There is a certain frisson in being different. Most of us really don’t want to be. We want to think we are different, but not actually be different. Different enough to still be interesting, maybe eccentric, but not stand-alone different. There is fear in having to explain ourselves—and failing.
There was a recent uptick in “be different and proud” quotes on Twitter and it set me to thinking. As an artist, there is a certain threat level to being different. There are fads in supplies and techniques. Several years ago, anyone who could push a thread through a bead became a “jewelry designer;” those with more patience and talent made amulet bags. If you didn’t make them, your talent was suspect—as if you hadn’t reached an expected artistic developmental stage. In the collage world, there was a huge surge in illustrations of big eyed women with bent necks. Adding a bird somewhere in the collage was close to a requirement. . The bird was first a sign of individuality and moved to cliche, with defenders and detractors.
“Different” varies from “early adopter” to “outsider artist. It’s hard to feel connected to your path when you are alone and a large group of successful others are pouring out the fad of the minute.
Being different in the corporate world doesn’t often win awards, either. I once refused to fire a writer who was labeled as different. He was serious, bright, and had a talent for concise, image-rich, clear prose that drove home a point. He was also an introvert and overweight. The department head pointed it out as “not fitting in with our image” and urged me to fire the writer. I refused, pointing to the employee’s serious talent. Suddenly I was the one who didn’t fit in, Within six months, I was called in for a review and told, “You are different and seem to enjoy it.” It wasn’t a compliment, and I was pushed out of the company. To my satisfaction, the good writer remained.
It’s hard being different if it affects your livelihood or your ethics. It’s easier to go along to get along. Being different isn’t a label; it’s is a daily decision-making process that balances providing for your family, being accepted by your friends, and standing up for what you believe. Sometimes that can be quite lonely. It can cost you a client or friends. You doubt yourself. You struggle with the possibility that you are simply wrong.
We live in a world of image, driven by consumer values. There is huge pressure to be accepted, to fit in, to have supporters, successful Facebook “Like” pages, Re-tweets. Do you express your opinion if it is different from your client’s and she is expressing hers as the right opinion? Do you stay silent? What about a friend’s veiled slur against a religion? What if it is your religion? What about a snarky remark about looks? Weight? Who do you defend, except yourself? We make small decisions every day, and they shape our character, our jobs, our lives. Be careful of the little ones. They change the shape of your soul.