The Pursuit of Remarkability
“Do not internalize the industrial model. You are not one of the myriad of interchangeable pieces, but a unique human being, and if you’ve got something to say, say it, and think well of yourself while you’re learning to say it better.”
When he was just 15, NFL Quarterback-turned Major League Baseballer, Tim Tebow had already embodied his life mantra — To have an edge, to be uncommon. He participated in an arm curl competition, the opponent being a 15-pound curl bar with two ten-pound weights at each end.
As the other guys were taking their turns, Tebow kept sliding to the back of the line, in order to know the number to beat. With each new guy, the number of repetitions performed got higher — 30, 33, 40, and finally 55.
He couldn’t slide all the way to the back, and there was only one person left behind him — One that was huge and brawny. So he figured that he would have to put up with a number of repetitions that the guy behind him couldn’t beat — Even better, a number that he wouldn’t want to beat — That way, Tebow could beat him before he even got started.
Tebow started curling his bar to his chest, all the way to 40, then 50, then 60. He was the leader now, but he kept going, giving everything he could until a 100 repetitions. “This guy behind me is really, really huge,” he thought. He kept going.
At 175, his arms were screaming in pain. By 225, the pain was gone and numbness had set in. “Might as well keep going,” he told himself.
He put the bar down after 315 repetitions. He won. That night his elbows were bent stiff at right angles. Only after three days did the lactic acid wear off and he was able to use his arms again. But he felt great.
Tebow was born dyslexic, which might have played a role in how he thought of himself and the world around him. He didn’t see himself as disabled, only different.
“What is the point of being ‘normal’?” , he wrote in his autobiography. “That sounds like average to me and I never felt like I was created to be average…So if everybody was doing the same thing, the normal and usual thing, I looked for a different way. The crowd, by definition, gravitates towards average, which could tend toward middle of the road or toward mediocrity. If we’re all special in the same way, then nobody really is.”
No one is really a genius — No one has the magic to turn his every work into gold, or is a flawless super-intelligent genie who can solve every single problem in the world, or is great at every tiny thing — By that definition, at least. If so, the right word should be “perfect”.
Even Einstein had trouble finding his own house when he walked home from work every day. No one’s a genius. But everyone has genius. Everyone has the exceptional abilities to find the not so obvious solution to a problem. That’s right, you do. We all do.
But the unfortunate thing is that we live in a society that doesn’t honor this genius inside us. It’s a Faustian bargain — We trade our genius, all our remarkability, all our artistry for apparent stability.
We grew up in a system that works this way : Show up, do your job, work hard, listen to whatever the boss tells you to do, be part of the system, and you’ll be rewarded.
That’s the scam. We traded years of our life to be part of a con in which the winner is definitely not us.
How did we get here?
I’m not trying to sound like a conspiracy theorist in any way, but the public school system was invented in the United States during the Industrial Age — The nation needed more factory workers — People who could follow orders and do things by the book.
You might have heard about the myth of Icarus. The story basically goes like this : Daedalus, the Dad, makes a pair of wings out of wax and feathers for his son, Icarus. He warns his son, “Don’t go and fly too close to the Sun. The wax will melt and you’ll fall to your death.” Icarus got uppity and disobeyed his Dad. And he died.
But interestingly, that’s not what the myth said in very ancient times, like in the 1200s or the 1500s — Pre-Industrial Age. They changed it. The story used to say, “But more importantly, don’t fly too low — If you fly too low, the water and the mist will weigh down on your wings and you will surely perish.”
The people in power, the industrialists took that part out because they wanted us to fly lower. Because that way it’s easier to ignore us, to keep us in line. People who have great ambitions, who are brave enough to fly close to the Sun — They change the status quo.
We’re still seduced into thinking that what we’re supposed to do is fit in more. And social media has made this worse, because there’s a whole-pack mentality of “how do I fit in?”.
