the art of being weird enough (+ the success secret of the “rule of thirds”)

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

Jul 11, 2012
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16 comments · Add Yours

Another great article. Thanks J. And he is right you do “have this ability to ingest knowledge that’s like nobody I’ve ever met.” I’ve always thought that.

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At the end of the day, it all boils down to how far you’re willing to go to be your true self. Accepting that somewhere out there is a tribe waiting for you to claim your place boldly and unreservedly, letting your freak flag fly high and strutting your stuff ’cause you know you’re the shit.

I think more and more of us are finally opening up to the idea that we simply can’t please everyone and we need to stop draining our creative energy that way. Instead, it’s time to stand tall, stand strong, and rock out in our own way complete with quirks and edges. Because at the end of the day, it’s not about who digs you or who doesn’t; it’s about how full your life is and how deeply you live it.

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Excellent post. If we could learn this early on–say, as teenagers when we so badly want to fit in and be like everyone else–we’d have a head start on a more joyful life.

As an introvert and someone for whom a book (actual or virtual) is a regular accessory, I’ve had my fair share of comments from well-intentioned folks who think my personal and professional life would be aided by being more extroverted. I bought into that for longer than I care to say, and while I managed to develop a pretty good faux-extrovert persona, it was a continual, unhealthy drain of energy. I’m much happier these days, identifying and celebrating my natural strengths rather than denigrating myself for not being someone else’s idea of “normal” or “better.”

Thanks for the reminder.

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Thank you for this post. I just discovered your blog today and this post is what I needed to stay on path.

While reading, I remembered a beautiful sufi dervish tale about Khidr, the Teacher of Moses, warned that the waters would change character. Only one personal responded to the warning by storing and collecting the good water in a special place before the waters changed.

Once changed, it was said that the water would make men mad.

Every day the man would draw upon his sacred supply to quench his thirst while the others continued drinking the contaminated water. Those who drank the bad water were acting in strange and different ways. They looked upon the man who remained true to his supply as a mad man and expressed constant hostility to him.

Eventually, after fear of loneliness and standing out from the crowd, the man left his sacred supply and started to drink the bad water. In the end, he became like the rest and lost his authenticity. Of course, the others thought he was miraculously cured but in fact he was relinquishing his sacred sauce. :)

Many thanks again for this!

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Wow. Thank you Justine. This article has helped me understand story-telling some much more.

I think I know what actor you are referring to–I totally want to say, but I won’t.

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@Adam Casalino I meant *so much more* =P

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Fuckin’ fantastic. Love the analogy of the rule of thirds. I will link to this in my e-newsletter–though I am beginning to fear the readers who “adore” me are going to get sick of me linking out to nearly everything you post, Justine. :) Perhaps, I’ll reach my quota of indifferent this month. :P

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You continue to rock my world Justine! LOVE this thoughtful post.

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A little known historical fact–one that Americans typically overlook–is that only about a third of the American public originally supported a War for Independence from England. One third staunchly supported the king. The final third were undecided.

Great Article!

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Hi Justine.

Excellent article. I just kept on wanting to read more. After a while I felt it got long, but when it ended I wanted it to go on… Fantastic!! Please continue being your bad-asses self living on the edges and continue to write. You have got an amazing talent!

Best regards,
Christo

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Justine, thanks for a very edgy post ;^). This is a topic I think about often–and try to explain to CSRA’s clients, who struggle with it.

I wish I could remember the reference, but there’s an aspect of network theory that suggests that pervasive networks fundamentally change the dynamics of organizations (a society can be seen as an organization) when they appear. This is one of the key levers of the current disruption of all societies on Earth that have power or connectivity.

