Because unique is ubiquitous
Words & images © Paul Ransom
I was the exception, wasn’t I? At least, that’s what I used to tell myself. I wouldn’t grow old like them. Surely not.
Like many young people I looked askance at my seniors. Oh my god, those oldies really are sad. Especially the men. Defeated, deluded. Balding, boorish. Creepy, corpulent…and so poorly dressed. If these guys are my future, I reasoned, to hell with tomorrow. There was no way I was going to end up like them.
Yet what a cliché I turned out to be.
For all my youthful declarations of individuality and exceptionalism, I have ticked the standard issue checklist many times. My younger self would most likely vote to put me out of my misery. It’s just that fitting the mould isn’t quite the screaming disaster he once imagined.
Okay, so I never set the world on fire, never led a revolution or decamped to a refusenik commune; and these days I’d rather be tucked up in bed by 10:30 with a good book than pulling all-nighters to a soundtrack of relentless Rotterdam hardcore. Indeed, at 54, long-cherished notions of uniqueness have aged into quiet regularity. Sure, some days I begrudge it a little, but mostly I’m just fine being Mr Cliché.
- Onset of multiple aches & pains
- Hair growing everywhere but head
- Almost certainly dubious fashion sense
- Inability to open packets without recourse to scissors and cussing
- Routinely bewildered by technology
- Tendency to concoct crackpot theories
- Often forgets why he came into the room
- Scrolled through the latest Hottest 1001 list and recognised only three songs
Indeed, those older men I use to revile turned out to be my role models. I even did the mid-life meltdown thing, and these days I find myself titling more towards the crusty curmudgeon stereotype than the ‘inspirational senior’ dream.
Yet, as those of you my age and older will attest, mirrors – literal and figurative – can be arresting, if only because they offer irrefutable evidence of forces greater than our (ironically commonplace) narratives of exceptionalism. Though we live in a culture that sanctifies the individual, we also live a world of norms; not to mention heritability and brain wiring. Furthermore, the human animal is a brilliant mimic. We’ve been doing copy/paste for millennia, so much so that even being unique is a cliché.
As The Life Of Brian so brilliantly illustrated:
You’re all individuals – Yes, we’re all individuals
You’re all different – Yes, we’re all different
… I’m not
Back when I regarded fifty somethings as beige/grey losers, I was the I’m not guy. My precious individuality manifested itself as deliberate difference. Partly, it was genuine – I was working out who I was, looking for something I could believe – but much of it was a kind of knee jerk opposition. A rejection. All around me I saw what looked like slavish conformity. More than that, people accepting a small minded, frequently cruel and sometimes violent normal. It struck me as ugly and dumb and vicious and, in my clumsy and pompous way, I sought to distinguish myself from the suburban slurry by flying the freak flag – not realising that my young rebel drama was simply the film John Hughes2 rejected.
I imagine many of you will recognise this. Perhaps, like me, you too have traced the arc from one in a million to not so different after all. You may even be tempted to regard this as the trajectory of defeat or decline. Given that we are daily bombarded by cultural noise that extols fame and heroic exception – and which routinely fixates on youth whilst simultaneously drenching us in nostalgia – this is hardly surprising. To be old and ordinary is not normally noteworthy. To take the road well-travelled is risk-averse at best. Populist dog whistlers may well lionise the silent and invisible majority, but really, most of us know that’s a sucker punch. (Only the truly desperate fall for that one.)
So…how to respond to the end of mythic exceptionalism? How to embrace the cliché without considering it an epic KPI fail?
Speaking from personal experience, I would suggest that letting the ego drop – getting over yourself – is a big help. However special you think you are you will end up just as dead as those sheep-like drones you so sneer at. The corniest of truths is that we will all end up unconscious in a pool of our own excrement.
The other thing about this ‘being different’ business is that so much of it is rooted in approval seeking. But here’s the thing…no one really gives a fuck if you’re doing your Little Miss Incredible routine. Mostly, they don’t even notice; and if they do, they probably think you’re being a wanker or an elitist arsehole.
In fact, even if it’s your own approval you’re after, I would suggest there are far more efficient and effective pathways to self-acceptance than maintaining a fatwah against evolution, gravity and time. Think of it, as an economist3 might, in terms of resource allocation. You’ve got a finite fund of energy and years, so why fritter them on a vainglorious and ultimately irrelevant pose?
