the art of being different: why you shouldn’t compare and compete, but seek to change the game



For a woman to triumph, she cannot play by the rules of the game. They are not her rules, designed to enhance her strengths. She has to change the game. – Harriet Rubin

Virginia Woolf wrote, “Across the broad continent of a woman’s life falls the shadow of a sword.” On one side of that sword, she said, there lies convention and tradition and order, where “all is correct.” But on the other side of that sword, if you’re crazy enough to cross it and choose a life that does not follow convention, “all is confusion. Nothing follows a regular course.” Her argument was that the crossing of the shadow of that sword may bring a far more interesting existence to a woman, but you can bet it will also be more perilous. – Elizabeth Gilbert


Some of the most important lessons I learned presented themselves as lessons in style.

The first was from a woman I met once and never spoke with again. The second was from a woman I never spoke with at all.

The first woman was blonde, wealthy and in her late forties or maybe early fifties. I was about three decades younger, lean and leggy in frayed denim cut-offs with my hair falling down my back. My boyfriend and I were spending two weeks in Nantucket. We met this woman at a dinner party; I remember her intellect, her cosmopolitan air, her naturally aging face, and the way she had my tall and very cute boyfriend eating from the palm of her hand.

She was gracious with me and then flirtatious with him (right in front of me), and I realized that if she couldn’t compete with me in terms of youth, I couldn’t compete with her in terms of anything else – and she knew it. And yet I didn’t feel threatened – maybe because her manner seemed to suggest that although she enjoyed toying with my boyfriend, she couldn’t be bothered to actually have him.

In my memory, she remains the most stylish woman I’ve ever met – which is strange, because I have almost no memory of what she was wearing. (I do recall a shawl, because I started experimenting with wraps and shawls in an effort to get some of her je ne sais quoi for myself.)

The second woman was a dark-haired guest at a black-tie fundraising event in Los Angeles about ten years ago. My then-husband and I were visiting from Silicon Valley, where then-husband had recently sold his first company (which you have not heard of) and would soon sell his second (which you have used at least once). I had never seen so many beautiful women in one place – or so many pairs of uncannily rounded and uplifted breasts.

All the women began to blur into each other: the blonde hair, the tight dresses, the plunging cleavage. Only one woman repeatedly caught my eye and marked herself apart as an individual. She had the slender lines (and small breasts) of a dancer. She wore a long skirt that swayed dramatically around her legs, and cowboy boots, and funky jewelry.

She stood out, I realized, because she had style.

I decided that style was more important than beauty. Style can make you beautiful.

I still believe this.

But looking back on these experiences now, I realize I was absorbing other lessons I could not articulate at the time.

They have to do with category, competition and difference, and why – just like your momma told you – you should never compare yourself with others.

And it’s not because – or just because – when you compare, you compete. You put yourself in a one-up (or one-down) relationship with others that limits the authentic interaction you can have with them.

When you compare/compete, you are buying into a specific set of criteria. Am I as young and blonde and skinny and busty as she is? You are accepting that criteria as desirable and valid. I need to be young and blonde and skinny and busty. You’re allowing that criteria — those rules — to define the category, set the agenda, and dictate your experience. Problem is, those rules were created to serve someone else.

Someone who is decidedly not you.

(And possibly wants to sell you something.)

Which means it’s someone else’s game. Sooner or later, you lose.


When everybody competes according to the same criteria, everybody starts to seem the same. Everybody is young, blonde, skinny and busty – it’s just a matter of degree.

Both the women in the above examples impressed me, I now realize, because through their personal style they were expressing a very different game.

Their own.

They were each challenging one of the conventional rules of female beauty: that you have to be young, or at least try to look young, or that you have to be blonde and busty and wrapped in something tight. They were doing it in a way that played up their specific strengths: the first woman’s cosmopolitan glamor, the second woman’s slender, bohemian grace. By refusing to compete according to the usual standards, they didn’t win the game so much as step outside it. They gave you a strong, compelling reason to notice them – and prefer them — over the alternatives. After all, who was I, except just another young co-ed? Who were all those blonde LA women, except a sea of sameness?


