Responsible Uniqueness

Deviating from the norm in some capacity or another is almost always a strength, if you build the right framework to make it one.

First, a potentially controversial opinion: Statistical models about people are helpful. It’s helpful to know what the “average” person is likely to do, think, feel. It gives you a baseline that lets you live your life in a way that would be impossible if you could literally never predict anyone’s behavior.

I live in New Jersey, in the United States. That means (among other things), that if I walk into a store to purchase something, I have a reasonable expectation of what language that transaction is going to happen in, what comments will or won’t offend the people I buy from, and so on.

Now, I should make really, really clear that I’m not saying that the average, predictable model is the best of all possible versions of this (or any) scenario. I’m absolutely not saying that anyone should be forced into this model. Just because it’s useful for me to be able to predict that an interaction with a stranger is probably going to happen in a certain way doesn’t mean that it has to go down like that, or that I have any good reason to be upset if it doesn’t.

In fact, if everything fell right in the middle of the statistical average, this would be a boring and unproductive life. I hope the world continues to be wild.

But if you’re one of the people who does something that other people might not expect, there’s a good way to make your life easier. Consider yourself to be the one responsible for managing that deviation.

My father used to tell me that the way to avoid car accidents was to be predictable. Never do anything that would surprise any other drivers. Don’t stop suddenly, don’t turn without signalling, and so on. Allow others to predict your behavior easily and the interactions with those people (in this case, navigating around each other in cars) will go much more smoothly.

That’s good advice for life. If your goal is smooth interactions with other people, then be predictable in your social behavior. Don’t get mad about stuff that would surprise someone. Don’t veer into strange conversation topics without warning. In other words, when you want to deviate from the norm, signal first.

This isn’t you asking for permission to be you. A turn signal isn’t signaling you requesting permission to make a left. It’s you saying that you’re going to turn left, and you want other people to be aware of it so that turn goes smoothly. Sure, you could just turn without signaling – but then you might get hit, and if your goal was to not get hit, you messed up.

If you have a peanut allergy, a phobia of dogs, a traumatic reaction to loud noises, or a certain kind of common social interaction that you don’t like, then your life gets a lot easier if other people know about them. Some people are very gracious and will ask if anyone has a peanut allergy before even opening their own lunch, but you can’t count on that. The number of ways people can differ from the average is nearly infinite, and even the best-intentioned can’t check for all of them. Each of those things can be a strength – even a peanut allergy, which seems to be 100% negative, can give you insights into other people’s struggles or maybe steer you to delicious new recipes that you’d have never discovered if you could default to easy peanut butter sandwiches – but if you don’t “signal” then you’ll spend a lot of your life getting rear-ended by people who expected you to go straight when you were turning left.

Be unique. Be different, be weird, be fun, be cool. Please, don’t ever stop – the world needs you so much. But put a framework in place that gives the maximum possible benefit to both you and the world from that uniqueness. My impression is that people don’t want to do that because they sometimes don’t want to be seen as unique, or they fear that their uniqueness will become a weapon used against them by people who do want to “enforce the average.” Those aren’t invalid fears or thoughts, but I challenge you to give the world a chance. To beat the metaphor to death a little, I don’t think the people going straight are mad at the people turning left – they’re just mad at the ones who don’t signal first.

P.S.: It should go without saying, but it probably doesn’t: If someone does signal, you are the best kind of person if you do everything you can to make that go smoothly for the person who did so.

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