Don’t Be Typical
Extraordinary things don’t get built or happen unless someone is willing to not be typical. Anything extraordinary is, by definition, distinctive – it is not ordinary.
Say what you want about Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos – I find the criticisms to be largely misguided – it’s hard to deny the impact he and the company have had on business and the way we live our lives. So when the leader of one of the world’s largest companies writes his annual letter to shareholders, I pay attention. Like many, I have made it a practice to read it each year. This year was no exception, particularly because this is the last year the letter will be written by Bezos, who has decided to step down as CEO and assume the role of Executive Chairman.
This year’s letter covers a lot of ground – the idea of creating more than you consume, efforts to combat climate change, and a pledge to not only be the world’s most customer-centric company but to be the world’s best employer and safest place to work. But the part that I found to be the most valuable was Bezos’ exhortation to be distinctive. “The world wants you to be typical – in a thousand ways, it pulls at you,” Bezos warns us. “Don’t let it happen.” This isn’t a new message, of course. One of Apple’s most successful marketing campaigns, for example, invited us to “Think Different.” Despite a long history of ridiculing and persecuting those who dared to be different, Apple and Steve Jobs challenged us to celebrate “the crazy one, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently.” The late John Lewis pleaded with us to “get into good trouble, necessary trouble.” Bezos’ invocation of this message is an important reminder that extraordinary things don’t get built or happen unless someone is willing to not be typical. Anything extraordinary is, by definition, distinctive – it is not ordinary.
I was reminded of this lesson this past weekend. My wife and I were in Mexico to celebrate the wedding of one of our closest friends. On our last evening of the trip, we were having dinner with a small group from the wedding party at an outdoor restaurant and bar on the hotel's rooftop where we were staying. The weather was perfect, music was playing, and there was a small space in front of the DJ that was begging to be used. Yet no one was dancing. I had a strong urge to go out and dance, but I was paralyzed. I realized that this was one of the thousand ways the world was pulling me back that Bezos had warned about. I can’t say that I was conscious of his letter at the time, but something moved me to stand up, hold out my hand, and lead my wife to the dance floor. My friends soon joined, as did many of the other restaurant guests. For the next thirty minutes or so, we danced under the stars with the cool breeze of the ocean gently reminding us that this was no ordinary night, and we were not typical people.
As I reflect on that short yet magical moment, I realize that Bezos was right. The world does want us to be typical. If we allow it to, it will pull us back from the dance floor of life. I have written before about the value of being a front-row person – someone who literally enters a room and always chooses to sit in the very front row. Similarly, I learned this weekend that I have a choice to be a person who always chooses to be the first on the dance floor. What will it look and feel like to be a first on the dance floor person? I’m not sure I know the answer. But I intend to find out.
If you haven’t seen it or don’t remember the Apple Think Different commercial narrated by Steve Jobs, it’s worth watching or re-watching.
Speaking of first on the dance floor, I love this video. Perhaps the best illustration of what it looks like to be distinctive and to lead.
I found this Adam Grant article in the New York Times to be helpful. It gives us a distinction for the neglected middle child of mental health – languishing – that sits between joy and depression.