There are people who can’t help but be different, and people who choose to be different, and people who live in fear of being different. If you’re a writer, that third category is a killer. In fact, it’s a killer for just about anything that isn’t sedentary, unimaginative or uninspiring.
I’m writing about ways of thinking, of course, and let me just call that fear category S3S for Stage 3 Suffocation. Excitement and discovery don’t happen much by recipe, formula, or in the middle of the pack. So, I’m always surprised when I see people who aspire to creativity but think they can acquire it like a diploma for staying in school long enough, or maybe by following a yellow brick road with a Wizard of Oz on the other end. I say this having taught for a lot of years – and maybe I’m teaching now in writing this – but I want to focus on things that are more a matter of choice than specific learning from someone else. Formal education is society’s way of passing on its legacy of mostly quantitative knowledge and order. It can foster cultural experiences and provide an opportunity for creative development. It can do a lot of things. But it can’t make you creative. It passes along sameness, not differences.
Being different (a.k.a. original) isn’t a learned lesson, or an imitation of individualism, it begins with a mindset, a way of looking at things, and – if you’re in that third category of living in fear of being different (S3S) – a little bit of risk-taking. Let me to break that down and elaborate:
The mindset doesn’t have to be attitude in the belligerent sense, but it does have to challenge the status quo. Whether to confirm, refute, or simply shape ideas and values, if you don’t question, you are by default a follower. Accepting everything traditional is an S3S symptom. It’s the way to go if you have a weak heart or just want a preview of eternity in a cemetery. Cemeteries are safe. No one gets hurt in a cemetery. If you do challenge the status quo, it means among other things that you probably aren’t ground temperature. You have looked at life around you, and when it said, “Live and think this way because that’s the way it is,” you said, “Wait a minute, why does it have to be that way?” You played “what if” with the possibilities. You are capable of original thought. It doesn’t mean you are cast as a crusader or an activist. It doesn’t mean you have to throw away the good things in your life, or question everything habitually. This is a quiet rebellion. It happens, for the most part, internally.
Now, maybe you come by that naturally. You were that impertinent little brat who asked insufferable questions all the time you were growing up, or maybe you just knew that whatever you were told to do, odds were that doing the opposite was going to be more interesting, more fun, and more educational. Even if you were an obedient – nay, servile – over-achiever, you knew that there were cracks in the perfect white walls that insulated you and that just maybe there were some truths on the other side. Maybe you rebelled loudly. Maybe you rebelled sneakily. Maybe you didn’t rebel at all, but now there is an outraged part of you that feels corralled when you want to gallop, because the sacred insulating walls turned out to be a prison. The point is that you acquired or naturally have this mindset which challenges the stagnancy of tradition for its own sake. You know what fits you, whether you actually went for it or not. You have the potential to be an original, a one-of-kind. Whatever your skills for expression – writing, painting, music, or just radiating the joy of living in a way that communicates happiness and satisfaction – the foundation for creativity in all you do is laid.
But there is another step in the process of maxing out your potential. Because the questioning mindset I’ve described merely clears the board for you of reflex social conditioning that blocks objective thinking. And now that you’ve gotten rid of some of the myths, you can reprogram yourself with the truth as you find it, free of social stress and political correctness. You are becoming an original thinker. I’m not saying that there isn’t value in growing up indoctrinated by fear and pressure. I’m just saying that the generalities that shepherd us through stages of growth often don’t hold up, and at some point in your adult life you need to examine every idea to see what remains true for you and lets you be fulfilled.
Hard to do. We come of age wearing a straitjacket of other people’s expectations. Jiminy Cricket sits on our shoulder and chirps guilt. What we do to escape those expectations defines us and whether we have the mindset to do something as crazy as write books, or think independently, or dare to be happy pursuing the nature within us. You can argue with yourself that if the people you disappoint along the way really love you, they’ll accept who you are eventually. And they will. Getting to that point, however, is beyond what most people have the drive to do. Which is why unique thinkers are unique. But the rewards for becoming your own person are unlimited and cumulative. It is a confirming process, and depending on the degree of your accomplishments and influence, you may find yourself a role model and source of inspiration rather than the pariah you may have imagined. The funny thing is, when you stop trying to curry favor with the world, the world will probably look over your shoulder at what you are doing and respect you for being independent and original.
