Malcolm Gladwell uses the term “Outliers” to describe people who are exceptional in some way. His point is well made, but at the end of the day we tend to forget that outliers are people who are different. Strange. Weird.
To have unusual success, you need to be unusual. Rare exceptions aside, you cannot get into amazingly good shape, or become a maestro at the piano, or be an exceptional programmer… or do anything exceptionally unless you have a bit of an obsession.
Unfortunately, obsessions do not work well in social situations.
As An Example…
I’ve recently been conducting a number of health and diet related experiments (results coming soon), so I’ll use them as examples here. They make for good examples because we can look at the numbers involved in order to define “exceptional.” For example, we can look at body fat percentage on men. If you saw a guy who had about 15% body fat, you would likely say he was quite trim and in good shape (assuming he was not devoid of muscle). This level of leanness is challenging to achieve, but not exceedingly so.
Compare this against 10% body fat and below (again, for men). Unless you’re a genetic freak of nature, you generally cannot achieve this level of leanness without really understanding and monitoring what you are eating/doing. At the risk of making an overly-broad statement, I would say that it is impossible for the average male to achieve this without studying nutrition and exercise and planning out each and every meal / workout.
This means more than counting calories. It means bringing your own packed food for every meal you eat, never drinking with friends, resisting temptation at every turn, adhering to an exact workout schedule, tracking everything in speadsheets, etc.
In other words, you have to be weird.
How to Be Weird
When I lived in China, I got used to the idea that I was a sort of outlier – if only because of my skin color and culture. More than any other place I have lived, my differences were clearly marked and I had to fight against the cultural norm (at times) to maintain my own way of life. Because I was doing business with Chinese people, this meant developing certain tactics. Now, I use these to maintain my “weirdness” when doing things like bringing a salad to a restaurant.
1. Explain Your Choices (Correctly)
One of the simplest solutions, yet difficult to master. Try telling a Chinese businessman that “I don’t drink” (for example) and you may have just dug yourself a hole in the relationship that harms your relationship (even his trust in you). On the other hand, if you say “my doctor says I cannot drink” then nobody will fault you for that.
I use this blog as an excuse all the time. Many of my choices may be weird and seem difficult to justify, but if I redirect the explanation by talking about the purpose of “Life by Experimentation” and conducting meaningful self-experiments, the attention gets redirected. Someone who buys every tech gadget they find, for example, is an addict – but someone who writes about them is a reviewer. Similarly, I try weird things (like wearing an EEG to bed), but it is “okay” because I am testing and chronicling them.
2. Hide Your Choices
When you cannot effectively explain your choice (or just don’t want to), you can hide it. In China, my western colleagues and I developed a sophisticated strategy of “fake drinking” (discreetly spitting beer into tea cups and “baijiu” alcohol into water) to avoid becoming excessively drunk. Likewise, you could find a way to put your salad onto a plate at the restaurant.
3. Force Your Choices On Others
Certainly the most boorish solution, but that does not mean it should be discounted. If dinner is at my house, I will cook and entertain – but I will choose foods that fit with the aforementioned experiment. Or, if someone cannot understand why I would choose to undertake such an experiment (like when I taught myself to become ambidextrous) I can simply use my knowledge on the subject material to talk them down.
I don’t mean to say that you should be rude, but rather, remember that your choice to do something unusual is a choice you (hopefully) made with good reason.
What Is Normal?
People will subconsciously try to pull you back to the center of the “social norm” simply to protect their own sense of “what is normal.”
Don’t let them.
“Normal” or “average” is (generally) nothing to strive for. Again, if you have thought through your goals and your reasoning and you believe in what you are trying to do, then don’t let anybody sway you from that course (without good reason). If someone tells me that my dietary habits are dangerous I will certainly listen, but if their complaint is simply that I am not doing what they are doing, it is not a valid complaint at all.
So, what’s your definition of abnormal? Do your friends and family look at you strangely for certain choices you make? How have you dealt with it?