the art of being weird enough (+ the success secret of the “rule of thirds”)
I was in France for a wedding. A famous American actor served as best man.
“I’m very honored to be here today,” he said in his speech, “even though we all know it’s because they couldn’t get Leonardo di Caprio.”
A friend and I started talking about a movie that failed to shoot the best man’s career as skyhigh as you might expect, given the talent, success and firepower involved. It was the actor in a supporting role who walked off with the film and two ensuing sequels (not to mention the following trilogy, which was written around his character).
It wasn’t what the movie executives expected. The supporting actor was many years older than the best man, well-respected but yet to connect with mainstream success. Not only that, he came up with such an extreme (or what the executives thought of as extreme) interpretation of his character that the execs saw the early reels, went Huh? and wanted to fire him.
Later, I had a conversation with a friend of mine from LA who revealed to me the woeful fate of her startup. It was an online company that depended upon my friend’s very particular aesthetic – which was the whole point, and also what differentiated her company from the other, bigger, more established players in that space. The company got off to a great start, got attention in Oprah and some other big media, and then my friend closed a round of financing that resulted in a new board and a new CEO.
Who proceeded to evict my friend, scrap her aesthetic, and drive the company into the ground.
It was, you see, his attempt to go mainstream.
To appeal to the masses.
So it struck me that the movie executives and the CEO made the same miscalculation (although the former happily lacked the power to shoot themselves in their collective foot). They weren’t weird enough, and they weren’t willing to let others be weird enough, to flourish. They backed off from an interesting and badass point of view that would attract some but alienate others (or at least make them go, “Huh?”).
The best man at my friend’s wedding is matinee-idol handsome (and charming and one of the nicest people you could hope to come across), and maybe that’s hindered his career as much as it’s helped. And not only him: I can think of a handful of young actors and actresses who were tagged as the new ‘it’ in national magazines, starring in big films, gorgeous and charismatic and expected to be the next Julia Roberts or Brad Pitt or Leonardo di Caprio.
Only it just didn’t happen.
(“Has there been a major movie star since Leonardo?” I asked my friend, and neither of us could think of anybody.)
Can you appeal to a mainstream audience when a mainstream audience no longer exists, at least in the old-school sense? Once upon a time, a matinee idol didn’t have anybody else to compete with (except other matinee idols). Once upon a time, there were so few alternative options to the mainstream that they could be grouped in a genre labeled ‘alternative’.
What started in the center spread out to the edges. And if you were on the edges, you stayed on the edges. There were very few roads that could take you to the center – not to mention all the gates, fences, walls and gatekeepers who would look at you and go, “Huh?”
Now it seems to be the inverse. Something starts out on the edges – 50 SHADES OF GRAY comes to mind, originating as fan fiction online – and slowly catches fire, blazing inward to the center.
Which means you can’t start out trying to appeal to everybody, or else your appeal is so watered down that nobody will love you. And you want people to love you, to get fired up by what you represent.
Someone once explained to me the “thirds” rule: one third of the people should adore you, which means that one third of the people will despise you, and the remaining third will be indifferent.
Otherwise you have no chance of success.
(The “rule of thirds” is also used by photographers to compose their ideal photos. Draw from this what you will.)
But for most people, this feels counter-intuitive. Our instinct is to appeal to everybody: we don’t want to offend, ruffle feathers, rock the boat, or read hate notes left in the comment sections of our blogs.
We learn young to disguise our freak points, because so often it’s the things that could make us remarkable that are the very things, or the flipside of the things, we get criticized for.
Case in point: I had a conversation with a well-meaning, gregarious friend who threatened to force me to socialize more. “You’re always carrying your Kindle around,” he said, “it’s like your security blanket.” This is somewhat true. “But,” he went on, in that hallowed American tradition of the extroverted telling the introverted that they need to be more extroverted, “you shouldn’t spend so much time hiding behind it.”
“Hiding?” I said. “I’m not hiding.” At least not all of the time. Then I said, “Understand, it’s just as easy for me to turn that around and say that you should read more.”
He was silent.
Then he said, “I know. But I’m not like you. You have this ability to ingest knowledge that’s like nobody I’ve ever met.”
“And you,” I said, “have this great gift with people. That’s your strength, your talent: your ability to develop this diverse and meaningful social network.”
He could spend time reading and creating, to try and be more like me, and I could spend time socializing and connecting, to try and be more like him, and perhaps we’d be better-rounded individuals as a result. We’d be less extreme – and less open to criticism.
Or we could continue to play to our respective strengths and become world-class freaks in our own respective ways.
To be the most and best at something means to be the least and worst at something else.
Every choice to do something is a choice not to do something else.
(You can’t read and socialize at the same time.)
There’s only one center – that’s why it’s called the ‘center’ – but so many different edges. Part of learning yourself, and being true to yourself, is knowing which edge you want to commit to (assuming you want to commit to any of them at all), and letting that shape your point of view and how you show up in the world.
Used to be that you could show up everywhere at once. (Otherwise known as: being on the TV stations that everybody watched, or in the newspapers that everybody read, or on the bookshelves that everybody perused.)
Assuming, of course, that the powers-that-be gave you permission
— odds of which were slim to none.
Now, though, the center keeps breaking up into more edges. On the edges, you can show up however you want. You don’t need to appeal to the masses, or comply with someone else’s definition of ‘normal’. You don’t need to be movie-star beautiful. And the last thing you need is permission.
What you do need, perhaps, is a freak point. A badass point of view. A particular aesthetic. And the ability to protect it from those who, for whatever reason, would deny it or fuck it up.