In a recent article about the latest wave of up-and-coming Internet moguls, the reporter observed how they still tend to live in nondescript apartments with plain furnishings. One of them – a dude in his late twenties – was quoted as saying how, in Silicon Valley, people don’t care if you have a “good body” or a hot car. What matters is your intellect and whether or not you’re building something cool: the kind of contribution you are making to society. He said that “feminine values” such as spending money on clothes or home décor are dismissed as “silly and frivolous.”

A few things struck me about this statement.

One was, of course, the hypocrisy of it – somehow I doubt that ‘good body’ fails to factor in when the people being evaluated happen to be women. (I lived in or near Silicon Valley for ten years, and saw even the most brilliant and dorkiest of guys go after the usual suspects – the clubgirls, aspiring models, assorted cuties – who also tended to stay the same age as the guys themselves got older.)

Another was how he and his peers had completely redefined their world to play to their strengths (intellect) and minimize their weaknesses (social grace, aesthetics, which tend to be related), or flip around something that could be perceived as immaturity, a kind of Peter Pan refusal to grow up (living like college students) so that it seemed like something noble.

By dismissing so-called ‘feminine values’ as ‘silly and frivolous’, the dude was also positioning men and women within a very particular context: one in which men are brilliant and superior, and women – especially the girls who wouldn’t talk to them in high school – shallow and vain (which I’m sure female entrepreneurs appreciate when they try to get funding). Women, after all, spend so much time and money trying to look good (maybe because they know they’re being constantly evaluated and judged and rated by their appearance?) and trying to create a pleasant home environment (maybe because they want to make it clean, comfortable and attractive for the men in their lives?). Men, on the other hand, are running companies! And playing Xbox!

(On the other hand – I’m sure that if a woman is just as brilliant, powerful and wealthy as they are – and maybe out of shape or funny-looking or socially awkward or badly dressed – with a questionable haircut — these guys wouldn’t notice, or talk about, those latter qualities at all. Right?)


“I love rules,” a new friend of mine said over the weekend.

At the same time, she acknowledged that her love for rules had locked her into a kind of stagnancy. She’s a brilliant woman with a thriving online business, but progress demands risk and growth and mess, perhaps the breaking of one rule and the reinvention of another. She has to get messy. She has to put herself out there.

“That doesn’t strike me as a problem for you,” someone told me.

It’s not that I break rules so much as…assume there’s a margin for error, or maybe forget to read through them in the first place. I like risk and vision and growth and change. Big thinking. Big plans. I can write you an emotionally stirring manifesto, help you with insight and strategy, but I might not show up for lunch on time (or remember where I was supposed to meet you). It’s the details, the crossing of the ‘t’s and the dotting of the ‘I’s, that bedevil me (and leave me vulnerable).

My friend and I face the same problem from opposite ends. To have proper impact, you have to decide which rules, or conventions, to break and which to maintain. If I am sloppy with all the rules, then challenging one rule won’t have impact because it won’t make a statement. By obeying all the rules, my friend lets the context define her instead of vice versa.

It’s by maintaining some conventions – being a conventionally attractive, feminine woman, for example – that you can get away with being radical in other areas (because you don’t seem as threatening, as “different”). Picasso once explained the importance of anchoring the viewer amid the abstract. Give him something that resembles a chair, so that he won’t get lost in the rest of it. Give him a way to orient himself, so that he can feel comfortable enough to understand what you’re trying to say, and start to see things as you do.


But then the question becomes, what conventions do you challenge, and what do you maintain? What do you keep, and what do you throw away?

What kind of story do you want to tell?

In an online interview I said that “style is the story of you and how you tell it to the world”. It’s about what you edit out as much as what you keep. We define ourselves by what we are not – as well as what we are.

The culture has its own stories it likes to tell over and over again: about men, about women, about rich men and pretty women, about older women. Certain strong-willed individuals in your life are fighting to cast you in their own stories – in the roles they want you to play — even now.

By recognizing the categories you’ve been placed in or have chosen to enter, by challenging and redefining the criteria, you can change the very nature of the game.

You can tell your story before someone else tells it for you.

