We like to think we celebrate the brave and original thinkers and doers, but in truth we lionise the ones who follow in the footsteps of many and do something we’re comfortable with. People who we say are “doing very well” are usually the most entrenched in some system, whether corporate, social, or some personal cult.
We love stories of godfathers, and how some “big” man or woman lay a magic blessing on to a loved protégé, or maybe a curse upon a new rival, and how they “made it big”. Hell, as long as someone is following some well-worn path in their life, we’re willing to laud them as successful even before they achieve anything. On the flip side, someone doing something bold and new will always be looked on with scepticism, even after achieving a lot, and most of us are just waiting to smirk and say “I told you so” as soon as we see them falter.
Why following looks more successful
If you go by what we say about ourselves on Facebook, we’re all ultra-successful celebrities living a glamorous life of leisure. In the real world, our apparent success depends on an even less realistic measure, what other people say about us. This gives following a massive advantage.
Firstly, there is the fact that we don’t talk about those who didn’t make it big. The vast masses of those who follow and get nowhere significant are lost in our chronic disinterest in their story. Unremarkable followers are also lost in our unspoken collective fear of calling attention to any possible downsides to a life of conforming.
Secondly, the real edge-cases, people who do something very new, unsupported or unsanctioned, and more importantly unrecognisable, are not good social fodder for us. Their success and efforts are not sexy and don’t make sound social currency, because there’s no way to connect their achievements with ourselves.
It’s more difficult to force ourselves into the story of successful outliers. There usually isn’t anyone involved we can claim to know, anyone’s brother’s, mother’s, cousin’s, pet’s friend whom we can connect to ourselves. The real mavericks, often the ones we will never hear of, are the ones no one has any selfish, and often emotionally insecure, connection with to latch on to.
In our self-centred world view, it is still true that the truly independent, forward-thinking person is more of a threat or a scare than a hero.
We’ve sketched out the social circumstances of trying to do your own thing, but let’s come back to you, the creator, the thinker and doer of things. The important question you need to ask yourself, is that when you finally get off your lazy, scared ass, stop procrastinating and dive into something, what sort of things are you diving into?
Are you doing the scary, original things you’ve always wanted to, or are you hitching your wagon to any and every moving horse that happens to cross your path? Because the easier option, attaching yourself to something that’s not yours, is not only safer, but we’ve also found a wonderful way of making it seem more universally noble and that is called service.
Service is an easy escape
Service is a wonderful thing and most aspects of human endeavour have in them some kernel of service to the many. It is also true that every great breakthrough will in time be of great service to people, but service becomes a cheap narcotic when it prevents you from doing your own thing. Everyone advises you to take things on, to never say no, to take on everything that comes your way when you’re trying to hustle and build yourself up. All sound advice if you want that life, but are you saying yes to helping out with every interesting, or not so interesting, idea that someone else proposes and takes the lead on, just because it’s easier to commit to than your own projects?
Even service that serves no useful purpose is respectable
Let’s face it, for all the noise we make about the wonders of maverick thinking, society is disingenuous in its support of individuality. Tell someone you’ve joined a team, or organisation, are helping so-and-so out with something-or-the-other dream project and that’s sexy. People will share that story with others. They will even brag about it as if they had everything to do with it.
On the other hand, tell people you are trying something on your own, and be just as ambiguous as you would be in the previous case about what you’re actually doing, and the most likely reaction will be, “that’s nice.” You will see them squirm a little and smile uncomfortably, some with condescension. Some will come out and attack your claims immediately. You may not hear what the rest have to say about you to others, but you will have friends or acquaintances who come talk to you about other people who told them about doing their own thing. Chances are, they will say something like, “God alone knows what he is up to!”. Or “She has big plans. Let’s see what she actually does!”
We shamefully respect pedigree a lot more than purpose.
A Cattle of Geniuses
Following is sexy because we secretly value it above all else. It keeps things going, unchanged and safe for the collective. It’s predictable. It’s also safer for you. Following someone or something means that if anything doesn’t work out, you didn’t fail, they did. In fact, you can then go on to talk loudly among friends about how you warned them about all this but they never listened. Your boss/partner/co-something/leader just didn’t listen to you or you would have solved everything.
Have you ever noticed how people who have never made anything on their own and only worked for others dreams, always know the answers to everything? Have you noticed how every project they were just a minor (usually ineffective) cog in worked well only because of them and failed only because of everyone else?
Everyone with no accountability or real burden of risk is a self-proclaimed genius, and following remains sexy whether you succeed or fail.
Why we must fumble
In contrast, doing your own thing is not safe. Doing your own thing means you will fumble. You will have false starts and mistaken directions. Sometimes you will have to give up, or start all over again, and most of the time, no one will understand what you are trying to accomplish other than you; Not really.
Why would anyone take on such a discouraging and unappetising direction in their life and work? Why would you choose what seems like suffering over what appears to be easy wins and comfort? Beyond the myths about both sides of that coin which I’ve tried to break in the discussion above, if you’ve read this far and have found yourself nodding in agreement at any point, you will choose to fumble because you find that you must. You are possibly one of those people who wouldn’t have it any other way and need to find a way to do your own thing. But there is more good to blazing your own trail than your personal feelings about it.
Following does seem to make the world go round, but we forget that the world was going round before we got here and will do so long after we’re gone. Following has always been a great strategy to keep things running but has rarely led to any positive change. If all of us throughout history would have chosen only to follow, we’d have sharper stone axes instead of laser tools in surgery, we’d have faster horses instead of passenger jets, we’d have smoother parchment rather than computers in our pockets.
We would not be where we are, or have come as far as we have, if everyone had always chosen to follow. All of us cannot be nonconforming mavericks all the time, and in everything; That way madness lies. But, some of us can be unconventional and do things our own way sometimes, and in some things, and that is enough to keep the world growing, improving and becoming a more human place for us all to live in. That is why we must fumble, no matter what the social cost.
Ultimately, if you have it in you to forge new paths and build new things, you must decide between temptation and trailblazing. And then you must shut up and do the work.