So you show up, be the same as everyone else, keep your head down, follow all the rules, you don’t question anything, and voilà — You get a living. It’s a system founded on a lot of fear. Fear of not fitting in, fear of making mistakes and having bad ideas, fear of getting a D, fear of a bleak future (ie. not getting a job) after leaving school.
We are clearly not living in the Industrial Age anymore. Today, there aren’t many jobs that tell us precisely what to do. But still, we are indoctrinated to become cogs in the factory machine. Well-intentioned teachers don’t want to do this, but the system leaves them no choice. Most schools don’t like wonderful teachers. They stamp these teachers out, bore them, and make them average.
In his book Linchpin, Seth Godin wrote, “The contributions of school are often superfluous. On the other hand, the best schools are great selectors of people with attitude and talent. Getting in and getting out is a testament to who you were before you got there. Many successful people got that way despite their advanced schooling, not because of it.”
Harsh words, even downright offensive to some people. But it’s true. I’m not saying this because I read the book.
Anyway, the kind of people we desperately need today are linchpins (the artists), not cogs or robots.
The ones who are rewarded in this age are ones that Godin calls Purple Cows — The remarkable people. Why Purple Cow? Well, think of it this way. You’re sitting in your car, looking out the window, you see some cows grazing and being cows. At first, you might get a little excited, especially if you’re from the city — Holy cow, a cow! But not long after that, you start feeling bored — The cows you’re gonna see are pretty much the same as the cows you’ve already seen just now. The only exception is if there’s something weird about the next cows — Maybe they’re wearing wigs, maybe they’re playing baseball, or maybe, they’re purple. That will wow you.
Strive to be the Purple Cow. There’s something unique in all of us that will never be repeated. There are many, many things that we can bring to the table, that only we can. Our only obstacle is the fear of being different.
“There was a missing person inside of myself and I needed to find him.“
Chronicles : Volume One
You don’t have to be just like everyone else. Being another froth in the ocean is not what you’d want to do. Instead of struggling to make a living, you struggle to make a life. Instead of struggling to simply get by, you struggle to make a difference, to add value in this world we’re living in.
Discarding the old factory mentality, our model of living today should be something like this:
- Be remarkable
- Be generous
- Create art
- Make judgment calls
- Connect people and ideas
All of Us Can Be Artists
“Now, success means being an artist.
In fact, history is now being written by the artists while the factory workers struggle. The future belongs to chefs, not to cooks or bottle washers. It’s easy to buy a cookbook (filled with instructions to follow) but really hard to find a chef book.”
In an average organization, 80% of the work power is made up of people who are cheap and easily replaceable. If they’re gone, well, almost anyone can do their jobs.
Yet there’s this 20% of people who really get the organization going — They make the tough decisions, they take the extra mile, they know what to do when there isn’t a map or a set of rules, they know the organization inside and out, they see how things connect, and they know how to make the customers keep coming back for more — These people are not cogs in a factory machine. They’re not easily replaceable. They are linchpins — They are artists, and they treat their work as art.
One of the first things said by one of my lecturers during this semester was, “As engineers, we must extend our knowledge into the unknown. We must be better than our teachers and our predecessors so that science and humanity can progress.”
I very much agree, but isn’t that also true for people of different fields? — Not just for engineers, but for the writers, poets, doctors, businessmen, the list goes on. We must create new things so that we can keep going. But not everybody is going to do that, of course. Some prefer to live in the comfort of the familiar. The people who do otherwise are the artists.
Some people still think that the word “artist” only applies to painters. Some other people think it’s esoteric and reserved for famous people who write stories, poems, plays, and people who paint.
Art isn’t only a painting. Art isn’t merely a decoration on the wall. Art is anything creative, passionate and personal — It’s special not only to the creator, but the receiver. Art is about intent. Art is about communication. It isn’t confined to a single medium, like painting. And, art is human. If it’s done by a machine, you can’t call it art, because intent matters.
