I’ve never had any understanding of peer pressure. All my life, I’ve heard teenage behavior attributed to peer pressure, but it never made any sense to me.
There has never been a time in my life — even for a moment, as far as I can recall — when I wanted to be “cool” in order for people to like me (or for any other reason). I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be understood and admired. I wanted people to love my work.
But at times when I didn’t get the admiration or understanding I craved, I never wanted to adopt someone else’s mannerisms or look or attitude. I simply wanted to persuade people to follow me instead.
I was listening to an interview today with a co-founder of a major software company, and he was talking about why he went through a period during his teens when he got into trouble a lot — with his parents, with religious figures, with school authorities and even the police. He said he was hanging out with a teen who was a bad influence — because that guy was “cool.”
And it suddenly hit me that I was born without that gene. I never wanted to be like those people. I never wanted to be anybody other than myself.
Over and over, I hear people tell a variation of the software guy’s story. They started smoking because “cool” people were doing it. They started using recreational drugs because their “cool” friends were doing it. Even if these people say they knew they were going down the wrong path at the time, they were enchanted by the allure of being with — and being like — the “cool” kids.
I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to understand this. I’ve had people tell me that I must have been strong to resist peer pressure — for whatever they regret having done — when the truth is that I never had to be strong at all.
None of the things the “cool kids” did seemed interesting to me. I thought the “cool kids” were a little bit pathetic. They puzzled me at best — and disgusted me at worst.
The cool kids and their sycophants traveled in packs, imitating each other so much that it seemed amusing to me. I never wanted to be anything but my own individual. I hated being misunderstood. I hated being alone at times. But I wanted to have others discover me — who I was, what I could do, what I was capable of — instead of changing to be what the world wanted.
One of the hardest lessons of life is that some people are going to like you and your work — because they like you or agree with you or “get” you — and other people are going to dislike you and your work.
Some people simply won’t like you.
Some people won’t understand you.
Some people won’t “get” what you’re saying, possibly because they’re simply wired in radically different ways because of their values or personalities or emotional needs.
It’s tough for me to accept that a lot of people will never understand my thoughts. That a lot of people will never get the emotional truth of what I say. That a lot of people will never understand me and will never be changed by the ideas and emotions I expose for them to consider.
I want them all to “get” me. I want them all to love me. I want them all to admire my work and understand what I’m trying to say. My ego needs that. I hate it that I need that, but I do.
The one thing I’m not willing to do in order to have that need met, though, is to change who I am — to become part of the crowd, to change what I say, to reshape myself in the image of the cool kids of this world.
In his essay on Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson strongly encourages people to be themselves whether they’re understood or not. In a passage which I’m not going to quote in full — because it’s widely misunderstood — Emerson says we should be willing to strongly take a position today and then change tomorrow if we decide we need to change. He says we shouldn’t worry about a “foolish inconsistency,” or consistency just for the sake of not admitting that we’ve been wrong.
Emerson says that if we do this, we’re going to be misunderstood. But he says that’s just fine.
“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?” Emerson writes. “Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
The world doesn’t want us to be great. The world wants us to be like everyone else. The world doesn’t even want to strive to be great. We’re taught to fit in and keep quiet if we’re not what everyone else wants us to be.
I still have no interest in being cool. I still only want to be myself. That’s the only way I know to live.
I want you to like me, to love me, to “get” me, to understand my work and my intent. I want whatever I am to change you and to help make you a better person. I don’t want anybody else to become what I am now, because I’m horribly flawed. I simply want to blaze a trail — to say, “This is the way we can go and at least try to be better people” — and I want some people to believe that is worth following.
I don’t know how to be cool. I don’t know how to follow other people. I sometimes don’t know how to lead other people.
All I know how to do is to be myself — flawed, vulnerable, weak, stubborn, iconoclastic — but trying to find a way to become someone worth following one day.