How to Be an Outlier and Remain Unusual

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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.


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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?


  • http://www.facebook.com/uli.krahn1 Uli Krahn

    I like your strategies –  a mix of self-confidence and deception is the only thing that works. Normal is a complex and violent behemoth, in my perception. It’s easiest to see with food or drink :  One person doing something different reminds people of how they’d like to be in their imagination, and kinda attacks the excuse they were about to make about everybody doing it. One person leaving early reminds them they’re maybe not enjoying themselves as much as they pretend. (My main prob – I love going out,  in short doses , but it makes folk irascible to a degree that despite perfectly good medical excuses, I often can’t be bothered, because it’s just too hard fighting for my early exit.)  People are  like a group of monkeys or flock of fish, and doing something different touches an interesting and sore nerve every time. But of course if one pays too much attention to that , I’d still sit in a small town, talking to people who think that turning on the lights at dusk without previous communal discussion is radically individualistic  ;)  

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      The point about leaving a party early is an excellent one. I’m in the exact same position – I like going out and spending time with friends, but I also like getting home early and waking up early and being productive the next day. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to make a gracious exit in this situation. If you say “I need to work tomorrow” you dampen the mood and get heckled by well-intentioned friends. If you say “I want to get some sleep tonight” or whatever, it is nearly impossible to not come across as tired / whiny / generally a downer.

      My solution? I honestly tend to just slip out unnoticed. It’s an old magician’s trick. Some might say it is rude, but I don’t think it is if you do it correctly – and it leaves a lot to imagination. Sometimes when I disappear, it is not because I am leaving – I genuinely show up with an interesting story next time. But a lot of the times, I’m just going home. However, those occasional interesting stories are enough to lend the “mystery” element. The idea is to create an image that leads people to say “where’d he go? I don’t know, you know how he is, always off on some adventure…”

      Tough to pull off, though, and at times I have done it better than others ;)

  • Max Hydrogen

    “People will subconsciously try to pull you back to the center of the “social norm””. Je pense que souvent ce n’est pas  si insensé que ça. Les être humains détestent ceux qui sont dissemblables. On ne voit jamais des gens de différents styles musico-modes se tenir ensemble. Si ta différence est protégée par les serments médiatiques qui terrorisent la population a accepter tous les races, religions et orientations sexuelles, personne ne t’attaquera ouvertement, mais si tu est individualistes, rien empêche les autres de t’assaillir.

    J’ai un ami comme toi, qui se cache dans les masses. Il se voit comme un sorte de ninja; il doit se camoufler dans le troupeau. Moi j’en suis incapable, alors, j’ai formulé un plan: si je suis condamné à souffrir pour mon individualité, alors j’irai vivre ailleurs où c’est “normal” que je suis différent car je viens d’outre mer; si on me donne de la misère pour être différent, ça sera “on MY terms”.

    C’est pour ça que je veux vivre comme toi.

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