Yes, you absolutely are unique – but so is everyone else. Uniqueness is ubiquitous. Individuality banal.
Therefore, rather than bending over backwards not to be like everyone else, focus instead on authenticity, on what truly contributes to your overall wellness, on what makes you happy, rather than what you imagine renders you cool, wise, sexy or successful.
- Harsh critics will suggest this is a form of opiation and/or capitulation – but, when you’re wallowing breathless in a pool of your own poo, my bet is you won’t be fretting about whether or not your carcass is defying entrenched necro-norms, nor indeed wishing you took less morphine. Neither, I hope, will you be too worried about the punishing, pass/fail, achievement criteria of status junkies or the moralising sneer of higher purpose pushers.
In addition, when the voice in your head that pesters you about what you should do and oughta be pipes up, ask yourself: whose voice is this? Whose agenda? Whose judgement? Chances are, most of the command & control drone infesting your self-talk is an internalised version of external noise. Messages from loved ones, work colleagues and the culture more broadly. Knowing this won’t necessarily silence the noise, nor automatically de-legitimise what it is trying to tell you; but recognising the true source of self narratives – especially those around what kind of person you are or wish to be – can create an invaluable moment of pause. Hang on a sec…
- Do I really have to go along with this?
- Is this really what I want?
- Do these supposedly sacrosanct imperatives serve me, or do I serve them?
Thus – with the ego sufficiently diffused and externally mandated attainment diktats better identified – we are free to let go of our desire to be the standy-outiest person on Facebook.
I’ll be honest with you, folks; once I stopped trying to be an individual (or alternative or superior or whatever) I also stopped being such a dick, and started on a path toward a deeper acceptance of self and, from there, to the most sustained period of happiness I have ever known.
Even though I am the author of a book – The Pointless Revolution – which addresses the damaging and limiting influence of various orthodoxies on our individual and cultural lives, I have come to a place where it is also okay for me to be normal. I no longer pretend not to be a balding, middle dood who takes five minutes to prod out an SMS and who audibly creaks when he tries to get out of bed on cold mornings.
That said, I’m not about to jump on the conformity bandwagon either. Indeed, things like different and normal are increasingly irrelevant. (It only becomes an issue for me when punishing judgement and/or violence enters the equation. While it’s no biggie to be considered sheep-like or strange, it’s another to be denied service, wedged into restrictive pigeon-holes or beaten up for one’s idiosyncrasies.)
Ultimately, the point of all this is at once simple and profound. Just be yourself sounds like Hallmark hokey – partly because it is – yet beneath the hackneyed ho-hum is a more potent take-out. To truly arrive at the ‘be yourself’ point is to liberate yourself from your own judgement, from your own incessant ideology of self. Though it is clearly healthy to have a self-moderating voice that challenges habit and denial and dilutes the worst excesses of drama and hubris, inner voices that demean and pathologise, that constantly crack whips, are simply the destructive mechanisms of punishment and self-loathing.
When I finally realised how cool it was to be a cliché, I knew I’d made it. Now it doesn’t matter if I’m the iconoclast or the regular guy because my frame of reference for self-appraisal is no longer predicated on distance from the other. Smarter/dumber, hipper/squarer, leader/follower are redundant categories. And anyway, sometimes vanilla really is the winner.
1: The Hottest 100 is a listener poll here in Australia, in which people vote for their favourite songs of any given year. It is reckoned to be the biggest such poll in the world (more than 3 million votes tallied in the most recent version). Having been a rock journalist for twenty years, my lack of ‘finger on pulse’ is emblematic of how far I have drifted from once ardent pursuits. (Getting old much?)
2: In the 1980s – when I was doing all this rite-of-passage stuff – John Hughes was the master of teen movies. Think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, etc.
3: Further to this, in my 2019 book – The Pointless Revolution – I outline in more detail what I call Existential Economics; by which I mean utilising the conceptual & analytic toolkit of economics to think with more clarity and greater depth about what we truly value and the choices that those values drive. (Hit the link to read sample paragraphs and acquire your copy.)