Here’s a far more mundane business example to add to yours. Brands and marketers have built their raisons d’être on the back of mass communications. They are resisting the change because it used to work so well, and I’ve yet to meet a human that wants to throw away something that worked before. To “engage” in many-to-many social networks, we all–brands, governments, people–must choose–as you put it here beautifully–and commit to relating to our most important stakeholders (the niche). Marketers hate to hear that. What they don’t understand about networks is, that niche will often deliver a much larger audience when its people inspired to interact and share. More detail here: http://bit.ly/netvmass2

Penelope Trunk also wrote an awesome post about how we are in the age of the specialist, another example of what I hear that you’re saying here: http://tinyurl.com/ptcarspec

Another way to look at it, networks deliver infinite choice, so anything that doesn’t resonate profoundly is discarded by the brain. “The general” is now invisible. In a world of delectable French pastries, do you really want to be a freezer-burned piece of Mrs. Smith’s?

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Ok, this is like a riddle, I can’t help but wonder who the film actor was and what the franchise is.

I think it’s one that has only three letters?

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Nice post! I wonder if/when this will ever apply to national politics. Poll driven candidates pull to the middle & often to mediocrity – can a candidate win by getting 1/3 to love her?

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Ah, yes, let your freak flag fly. That was our mantra back in the glory days of the Sunset Strip. I was there the night of the riots Buffalo Springfield sang about in “For What It’s Worth.” Not just there, I was there the middle of the strip in a stalled car with a warrant out for my arrest. I’ll leave it at that and let it be the stuff one chews on for fun. We freaks of a different age didn’t turn out that good, all that Me Generation stuff and a 360 on conspicuous consumption. Oh, the shame and blame on that one.

But there was a core of freakishness that stuck with most of us. I was once part of a team of ceramic artists building a tower that honored the contribution of women to the growth of Las Vegas. One panel was to represent the spiritual element. How to include one spiritual symbol without including the bazillion from around the world? You mention the rule of thirds. Yeah, that applies to photography (I was a photographer, too), but it’s more than that. It’s the Golden Mean, which is what I suggested for that panel. The team thought I was some New Age freak until I brought in research to back up my stance, which I held firmly. We built it, but still everyone was on edge and afraid the entire tower would be discounted because that Golden Mean was so obscure. My inner freak totally freaked out with joy when the tower was rolled into the museum and everyone gasped. It turned out that they not only understood the symbol, but the entire museum was built on the Golden Mean, the center of which the staff rushed to show us. It was a small and quiet room I had photographed years later, simply because it had a pull I could not name. Whaddya know. There be mystical magic in mathematics.

Score one for the freak that stands her ground!

I, too, have just returned from a celebrity wedding. Mine was in Iowa and not the glamor of Paris, but I take what I can get. I asked the man who writes and directs and is the wunderkind of Broadway du jour, what went south with the young man whose work I’d passed off to him a few years earlier. He was diplomatic in saying that you can’t go around telling people who you are, you have to let them discover you. I’ve been chewing on that one for some time now, digesting the wisdom he rode to the top of the heap. I’ve always been freakishly resistant to defining who I am in favor of just letting ‘er rip while others try to figure it out. My friend’s words seem to validate my feelings, but I can’t yet put all the pieces together. So I surrender.

Time to fire up the Mighty Kindle and keep on truckin’ with my reading. If nothing else, it makes the neighbors wonder what in the world we’re doing in here with no TV shining through the windows and the lights way down low. If I’m anything, I’m satisfied with keeping them guessing.

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Love this post. When I started my jewelry business I started along the same time as some other people did with a more “traditional” approach and style. They tended to be condescending and made comments to me that were the equivalent of saying how cute to a child and patting me on the head. Today, over a year later, I have out sold all of them. My sales are steadily increasing and I have already more than doubled what I made last year. I believe it’s because I am different and weird and don’t appeal to the masses. Thank you for writing this article.

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Brilliant. Just brilliantly stated. :D And the freak in me wanted to give you a big, creepy hug!-but I’m not a ‘hugging’ kind of person, I would rather shake hands, but that wasn’t my point. Just brilliant.

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