So what makes an artist?
To quote Godin, “An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it personally.
That’s why Bob Dylan is an artist, but an anonymous corporate hack who dreams up Pop 40 hits on the other side of the glass is merely a marketer.”
He also said, “A cook is not an artist. A cook follows a recipe, and he’s a good cook if he follows the recipe correctly. A chef is an artist. She’s an artist when she invents a new way of cooking or a new type of dish that creates surprise or joy or pleasure for the person she created it for.”
A linchpin is an artist. As you see, art is about challenging the status quo, inventing new tastes, new ways of looking at the world, it’s about inspiring change in a person. If there’s no change, there’s no art. An artist is an individual who creates art. He changes lives, one at a time. The more lives he changes, the better.
“I like good strong words that mean something.”
Louisa May Alcott,
Artists are gift-focused. She will not feel satisfied until she sends her work out into the world as a gift. She doesn’t ask what’s in it for her. Instead, she achieves her potential by giving gifts that change people.
Take Ed Sutt, for example. Sutt studied the science of building and the effect of strong wind on wood frame houses. The conventional wisdom at the time was that if you wanted a strong house, you had to build an expensive one with expensive materials. During his visit to the Caribbean, he witnessed how thousands of houses were completely devastated by Hurricane Marilyn. Sutt was heartbroken, just as much as the people who lived there.
“I noticed that it wasn’t the wood that had failed,” he said, “It was the nails that held the wood together.”
He spent the next eleven years creating a nail that would save millions of lives. Sutt may have been rewarded handsomely in return for his invention and his dogged 11 year-persistence, but he would’ve done it for free. His passion was in making a difference — Changing the fate of millions of people, not in making money.
Sutt is an artist because he challenged the status quo. Instead of following a map, he invented something incredibly invaluable.
We as consumers say we want cheap commodities, but really, what we want is art — Something that gives us a rich, new experience in life, something that delivers more value, something that changes our condition.
How many lines can you remember from a mediocre movie or a horrible book? Probably none, unless there are good ones to make fun of. You probably couldn’t even remember a single character’s name.
Art, insight, and the bravery of creating value — These things aren’t easy to do. But if it were easy, it’s most likely that it isn’t worth much.
Into the Great Wide Open
“Generosity is not in giving me that which I need more than you do, but it is in giving me that which you need more than I do.”
We’re living in the age of the Internet. And because of that, to paraphrase Hugh MacLeod, kicking ass has never been easier to achieve, and mediocrity has never been harder to sustain. The opportunity to give is literally within your fingertips.
In a factory, doing a job that isn’t yours can get you in trouble. But now, if you’re a linchpin, doing a job that’s not getting done is absolutely essential.
When your work becomes personal, you become more connected with your coworkers and your customers. And this adds value not only to their lives, but yours. You feel richer, not necessarily because of the money, but because you feel blessed by the act of making someone’s day a little brighter.
Think of the big difference a small extra mile could make.
A flight attendant hushes a crying child, asks the passengers if they feel alright, says goodbye with a sincere smile — Not because it’s in her script, but because she wants to. And because she loves to. She’s a linchpin. She doesn’t wait for orders. She knows and feels what to do although there is no map.
“No map? No formula? What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to know what to do?”
“No map” is what makes it a mystery and a mystery is what makes it hard and because it’s hard, it’s worth doing. What is art without self-discovery in the process of making it?
There are no rules. Embrace the mystery.
And one more thing.
Art is never defect-free, pal. That’s what makes it human. That’s what makes it feel real. Remarkable things never meet spec, because that would make them standardized and not worth talking about. It’s hard to embrace this, of course, because we were trained from the first day of school to embrace perfection.
Let’s examine another great life — This man was casually spending the day at home with his family until they heard his daughter scream. 15 feet of flame engulfed their house and fire engines from 10 firefighter companies raced to the scene. As their house literally burned to the ground, they were able to save themselves with no injuries whatsoever, but they were traumatized by the incident for years — Especially due to the fact that it was no accident. An arsonist doused the place with flammable liquid and set it on fire.