So, okay, you question everything and now you’re a gadfly and a rebel, doing what everyone else wishes they had the moxie to do. Is that all there is – protesting, dissenting, playing devil’s advocate? Actually, that should be the least of it. Like a key turning a lock, you’ve simply removed a barrier. You still have to open the door and experience the freedom. The real benefit comes when you step outside and take an enhanced look around you. Because over time the mindset gives you an automatic perception outside the box – a way of looking at the world. It is, quite simply, insight. You don’t see only what people do, but what they want to do, could do, and don’t do. You don’t just hear what they say, but what they really mean, and the significance of what they don’t say. You learn the value of opposites and contrast. You see the why behind the what. The world of façades, false assumptions, radiant deceits and base hypocrisies, becomes clearer, and a world of hidden motives and raw truth emerges. And in the open-minded process of understanding others, you may come to understand yourself. Because the way is open then for your own humanity to develop in response. If learning about life’s façades makes you angry and self righteous, ready to do battle with windmills, you may gain sympathy and compassion. Or if you are ruled by knee-jerk guilt and obligation, you may discover that being tougher on others is a long-term kindness that respects their unused strengths. Moral truth is a whole other bias. But at the heart of it is this always-developing insight into the world as it really is. You literally train yourself to be a truth-seeker until it is a habit. This is the writer’s underlayment for mirroring life and the heart of skill with characterization, dialogue, motivation, and interactions.
Of course, everyone gains some degree of this kind of insight, but what I’m trying to describe is rather more profound than the normal range. You will know when you are thinking outside the box because you’ll catch yourself taking for granted that another observer is seeing and hearing the same subtext that you are, when in fact they are filtering everything through that dread of being different, trying to match what they observe with the sameness with which they have been indoctrinated. You may have to remind yourself that, for better or worse, you can never fit into that nice safe and secure S3S category again. Society doesn’t script you anymore. You are different.
Okay. I’ve described mindset and a way of looking at life. Two aspects of being different. Naturally occurring or a matter of choice. Either way, I also suggested that they carry a little bit of risk-taking. Very little, it turns out. If emotional intensity, stimulation and learning are missing from your life, you probably don’t need the insulation that sameness brings. You have outgrown the myth of security that comes from being in that cemetery where everyone is ground temperature. No, the risk-taking I’m talking about has mostly to do with handling freedom. Full-time writers, for instance, get rapped for being lazy. It’s tempting to let go of discipline when you get rid of the social pressure to be like everyone else. You risk not coming into a warm building on a winter’s morn where you follow the clock like others around you, socially sanctioned, normal, average. On the other hand, you could look at obesity, credit card debt, and the sedentary lifestyle that are pretty much the norm of modern living, and ask, “What discipline?” Lots of risk in being normal. Discipline is pick and choose. Nothing is stopping you from getting up in the morning and dressing to the nines just to sit down by yourself at a keyboard. You are free! The pressure is different just as you are different, and the risk is that you have to pull the motivation out of yourself because less of it is going to come from the world around you.
I’ll take that risk! It’s wonderful. Helps if you surround yourself with inspiration and avoid dead-end people. S3S is highly contagious. Nothing will kill you faster than friends and relationships who don’t “get that” about you. The world of sterile acceptance – in which most of us exist as spectators rather than participants – wants us to be homogenized. We are audience rather than actors. We tend to live through symbolic activities and to chase emblems rather than substance. Our gods dress in chrome and neon. It is easy to put your inner resources aside and let the world come at you passively. Multi-media will live for you, tell you what to think, what to feel. Much tougher to live by your mind and soul, examining everything for new wisdom, new insights. And if you actually find someone to share a like mind and soul with you, don’t expect heaven to be an upgrade.
As much as I’ve scurried through the underbrush of life, tragically I’ve wasted too much time standing in a line to nowhere, trying to be like everyone else. When you’ve done that long enough, you realize – with deep regret – that you could have made things happen earlier. You were in control all the time. Instead of waiting for fate to send you a message and give you a push, you could have just opened the door and said, “This is how it’s gonna be.” Defining your uniqueness is a way of seizing control of yourself and your destiny. That’s essential to any thinking person. And if you’re a writer, it beats a diploma in English Lit any day.
Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are welcome, your attention valued. If you’d like to see more of my writing, please check out the free sample chapter from my latest novel, THE WATER WOLF on my website. And if you’d like to receive my free monthly newsletter which comes out the same day as this column, ask to be added to the list at: email@example.com Older newsletters will now be archived on the website, but unfortunately we can only include new photos with the e-mailed version.
Thomas “Sully” Sullivan