Jun 29, 2011

26 comments · Add Yours

Funny you posted this today. I was just writing about the time I did my best to be like I thought a normal girl should be–it got me the guy but I didn’t really want him. How could I want him when I knew he wouldn’t’ve wanted the real me?

Anyway, thanks for the post–all your posts. You inspire and I’m sure if I met you at a party, you’d stand out to me like those women did to you.


Justine! You hit it out of the park again! (I know, a sports cliche nonetheless. Please forgive me.)

I am determined to age naturally, to define my own success. I say, use what you got. Bubbly cheerfulness and a big smile work great in your 20s for getting ahead. In my 30s, I am keeping my charm but am throwing away the need to always be pleasing. Pleasing to the eye, pleasing to the ear.

But you know, you need money to do that. The more my earning power grows, the more empowered I feel to be me and to speak my mind. The Nantucket woman, no doubt, could afford to be her own woman.

And for that, I thank God for feminism. Thank God that I have the ability to work, to give myself the financial power to not have to put up with bullshit. Can I get an amen?


Once again, a wonderful article. Your comment that “progress demands risk and growth and mess” really resonates: I feel I’m going through a “messy” phase right now with some success–and definitely some failures! Tonight I am trying to keep my chin up and prepare to put myself out there again tomorrow.


Thanks for the post. I’ve been thinking about this very thing recently. I’m guilty of comparing myself with others and it brings me nothing but misery. I’ve been trying to break the habit though.


I love this post. I’ve always hated labels and I don’t like rules.
A few friends of mine posted recently about comparing themselves to other people, something that is completely alien to me.
Let’s embrace our differences.


Oooh, very interesting post.

Why do I feel like women are the ones who care about rules more than men? Not that there aren’t rules, often unspoken ones, governing our world. It’s just that women (myself included) seem to be so conscious of social rules, comparisons, insecurities, fears of fitting in – often we create rules where there aren’t any. I think it’s a good thing to be aware of the rules, but sometimes I think hyper-awareness can make you crazy, constantly trying to please everyone else instead of yourself.


Excellent, as usual. As a middle-aged male, I’m guilty of being attracted to younger women (though have never actually dated one). To my credit, however, any woman I’m involved with has to have more than (what I consider) good looks. Both of the women you described above sound very appealing, for the very reasons you speak of.

“…and why – just like your momma told you – you should never compare yourself with others.” Best advice I ever received, though not from Mom: never compare your insides to other people’s outsides.

The one thing I’m not certain about re this whole idea of style making you beautiful if you’re not in the conventional sense—isn’t someone striving to be different via style the same as someone not being his/herself? I can’t speak to this as a woman, obviously, but as a guy who’s of middling looks, I’d never consider attempting to gain acceptance by changing the way I dress, etc.—but maybe this explains why I’ve been single so long. I understand the burden for women regarding this is much greater in our society, and am not attempting to say it isn’t.

I guess I’ll quit now, in case I’m digging myself a hole here.


Hi again, Justine.

All my adult life I’ve been searching for the few universal emotional and mental drives that unify us all as the human species. And as I’ve said before in your blog, I think we all share a common question; are we good enough? Your essay addresses that fundamental need, to be significant, to be of value to a stranger and to someone we love. We’re hard wired to need “connection,” and your advice in this column is a constructive way to meet that need. But some gain connection through conformity as well. It’s a feeling of belonging to a community of common values.

I wish it were that simple for me. It isn’t. It wasn’t. I never ‘fit it.” And so my style, my identity as a teenager and young man defined itself as “something else,” something DIFFERENT. I knew no other way to be. And for many years I was lonely.

But staying the course brought into my life a DIFFERENT kind of of young woman, the one who magically matched me. And I’ve never looked back. I’m connected, forever.



@Marta — I think of that as the ‘hollow man’ or ‘hollow woman’ kind of courtship. You get the other person by adapting yourself to what they want you to be. Problem is, once you’re in the relationship you a) have to continue to keep up that charade, which will probably make you resentful and increasingly withdrawn, alienated or b) surprise your partner with the truth at the risk of making him/her feel like you caught him/her in a bait-and-switch. Wise you, for opting out of that….