“It’s sort of like being raped, I would imagine. It really took a long time,” said Tom Petty. “And it was 10 times as bad, because you knew that somebody just went and did it. Somebody tried to off you.” Petty lived in fear and his songwriting suffered as well — He had trouble writing lyrics containing words such as “fire”.
As an act of taking his life back, Petty wrote one of his greatest songs, “I Won’t Back Down”. But it was a hard one to embrace when he first wrote it because it was “so obvious”. He had enormous second thoughts about recording it. He said, “That song frightened me when I wrote it. There’s not a hint of metaphor in this thing. It’s just blatantly straightforward.”
But he recorded it anyway. “But everyone around me liked the song and said it was really good,” he said, “And it turns out everyone was right — More people connect to that song than anything I ever wrote. I’ve had so many people tell me that it helped them through this or it helped them through that. I’m still continually amazed about the power a little three-minute song has.”
We often say we’re stuck — We don’t have ideas. But what’s really happening is that we don’t have any bad ideas. We’re afraid and ashamed of our bad ideas. And we wonder why a project stays in a stalemate for a very, very long time.
Artists don’t do this of course. They accept whatever comes in. They do their best to create, create, create and create. And occasionally, a great one comes out. Picasso painted thousands of paintings in his lifetime, but you can probably name just three or four. Same goes to Steinbeck, Hemingway, even Shakespeare who wrote gigantic bodies of work — Quantity over perfection. You learn from your mistakes. But you won’t be able to do that if you don’t get started on the doing.
“The gift is to the giver, and comes back to him..”
The term “hustle” is often attributed to building a fortune for yourself, to satisfy your own wants and needs — The me, me, me game. You don’t want an email. You want a me-mail.
Why don’t we tweak that a little? Instead of hustling for ourselves, we hustle generously. We hustle to add value to other people’s lives. We make it our mission to end suffering. To at least make a single person’s day a little brighter.
Consider David, an employee at Dean and Deluca. David’s job is cleaning up after his customers — Sweeping the floor, wiping tables. While his job may seem like a menial grind to most people, it isn’t at all for him. David treats his job as an art — Every day is an opportunity to engage with customers and make them happy.
When he sees a long line outside the bathroom, he cheerfully says, “Hey everyone, there’s another bathroom upstairs. No need to wait!” and then he goes back to wiping tables.
David contributes emotional labor to the workplace — Meaning that he puts his feelings into his work. He genuinely cares about people and brightening their day.
Not just fancy grocery store employees like David, really. It could be anyone. A bellboy who refuses a tip for helping an elderly lady, a doctor who checks on her patient even though she’s on a day off, a restaurant owner who gives free food to underprivileged people.
The fun part about emotional labor is that there’s no tangible reward. If there were, it would feel like a job instead of something you want to do. It has to come deep from the heart. If it were done in a by-the-book way, it would feel fake.
A real gift is one in which you don’t expect reciprocity, in other words, you don’t expect the other person to repay you. You give gifts because it makes you feel blessed.
You benefit from the giving and so do your customers. They become loyal. They keep coming back.
An artist gives because she feels compelled to share it with other people — Because her work is important, not because she expects to make a lot of money out of it. If a “work of art” is done solely for making profit, then it ceases to be art. Instead it becomes a commodity.
She will not feel satisfied until she shares her work as a gift.
What if people aren’t interested in your gift? — You create another one. Trying and failing will always be better than not trying at all.
“Well, what if my boss won’t let me?” — Most of the time, this isn’t true. The workplace is in dire need of linchpins. If this does happen, maybe you should look for another job.
What if some people prefer to wallow in a bad day and not want you to brighten it? — Your gift isn’t for everyone. That’s life, and that’s alright. Give it to people who do want it.