“One of the greatest regrets in life is being what others would want you to be, rather than being yourself.” – Shannon Alder
In today’s world, nonconformity is often considered a virtue. And rightly so, as lots of extraordinary achievements directly result from individuals not submitting to culturally-determined standards. As such, we might do well to think different, as Steve Jobs would have put it. Être extraordinaire!
Be that as it may, as with all virtues, one must be cautious of gravitating towards its dark side. In the case of nonconformity, this happens when one isn’t just diverging from group norms, but is downright allergic to them. Here the nonconformist is adhering to the same rules as the conformist but simply acts inversely. This is unproductive as well as hypocritical. And I think it completely misses the purpose of diverging from norms in the first place: intellectual freedom.
I wrote a short story to illustrate this point.
The tragedy of the nonconformist
Imagine yourself as a tall, proud sheep who has recently been moved to a new herd. This new herd is somewhat different from the ones you’re used to, and you’ve recently noticed an anomaly. Every day, when the shepherd rings the bell to announce that it’s time for dinner, all the sheep become excited and start rushing to the food—pushing and everything—making dinner a less than pleasurable experience for you.
Seeing this happen daily, you quickly start judging this behavior and, being the stubborn sheep you are, decide to want nothing to do with it. So, every day, whenever that bell rings, rather than walk towards it, you turn around and stare into the empty planes.
It goes on like this for a while, with you typically eating last, all by yourself. This gives you mixed feelings. You often feel lonely and wish you’d made some new friends. But at the same time you feel a gratifying righteousness. You feel special, different from those limited minds who participate in that same stupidity every day. You are a nonconformist, and it makes you feel superior.
Months go by since you first turned your back on the rushing sheep. Then one day the shepherd is late with ringing the bell, and there is a particular excitement and restlessness in the herd. This makes you feel additional contempt and disgust, anger even. Can’t those stupid sheep see how dumb they look? So when the bell finally rings, and all the sheep make a run for it, you don’t even bother turning around. You simply stare at those mongrels, pushing and squeezing.
But then you see something, something you hadn’t noticed before. Some of the sheep aren’t pushy at all, they just smile as the bell rings and join the back of the line, chatting with their neighbors in amusement. They don’t seem irritated by their fellow sheep at all and are having a great time. In fact, a much better time than you are having. They seem approachable too, like they wouldn’t mind talking to you at all. As if the thought of you being different, for better or worse, has never even occurred to them. One of them even winks at you.
And that’s when you realize what a fool you’ve been. Looking down on the masses while being moved by exactly the same forces. You decide, there and then, to become like those sheep in the back of the line. Who just go with the flow. Who haven’t so strongly judged the behavior of their fellow sheep and alienated themselves as a result. You decide to let go of your judgments. Sure you’ll have an opinion, and you probably won’t ever count yourself among the pushy ones, but you won’t judge them harshly either.
You realize that life is way too short to live in contempt. That you’d rather become someone who is loving first and a critic second. That a nonconformist is only that when there’s no contra-reaction, no allergy. You decide to just be. And then you smile; you had never thought about it this way. You are impressed by the incredible self-deception that the mind is capable of. You’ll be able to enjoy your days in this herd now.
So you start walking. Step by step. Excited to join the party and meet those inviting eyes. You step into the queue next to the guy who winked at you. You nod and smile. It’s a beautiful day and the sun is shining down on you. Life, it never ceases to surprise. What a wonderful miracle.