@A Fan — AMEN! I think it is *so important* for a woman to have financial independence (whether unmarried or married) and I think it is a *totalfuckingcrime* that society doesn’t instill that kind of expectation in girls the way it does in boys. Money is power — the blunt truth of it — and when you give up that power to someone else, you put yourself in a vulnerable, one-down position, and quite possibly endanger your future. We give up too much of our power too often, for stupid reasons, as it is.

@Margaret — I hear you on that one. The last three years have been among the messiest of my life…but, now that they’re over, unexpectedly rewarding, in terms of what I’ve learned and the confidence and sense of self I’ve gained (am still gaining). I made some mistakes, but I don’t regret anything, and I’m so grateful and appreciative that I’m now in the space I’m in. (Knock wood.) When it sucks and you need to fall apart for a bit — sometimes the best thing is to do that, let those emotions pass through you, take a breather. And then get up and go at it again.

“Fall down seven times, get up eight.” Damn straight.


@marta I want to thank you for this article. I’m a college student recovering from anorexia, and I still struggle with my self-image. Yesterday, I “relapsed”, and tried to go without eating. (Not the best idea when you’re a summer camp counselor who works outside chasing kids all day)! I felt ill when I got home. Luckily, some tough love from family members stopped me form going any further down that path. The day after this incident I find this post in my inbox, as if you used a crystal ball to find the prefect message at the prefect time. Thank you.


@Lovelyn — If you’ve got a competitive streak (and I do), it can be hard not to do that. Maybe the trick is not to stop doing it, just to become aware of when we’re doing it, so we can step away and evaluate the situation with genuine mindfulness. And focus on what we actually want out of it — truly deeply want, not just assume we want…And where we’re willing to channel our energy, and what we’re willing to sacrifice and reject. (I know, I know, easier said than done…But at least we can set that intention.)

@Elle — I don’t like labels either. I’ve spent my life as the proverbial square peg in one way or another and have been slammed for it by people who didn’t exactly have my best interests in mind. You have two choices: you can lop off the parts of yourself that don’t fit whatever round hole you’re ‘supposed’ to fit into, or you can learn to say Fuck it, get some tools and start carving out a square. Neither is easy, but I much prefer the latter option.

@Valerie — That reminds me of a comment a male friend said once…Ryan was listening to his wife and I talk about how women are maligned as “bitches” and “sluts” for all sorts of stupid non-relevant reasons, and he finally said, “The problem with women is that you care too much what other people call you! The trick is not to care. Guys don’t care.” On the one hand, I thought his observation was simplistic, and on the other hand, I thought he was making an excellent point. We’ve got that urge to please people. Follow the rules, and you won’t rock the boat, won’t offend anyone, won’t have to risk confrontation, won’t have to risk being “unloved”….


@Jeff! — you could never dig yourself into a hole…at least not here. :)

And gods know there’s nothing wrong with being attracted to young people (if only you knew when you were young how beautiful you are just because you *are* young, but you don’t because you’re stupid because you’re young. if you know what I mean). Nature kind of has a vested interest in that. But like you said, the mistake is in the assumption that attraction only happens on the one, physical level….or maybe that attraction and fascination are the same things…I don’t know. But fascination and seduction play on the mind, the senses, the emotions, the imagination…Which is why some of the most powerful and well-known courtesans in history were neither beautiful nor young. (I was driving toward some kind of point, but I forgot what it was…)

When I said ‘style makes you beautiful’ maybe I should have defined ‘beautiful’, which I didn’t necessarily mean in the conventional sense. I meant more in terms of being charismatic, striking, because of the story you’re telling. Not trying to be someone you’re not, but knowing exactly who you are and using the things on and around you to convey that to the world in an authentic and powerful way. I’ve really been influenced by the fact that I live in LA, where pretty girls are a dime a dozen — disposable, with very short life spans if that is the *only* value they bring to the table. Just because you’re pretty doesn’t mean that you’re compelling (or that anyone is going to care).
Oh, and that link? I shared it on my Facebook page, and it was a good reminder to self to GO TO THAT EXHIBIT…


@Irv — I think there’s a difference between conformity and finding your tribe. To conform means to fit in means to change your behavior, yourself, in whatever way you think you need to in order to be accepted. Sometimes it’s better not to change yourself but to change your context. Someone once made the distinction between the home where you were born and your spiritual home. If you’re lucky, the two are one and the same. I don’t know how often that happens…
You can’t choose where you were born — but you can find the place where you do feel like you belong, your spiritual home, it just might take some courage and loneliness and wandering first. (It did for me.) And sometimes you can find that sense of ‘home’ in another person. (Awesome when that happens.)


