When I worked in wireless telecommunications, my old boss Vic Brumley used to tell me in his gruff Navy sailor chief voice: “Look, you can be out there like the tallest blade of grass on the lawn, but if you stand out like that, you’d best be the toughest blade of grass there is because they’re going to come to cut you down.”
The team I led at the time had a little arrogance problem. We were working on a massive project and our success rate was through the roof. We got things done fast, effectively, and I guess we were all feeling our oats a bit.
Vic didn’t tell us to fit in. His words meant: “If you’re going to stand out, you’d better be amazing because people hate the ones who stand the tallest.”
Fitting In is for Chumps
I help companies with marketing and business advice these days. They contact me when they’re looking for an edge up in selling more of whatever it is they peddle. It’s amazing what I find when I do a review of their sites and marketing materials:
- They used all the industry standard words. If I took the logo off their site, it matched all their competitors.
- The site had the same navigation as any you’d ever visited, including the horrible menus-of-doom up top which looks like the table of contents of a book with no sense of path or pattern.
- They used clip art of generic people doing generic things in generic settings.
Nothing in their marketing materials, their email newsletters, or anything else they sold stood out. None of it. I asked about it. “We want to match the look and feel of the companies we compete against.”
There it was. They wanted to fit in. To be another even and uniform blade of grass on a golf course looking lawn.
The Fear of Standing Out is Real
There’s an old quote: “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to be IBM in those heady days when that was absolutely true. But the point is this: If you do what everyone else does, you’re safe.
We follow this advice starting in grade school. For me, it was around 7th grade that I realized just how weird I was and that I might have to make some choices. If I wanted to be invited to things and have friends, I’d have to “act normal.”
So I did. I acted the heck out of normal for all of 7th grade and I made normal friends and we talked about all kinds of stuff I thought was boring, and I went to some boring birthday parties for kids whose names I couldn’t remember if I tried.
A fear of public speaking comes from that fitting in problem. If we stand up and talk from a place above the rest of the people around us, we are that tall blade of grass. We have the spotlight on us. And if we are onstage, we can be wrong. And people hate to feel wrong or stupid. They avoid these feelings like the plague.
A Secret: There’s Gold in Standing Out
One summer, a friend from back in 8th grade (the year after I tried being normal) decided that he wanted to operate an ice cream truck in New York City. He found out quickly that he didn’t like the actual products available for him to vend, so he decided to create his own and brand it in his own way.
Doug Quint and his company have built an empire because he was willing to stand out. He created a lot more value by making the Big Gay Ice Cream empire instead of being yet another truck selling melting SpongeBob treats with gum eyeballs oozing down the sides.
The Standing Out Action Kit
There are risks in standing out. I don’t want you to think that the tall blade of grass route is easy. Like Vic Brumley said, you have to be really good and as bulletproof as possible if you want to stand out. But what that takes is different than you’d imagine. Here’s a list:
- Vulnerability – People that stand out are able to accept their flaws and mistakes and own them. They come from challenging backgrounds and embrace it. They didn’t have all the breaks growing up and they use that, too.
- A Point of View – You can’t stand out if you can’t express your interests and perspective. I’ve perused so many Twitter accounts where 90% or more of what they share are other people’s words. I’ve read newsletters that spend most of their time quoting other people. Who wants that?
- A New Spin on the Mundane – How can you take the world around you and explain it differently? This point is very tricky to master. Jerry Seinfeld is a pro. He’ll ask questions about why we eat massive buckets of popcorn but only in a dark room and so on. A lot of comedy is about this, actually: seeing something typical in a whole new light. To stand out, this is a core element.
- Familiarity plus Aspiration – Here’s another challenging aspect. If you stand out too much, people won’t connect. Or not enough people will. And another way to stand out “better” is to be someone that others might aspire to be. Not be someone you aren’t. But try to be the best and most inspiring version of who you are.
Fitting in will not earn you much advantage. There are times when some level of compliance is important. If you don’t sell 12 ounce cans of soda pop, you’ll never get in the vending machine. But even then, maybe you don’t want to go there. Manoj Bhargava made the 5 Hour Energy drink a billion dollar business by making the beverage just a small shot instead of an energy “drink” in the 12 ounce or more category. He stood out so much so that others decided to copy him and try to catch up (they didn’t, by the way).
Stand out. People will want to buy from you because of it, not in spite of it. It’s a magic trick that can serve your business (and life) very well.