in the video, you want to be a connected outlier…a lone sheep. Lone-sheephood is significantly easier than lone-wolfhood; the risk/benefit tradeoff is much more palatable.
Mind you, it’s not easy to separate from the herd. But it’s doable. Let’s discuss how.
Sheep get a bad rap!
This is TOTALLY a distraction and not needed for understanding my point, so if you are easily distracted, come back to this later. But I feel a need to defend the honor of sheep, and since I’m kind of a sheep expert, I’m the person to do it.
Plus, I want to share a photo of me with my (non)prize-winning sheep at the county fair.
➤ Click to expand an explanation. Click again to close it.
The life of a “connected outlier”
The premise of this website is that nothing changes unless you do something different. That sounds obvious, but I’m continually amazed at how often people express a desire for life change…but do nothing at all differently.
But not you! Right?
Change is always an incremental process, so I offer a few suggestions that will start you on your migration away from the center of the herd. Once that movement has begun, it will be up to you to keep the momentum going until you arrive at an outlier position.
Let’s do this.
1. Start something significant without pre-approval
It can be anything:
- A vacation
- Painting your house a new color
- Throwing a party
- Buying a car
- Starting a diet or exercise program
Just do something without telling everyone you know and implicitly seeking their approval before you begin. Lone sheep don’t need to check in with the herd on decisions that don’t affect the herd.
There must be some part of you that is willing to announce, “This is what I did,” rather than, “This is what I’m going to do. What do you think?”
2. Keep something private
This is an extension of number one: Not only shunning pre-approval, but avoiding post-approval as well. People don’t have to know everything about what you do…that’s part of the loner mystique.
“No one knows what Katy is doing. She might be in Timbuktu right now…she doesn’t share everything.”
Can you go to Disneyland without posting photos online? Can you buy a new car without anyone knowing until you drive up to your fiend’s house in it? If you can’t…the lone sheep lifestyle may not be for you.
This is ironic, I know, coming from someone who shares personal details on a public blog. So do as I say, not as I do, since I’m kind of a special case given my choice of profession. Although I’ve never notified my readers of either my vacations or the car I drive.4
3. Go against a social norm
This involves making herd members uncomfortable about your choices. Here are some that are guaranteed to be looked upon with disapproval, depending on your crowd:
Don’t order a drink when everyone else is drinking. Offer no excuse beyond, “I don’t want one tonight.”
Pass on eating dessert when everyone is partaking. Bonus points if you say it’s because you’re trying to lose weight, but don’t push it.
Adamantly refuse to say anything negative about another person during a discussion (aka: gossip session).
Do you see the common thread? None of these actions have any effect whatsoever on other people, but they all make others feel like they are being judged. They aren’t – if your intentions are pure – but they won’t be able to avoid feeling this way and will exert strenuous efforts to overcome your independence.
As a lone sheep in training, you are developing the ability to do whatever you want without worrying what others think – and without offering excessive excuses. So you must be able to take a position as innocuous as declining to drink, eat, or gossip or there is no hope for anything more substantial.
The lone sheep lifestyle
In case I haven’t made it clear enough yet, I’ll reinforce: Everything is a tradeoff in life. You can’t be a bit of rebel without being a bit of a loner, too. Not too much – we’re going for lone sheep, not lonely sheep – but to some extent, you are going to have to walk your own path rather than the well-trampled path of the herd.
Is it worth it? Only you can decide after trying it out. But I hope you’ll persist because the world needs you – a unique you – to step forward. We have enough cookies cut from the same cutter.
More importantly, you need a unique you to step forward. Without a unique personality, an alternative viewpoint, you risk dissolving into the sameness surrounding you, becoming less and less of an individual with each passing year.A comfortable existence is an early death of the soul. Click To Tweet
If you have the temperament to go completely lone wolf, blazing your own trail and handling the highs and lows and consequences of that lifestyle, then that is absolutely the trail you should follow. But if that road scares the crap out of you, as it does me, then I implore you to not just give up and subsume yourself in the familiar, wooly embrace of the herd. Follow the lone-sheep approach instead.
Don’t cheat the world of knowing your unique gifts. Deep inside, every human admires someone with the courage to stand out, no matter what they say or how they act when they see it.
As I say in the video: the black sheep is the one that counts.
P.S. If you leave a comment (below), I swear I’ll read it.
P.P.S. Please share if you know someone who might benefit from this article. Thanks!