@MRC Thank you. So much. For that comment. That’s all I can say.


When I lived in L.A., I was in my late 30s, and I felt really old because of all the youthful beauty.

As a male, I’ve found myself ending up on the defensive whenever I’ve admitted that I have to find a woman physically attractive in order to be with her. It’s not the be all, end all, but without it how would I be attracted in the first place? And I find different women physically attractive for different reasons. It’s not like I have a type, or they have to be as beautiful as Claudia Schiffer (see, I am old). But there has to be something there, and it’s usually what first attracts me. And, as mentioned previously, there does need to be more than just the physical attraction.

Funny, between my earlier post and this one I had dinner with a friend, and at the restaurant I recognized one of the women serving. She lived in a neighboring town and was two years behind me in high school, but I remembered her for her beauty. I went over to confirm she was who I thought she was, and of course she didn’t remember me from Adam. That’s because, I said to myself, like so many socially awkward teenage males, I merely worshipped you from afar.


@Jeff P. There’s no reason why men should feel on the defensive to state what strikes me as a basic human truth. Same for women. Physical chemistry might not be enough to sustain a relationship but if it’s not there it’s a sad sad thing. Sexual chemistry is awesome, fun, vital. A life force. I think the problem — the ‘beauty myth’ — is this idea that there’s only one narrow definition of what people will find attractive…Even someone I know who shall not be named, who usually likes his women tall, thin, blonde, model-y and WASP-y, confessed to a secret attraction to Rachael Ray (the Food Network star) who is none of these things. But he found her incredibly appealing.
There was someone I wanted and worshiped from afar all through university (he was a grad student, had a girlfriend). In my final year, I got him for a spell, only to discover that the fantasy was better than the reality. Sometimes beauty breaks when you’re too close too long.


@justine Yes Justine, I’m glad you pointed that out. And I do agree with you. But I think we both have to admit that many people change to FIT instead of finding a tribe that fits THEM. I grew up in a small town in the South where 90% of the boys and girls wore the same fashion, listened to the same music, danced the same steps and went to the same movies. Maybe that WAS the tribe. I don’t know. It wasn’t mine. But again today I see so many people following fashion trends here and in Europe. So without trying to have a judgment about this, I’m just saying that conforming to match the group exists. Is it my path? No. And I take it, it’s not yours either. We are what we are.



@Irving Podolsky Conforming to a group definitely exists, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with it. We all do it to some degree from time to time, with varying degrees of success. And it’s often that very group we have to leave in order to find our tribe. Braving the space and time and loneliness in between can be tough. Not everyone is up for it.


Looking at my last post, I see I indicated I get judged EVERY time I admit I have to find a woman physically attractive, but that’s not the case—just more often than not.

“…only to discover that the fantasy was better than the reality.” Tell me about it. Once, flying from L.A. to Maine, the most beautiful young woman I’d ever seen sat next to me, absorbed in her Sony Discman (today as relevant as the Victrola). OMG, was I in love. She finally removed the headphones, I engaged her in conversation, and was quickly disabused of the notion she was anyone I could spend any length of time with.


Fantastic. Thank you, thank you. Too much goodness here to even quote one thing.

I’ tell my girls they have to know the game, to know the rules — so they can change them.


Stellar advice. That’s all ;0)


Change the game and (perhaps) create a tribe.
Very thoughtful and thought provoking post.


! You are LOVELY!

This is a wonderful, insightful amazing post. Thank you.


Awesome article! It is a great feeling when you can be yourself and not get into the competition mode of life. It frees a person to be herself/himself. Your article made me smile…thanks for your insight!


Thanks for such a wonderful article, Justine. It made me realise how quick I am to compare myself to others (even when I don’t consciously realise this) and how I should instead be celebrating my uniqueness and the uniqueness of those around me :)


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