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.
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.