Movies and novels celebrate those who refuse to conform — those who refuse to do as they’re told. The non-conformists are often depicted as heroes who beat the system. But in the real world, human society rewards conformists — and non-conformists face ruthless consequences.
I was a conformist when I was young, but only because I was punished for stepping outside a strict set of norms. My father insisted on complete compliance with his orders and values. I occasionally got into trouble for laughing at something he found offensive. And I was strictly held responsible for obeying every order which he believed I should have known to follow, even if he wasn’t there to give the order.
I obeyed my father — and all authority figures — out of fear and training. By the time I was a teen-ager, though, I had developed non-conformist attitudes. I just knew to keep them to myself for the time being.
By the time I got to college, I didn’t fit with either group. I looked very conservative — and I chose the very conservative lifestyle for myself which continues to this day — but I felt like a wild-eyed radical on the inside. I was too conservative for the “free spirits” but I was too rebellious for the conformists.
It’s taken me many years to understand what that lack of conformity would cost me.
I’ve been thinking about this because of something in economist Bryan Caplan’s excellent 2019 book, “The Case Against Education.” (I’m not going to get into Caplan’s primary argument, but I highly recommend the book. You almost certainly won’t agree with it as much as I do, but it should at least make you question your assumptions about the American system of schooling.)
Caplan argues that getting a college degree is useful primarily because of the signal that it sends to potential employers. He agrees that the average college graduate is going to earn more money, but he shows why at least 80 percent of that is due to the signal that it sends to employers.
Although there are exceptions — especially in technical fields such as engineering, medicine, etc. — most of what the rest of us learned in college was essentially useless to our employers. If you’re going to get a degree in history but end up managing an insurance company, what good did your degree do you?
Caplan shows that a degree sends employers a signal that a graduate passes three tests: First, he’s bright enough. Second, he’s conscientious enough to do the work that’s expected of him. And, third, he’s willing to conform.
Whether they admit it or not, most employers want someone who’s bright, has a good work ethic and is willing to follow orders. Jumping through the hoops required to finish a college degree shows that someone is very likely to possess all three of those traits.
I have the first two traits, but I don’t have the third — and that always made me a lousy employee, especially for a more rigid corporate system. I simply didn’t fit, because I was convinced I had a better way to do things.
I jumped off the track of conformity very early. I spent the first few years of my working life as a journalist for a newspaper company, but I went into business for myself when I was 25. By the time I hit 30, my company had failed — which I’ve discussed before — and I went back to the misery of working for someone else.
I lasted almost two years as a general manager and then publisher for a large newspaper company. When I walked out the door with fireworks, the group vice president who supervised my newspaper was thrilled to be rid of me. (I was just as happy to be rid of him.)
For most of the time since then, I’ve worked for myself. I’ve gone through periods when I was making $100,000 to $150,000 a year — back when that still seemed like a lot of money — and I’ve also gone through periods when I struggled.
After I left political consulting — simply because I couldn’t stomach the ethics of that world anymore — I had trouble finding a path. Nobody wanted a maverick who had done things that sounded impressive, but which had no application to what he did. It hasn’t been easy.
For the last five years, I’ve worked in real estate doing things I’d never done (and which I have no real interest in). My glorified title is vice president of operations, but that doesn’t mean much. It’s just been a way to make a living until one of my other plans could lift me back to larger success.
Reading Caplan’s book this week has made me think a lot about how much easier my life would have been if I’d been a conformist. I had the intelligence, talent and work ethic to rise through the ranks of companies which needed people to manage them.
I could have been good at that — if I hadn’t had such a powerful need to do things my own way.
I think I’ve unconsciously been proud of being a non-conformist. I’ve been disdainful of those who wanted to fit into systems which I saw as straightjackets of conformity.
But as I think about how much easier my life could have been if I’d been a conformist, I can’t bring myself to want it for myself. That’s simply not who I am. It doesn’t make me better or worse than those who conform.
I’m just an oddball. A weirdo. A rebel. Society has a lot of pejorative labels for people like me.
In a brilliant 1995 book called “The Lucifer Principle” — which I’ve recommended for more than 20 years — writer Howard Bloom lays out his thesis that societies must have a balance between what he calls “conformity enforcers” and “diversity generators.”
The conformity enforcers are those who insist — generally through subtle codes of conduct — that the vast majority conform to the expectations which have allowed this group or culture to thrive. He argues that without such conformity enforcers, a society never has enough stability or cohesiveness.
The diversity generators are the tiny minority who are trying new things and dreaming up new ideas. They’re the ones who have the crazy ideas and the nutty plans. Most of them fail in one way or another, but a tiny percentage of this tiny percentage come up with new ideas and plans which suddenly show an entire culture a new way, one which suddenly becomes obvious to everyone. Bloom argues that without these diversity generators, a society becomes stagnant and dies.
The interesting thing to note, according to Bloom, is that the radical idea of the diversity generator — the one which proves to be successful and right — is eventually adopted by the entire society. In this way, the nutty idea of the radical suddenly becomes the new normal — and in the future, that is enforced by the majority, who don’t understand that their conservative norm was yesterday’s radical change.
For good or bad, I am a diversity generator.
I might be one of those who never changes the world. I might be one whose ideas and plans aren’t good enough to be adopted as “the new norm.” That’s the downside of having crazy new ideas. Most of them are wrong and bad. We just never know ahead of time which genius is going to go to his grave with ideas that failed and which one will be credited with changing the world. It’s a throw of the dice.
This is why I care far more about being who I really am — struggling to find ways to implement visions which most others can’t yet really see. I’m burdened by something in my DNA or my character or something else entirely by the need to ignore the standards which matter to most “normal” people.
I realize now that I’ve paid a large price to be a diversity generator, but I also realize that I’ve had no choice. I can’t conform. I can’t do as I’m told. I can’t accept this dysfunctional world as it is.
And this might seem crazy. But as I think about the greater material success I might have had by conforming to the expectations of my society, I realize that I’m fine with this. As with most things in life, there’s a tradeoff — and this is a tradeoff I would have been willing to make even if it had been a conscious choice.
Why? It’s simple.
In my private thoughts — things which I mostly don’t admit to others — I still believe that my crazy ideas are going to triumph.
Deep down, I have ridiculous faith that my ideas and my plans will ultimately create change and value in some unprecedented way. I might be delusional, but I have no choice but to be faithful to the truth as my heart paints it.
As much as I’d like the success and rewards of being a conformist, that’s just not who I am. In my heart, there’s a little flame of radical change that I want to grow into a roaring fire that burns away the conformist system around me.
It’s a crazy bet, but my heart is a bit of a gambler. I don’t seem to have any choice. A conformist probably can’t understand that.