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  • Brendan Stec

Pursuing abnormality

March 2nd, 2021

An Average Article

There is a term in Swedish called lagom. It means “just the right amount.” Spotify CEO and Swede Daniel Ek talked about this word in a recent interview:

"Lagom in Sweden is—I think the best translation I could give is it’s just about right. It’s not too much, and it’s not too little. […] In Sweden, it’s very much a culture of you shouldn’t stand out. You’re part of a collective being, and the best thing you can be in the Swedish society is being lagom, just about right, not too much and not too little."

That’s certainly a contrast from American culture, where there can sometimes be a frantic emphasis on individual expression, individual rights, and being a special snowflake. I recently saw Lil Uzi Vert reportedly got a $24 million diamond embedded in his forehead.

“If it’s accepted from the jump it’s not ICONIC,” he said

The American emphasis on standing out is put clearly by a different entrepreneur, and of course, he’s a Texan. Gary Keller, co-founder of Keller Williams, said in an interview last year:

“You fall in love with someone and you want to ask them to marry you, and you go, ‘Will you marry me? I’ve dreamed of our life together, and it’s going to be average. We’re going to live an average life and live in an average home, drive an average car, eat average food, take average vacations, read average books, go to average movies. We’ll have average friends. We’ll have average parties. If we have kids, we’ll have average kids, and we’ll teach them the virtues of being average. Let’s get married. It’s going to be awesome.' Nobody does that, do they? Not purposely."

He’s got a point. I don’t think many of us Americans actively aspire towards mediocrity or find the Swedish concept of lagom particularly palatable.

We hear this advice a lot from executives, artists, Oprah, etc. “We can all be exceptional.” “We can all be unique.” “Don’t be average… be a stand-out, a hero, a legend.”

Fair advice. But to avoid the dreaded 95% of the area under the bell curve, it can be tempting to simply invest a lot of time and money into standing out in ways that aren’t necessarily productive or impactful.

More money can funnel into a more exotic vacation, a more finely trimmed set of hedges, a pair of shoes made out of real leather this time. More time can go into crafting the perfect post or the ideal profile. To stand out in the channels that are the most visible to others: it can be the easiest way to avoid being average.

The easiest way to feel... better... than others.

The Best, Better than the Rest

In 1930, Sigmund Freud coined the term the “narcissism of small differences” to explain why the most brutal, interminable conflicts seem to exist between communities that are almost exactly alike. The Serbs and Croats, Sunnis and Shiites, or Hatfields and McCoys. It’s human nature, he noted, for one community to only see what is different about the other rival, despite sharing so many customs, beliefs, and history in common.

Our human tendency to frequently see how we’re different from others, this narcissism of small differences, also fuels the common need to appear better than others in our modern consumer culture.

Stereotypically, it’s why one wealthy partner in a law firm living in a gated community cares way too much about having a slightly bigger boat than his neighbor, who is also… a partner in a law firm. But it’s also why we sometimes put way too much emphasis on the pedigree of our degree, the prestige of our job, the number of Pelotons in our apartment’s gym or the student to teacher ratios of our children’s schools.

When people make the biggest of deals over the most frivolous of differences – the kind of shoes they have, the kind of car they drive, the kind of smoothie machine they just bought – you can be sure the narcissism of small differences is at play.

And you can be sure there is time and money getting funneled into activities that, at the end of the day, don’t really have that much of an impact.

Because the real impact we have on ourselves and others comes from standing out in ways that aren’t always broadcasted by the clothes we wear or the popularity we’ve earned or whatever else some talking head on Instagram says is good for you... or rather... is good for their bottom line.

Real impact comes from how we stand out along dimensions we actually control and own within ourselves: our values, ideas, or skills.

And provided it’s motivated by the right reasons, aiming to stand out in this manner can make all the difference.

The Calling

Martin Luther King Jr was actually from a well-off family. The son of a successful pastor in Atlanta, he was offered a cushy job back home after earning his PhD in 1955. There was a lot of pressure on him to conform to a conventional definition of success, to be a respected Atlanta-based pastor, just like his father.

But King felt drawn to fulfilling an entirely unique purpose. If he were to establish himself within his comfort zone, his native black Atlanta community, he would be insulated from the pressing civil problems of his generation. That felt unacceptable. Against the advice of family and friends, he instead took a job at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, the center of rising racial tensions in the U.S.

For the next 13 years, eventually as a leader of the Montgomery bus boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he resisted all temptations to surrender during his successful (and unsuccessful) civil rights campaigns. Even as his own house was bombed, as he faced deafening criticism, as he fought through bouts of depression and anxiety.

He stayed committed to the unique purpose he set for his life, his goal to not conform to what others thought was acceptable, but to push for what he deeply knew to be right, for himself and for others. He simply aimed to stand out in his beliefs and actions and didn't back down from this.

As he once said,

“We have a responsibility to set out to discover what we are made for, to discover our life’s work, to discover what we were intended to do, as dictated by our particular skills, gifts, and inclinations.”

But in my opinion, the only way we have a real chance of following this advice is if we focus and act on the unique aspects within us. If King didn't have the strength to do this himself, he never would've become a pastor in Alabama when there was clearly a much easier option available.

For us, we can ask: which sides of our character are different? What do we believe or understand or value that no one else does or even can? Could there be a lot of value hiding there?

For Warren Buffett, what's different is his unique investment perspective and perhaps even his habit of reading for several hours a day. For blogger Maria Popova, it's her unique incorporation of graphic design into her content.

It can be more challenging or scary to stand out in this way. Maybe it's easier to head down to South Street and stand out by buying one of those Russian Cossack hats instead.

But there's value in sticking to those unique assets we hold within. As professor Jeffrey Pfeffer has said,

"You can't be normal and expect abnormal returns."


Further Reading

(1) Martin Luther King Jr story comes from The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene (2) More about the narcissism of small differences can be found here


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