I’ve been called many, many things in my life - most of them good, some of them… not so much. I’m going to assume that this rings true to most of us, but there is one specific thing that I’ve been called over and over again, that has always stuck with me: “different”.
Already from a very young age, I have always been a person with a very well-determined interpretation of how things are and (more importantly) how I wanted them to be. This is clearly shown by the many, many stories of my childhood that have been told over the years during family weekends or at the dinner table. Especially having a young child of your own is good way of bringing old memories back to the surface. You should try it, good times.
It must be said however that I myself have virtually no recollection (if any) of all these things that I supposedly did, said or encountered, especially when it comes to stories from the first five years of my life. This is almost beside the point though, since many of these events follow a pretty convincing pattern that it incredibly hard to deny.
But even if you ignore all the stories my parents told me, I myself can remember a significant number of cases where I handled a specific situation in a very, very different way than how I was told, shown, instructed or taught.
In some cases, the result was much better than anticipated. Shockingly, this was usually not the case and in most of those situations, my stubbornness got me into more trouble than my inexperienced and underdeveloped brain could handle. In one extreme example I personally undid over 5 years of training by “teaching” myself a new way to do something, after which I had to start all over again from scratch.
In most cases however there were little to no significant consequences to my life, since it’s pretty hard to do any “real” damage when you’re just a kid. That said though, my parents did have a real hard time dealing with me and my misadventures. And regardless of what happened and what went wrong, their reaction was pretty much always the same: “why do you have to be so different from everybody else?” - in Dutch: “altijd anders dan anders”.
When I was younger, I struggled with this since I always figured that being “different” was a bad thing. As a parent myself I am (now) well aware that my parents were trying to help me and prevent me from doing harm to myself and others. Despite their good intentions, the reproach of being “too different” stuck with me for many years and it took me quite a while to put it into context.
This is perhaps the reason why I felt so intrigued by the latest book I read: “Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd” by Youngme Moon. The book was given to me by a fellow entrepreneur who had no idea of my history or my personal struggles, but I am very happy that he did.
In her book, Moon describes how in many cases, competition between different businesses or companies actually can actually lead to a decrease in differentiation and creativity among the various competitors. At first glance, this may seem very counter intuitive but it makes perfect sense when you think about it. It all depends on how you, as a company, look at the world and the competitors around you.
Moon observed that in many cases, there is a certain level of uniformity between all major competitors in a given field. This is due the fact that these companies have lost sight of themselves and are primarily looking at their competitors for new ideas and innovation. As a result, all competitors eventually end up with a more or less identical offer, which makes it a lot more difficult for a customer to differentiate between them if he is not knowledgeable about the product category.
In these companies, innovation usually comes in two ways: variation (e.g. mango flavor instead strawberry) and improvement (27” monitor instead of 24”). However, it’s pretty hard to call this innovation, since the company didn’t really come up with anything new. Additionally, these minor alterations can easy be copied by competitors and will never give any one of them a definitive edge over the others.
For me, this problem felt all too familiar because I have actually been in the situation so often where I honestly had too many similar choices of a specific product in front of me with no idea how to choose among them. This is especially true for products that I don’t really know anything or care that much about like tooth paste, clothes or breakfast serial. To me, all of those products look identical and I honestly have no idea what the differences are between them and (perhaps more importantly) why I should care.
In the rest of the book, Moon highlights several ways on how companies can break away from this herd mentality. She substantiates her case with several analyses about companies that have done so very successfully in the past. Some examples that come to mind are Apple, Harley-Davidson, Google and Ikea, all of which are labelled by Moon as “opposite” or “cross”, all of which differentiated from the others by disrupting the status quo.
I will not go into detail on the many examples that are discussed in the book, but I do recommend you read it yourself to fully understand how this herd mentality works and more importantly how you can break free from it with your company.
For me personally, there is one major point that I will remember from this book: dare to be different. Identify your strengths and dare to focus on those instead of trying to compensate for your weaknesses. Dare to think for yourself without worrying about what others are doing or what they think about you and your ideas.
In the end, I think Steve Jobs said it best:
Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes ... the ones who see things differently -- they're not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. ... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change things. ... They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.
It should be clear to everyone that doing things differently doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll do better than everyone else. I have done things “my way” my entire life and more often than not I’ve actually made things more difficult for myself rather than making things better. But if there’s one thing I’ve realized over the last couple of years, and reading this book has only confirmed to me what I already knew, it’s this: there is absolutely nothing wrong with being different. Own it, embrace it, but know when to quit and walk away.
And then go and try again.