Being different sucks. At least that’s what the voice in our head tells us. Being unique takes effort, and all the while we’re doing it, we feel like we’re making a mistake. If you feel this way, you’re totally normal. Not long ago, I read two books that do a fantastic job of explaining why we’re wired to hate being different from an artistic perspective: Linchpin by Seth Godin and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
I recommend reading Pressfield first, but reading either book will cause you to look at life differently, likely for the better.
The War of Art was clearly a major inspiration for Godin in Linchpin. Both books talk a lot about a force called the Resistance. In one sentence, the Resistance is the voice of the more primitive part of your brain that likes to talk you out of taking creative leaps, or more generally, doing anything other than the status quo.
Godin calls the primitive part of your brain the lizard brain because it is a very basic part of the brain found even in, well, crocs and gators. The biological name for this antagonistic bundle of nerve tissue is the amygdala.
The concept of the Resistance was not new to me. Having more of a background in economics than art, I was already familiar with the brain’s innate ability to make us irrational beings. (Check out Jason Zweig’s Your Money and Your Brain for a good intro if you’re interested.)
Looking at it from the “artist’s” perspective was a new angle for me. And as hokey as it may sound, I truly believe that the Resistance is a real force. Pressfield makes a very eloquent case for its existence. More constructively, Godin points out that it can serve as an important contrarian trigger. If you sense the that Resistance is trying to talk you out of doing something – whether it’s a public speaking engagement, publishing something you’ve written, or voicing an idea in a meeting – it probably means you should go forward.
Why is the Resistance so mean? Well, it’s not really. It’s just carrying how time-tested instructions for keeping you alive.
Until very, very recently in human history, going against the status quo was anti-survivalist. Fatal even. You would be crazy for straying from the herd. There could be lions laying in that grass over there for Christ’s sake. Without a doubt, you would be an absolute idiot to do anything other than walking, talking, and acting just like everybody around you in the group.
The more normal you were, the better. Don’t look sick; don’t walk funny; don’t stand on the outside for too long. No showing off; no talking differently.
Be normal, be invisible, and you got to do it again tomorrow.
Do you think any of these zebras are going to walk over to the camera guy by themselves to see what he is? I really doubt it. Instead, they’re going to stand there and gawk, like high school boys looking at a girl that they’re too afraid to approach. Like an invisible force field around the herd, the Resistance paralyzes the individual to preserve the group. Nobody advances, but nobody dies either.
[Photo by Pharaoh Hound via Wikimedia Commons]
So we know that erring on the side of safety has great survival benefits. Unfortunately, it has a real downside today too.
Our herding nature is just one manifestation of the Resistance. It’s really not about the herd. It’s about hiding. Herding is just a form of hiding.
Tens of thousands of years ago, people who ran into their caves every time they heard a rustle in the bushes had a better chance of seeing tomorrow than their more curious friends. It didn’t matter whether that rustling was a bear or a finch. Either way, they didn’t get eaten alive. More importantly, they got a chance to make more people who naturally had the very same hiding tendency. Through good times and bad times, hiding has been a winning strategy.
The voice of the Resistance – emanating from the amygdala and resonating throughout the higher parts of our brain – has far reaching implications. This ancient circuitry is not only responsible for keeping would-be-great 21st century artists in caves, it also makes people exit the stock market too early when things get bad. It makes people keep gambling when they’re down because the Resistance hates losing more than it likes winning.
It ridicules business owners for wanting to experiment with new technologies. It makes you feel ashamed to ask your cable company for a discount. The voice of the Resistance firmly and rationally explains to you that people your age don’t just up and quit to turn a hobby into a career.
It makes you feel stupid, embarrassed, and foolish for even considering doing anything other than what you’re doing today. It scares you into complacency. In short, the Resistance uses fear to sustain inertia. It keeps you exactly where you are.
Is that where you want to be?
Fear is healthy when it’s keeping you from being eaten alive. But in the modern world, it’s weapon of terror used by the Resistance to sabotage your every attempt at taking chances.
It’s getting more true every day. As society continues to advance, specialization becomes more prevalent. Survivors conform, but successful people leave the herd. As the cost of experimentation and failure continues to approach zero, the trend toward specialization will only continue. In theory, perhaps we can all offer our own unique service to society because we’re all different.
It’s not about what you make. It’s how you make it. You are a product and a service all wrapped up inside an expression of your individuality and creativity. And you’re different from the billions of others on this planet. So leverage it. It’s not enough anymore to survive. You need to live.
How? By doing more cerebral thinking and learning to interpret the voice of the Resistance as a cue for moving forward. Trust your higher thinking more often and know that the fear you feel, the sweating in your palms, the increased heart rate, the impending sense of humiliation are all false sensations. You’re not about to go a cliff diving or swim with great white sharks after all. You’re not going to die.
The web is a very new medium. Never before have people been able to embrace their artistic self and publish their art for free. Such art can be anything from that created directly by brushstrokes to simply having your own unique way of solving a problem for someone else. It’s easier than ever to wander from the herd, and it is increasingly vital that you do. If you don’t, you’re more likely to be a victim of automation than a beneficiary of it.
Being different today is an asset. So make it your goal it be a little more different each day and channel it toward creativity. It makes you more human and less lizard.
And if all you accomplish in the end is being different, that in itself is enough. Jean-Jacques Rousseau said it best in The Confessions:
I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different.