“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice…it is conformity.”
~ Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself.
There will never be anyone else like you in the future of the universe. There has never been anyone exactly like you since human life began. That’s why being yourself is more important than anything else; certainly more than the fear that traps people into conforming.
Non-conformists have always had a rough time. Society seems to need and fear them in roughly equal measure. As a person who was a teenager in the “swinging 60s,” I’ve seen a gray tide of conservatism flow back steadily to reclaim nearly all the ground it lost during that decade. Is this an advantage? If it is, I can’t see it. But that’s how life works: two steps forward, followed by one-and-a-half back as those who lost their power try to reverse the process.
The forces of the status quo—of conformity—have been strong again in recent years. Maybe that’s behind an upsurge in interest in self-development. When the outside world is intent on forcing you into a bland, acceptable mold, people naturally turn elsewhere to find an outlet for what matters most: their own uniqueness.
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Even the Bible says it. Jesus urged his followers to be like salt; to spice up the world with new ideas. He didn’t tell them to keep their heads down and do whatever their “betters” amongst the Romans and the Pharisees told them. You don’t start a new religion by fitting in. Today’s religious leaders are nearly all arch-conservatives, so we forget what radical non-conformists people like the Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed were during their lives. Jesus wasn’t put to death for doing what the leaders of the society of his day approved of, was he?
Those who benefit most from the status quo are naturally the least interested in change, and they find allies in the fearful and the authoritarian. In the quotation at the head of this article, Rollo May suggests conformity is due to lack of courage. He certainly had a point. Many people suppress their ideas, hopes, and dreams because they’re afraid to stand out and draw attention to themselves. Conformity always includes a threat of punishment if you fail to fit in, whether it comes from ridicule, being shunned by others, or direct attack. Those who seek conformity have never been afraid to back up their wishes with force.
Conformity implies a fundamental mistrust of others
I believe there’s a more fundamental power behind the urgency with which authoritarian conservatives seek to suppress individuality. That power is lack of trust. Wise leaders and outstanding thinkers are alike in two things: they’re usually non-conformists on an epic scale—and they display a deep trust in the basic goodness, intelligence, and capacity for development of their fellow human beings.Advertising
In stark contrast, the most determined proponents of conformity have always been dictatorships. Under a dictatorship, any kind of variation from prescribed ways of thinking or acting is punished. Eccentrics of all kinds are weeded out. Nothing is permissible save blind adherence to the dictator’s edicts.
Conservative thinkers often suggest too much freedom will lead to anarchy and the collapse of all standards. Since they cannot trust others to behave reasonably, they always want more rules. Yet a dictatorship is exactly what you get when the ideas and standards of one group are enforced everywhere by the rule of law. Whether it’s a nation or a business, a dictatorship suppresses creativity, individuality, and freedom in the cause of “preventing license.”
If you can’t trust yourself, why should others trust you?
Being who and what you are is the most natural thing there is. To suppress it, whether through fear, yielding to social pressure, or lack of confidence always leads to trouble. That’s why millions of people today lead lives of frustration and desperation. They denied who they are in the hope that the powers that be would reward them. Their reward was mediocrity, depression and a nagging sense that life like that is scarcely worth living.Advertising
There may be a cost. Some people, even some friends, will disapprove of you as you truly are and will let you know it. There will be setbacks along the way. Yet the price for being yourself can never be as great as the price you will pay for stepping aside from your basic nature: a price paid in frustration, dissatisfaction, and the hopeless realization of all that you might have been, but now can never attain. The English poet A.E. Housman, a closet homosexual who lived a life of outward conformity and lonely respectability, expressed something of the idea like this:
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
Take up the challenge. Be whatever nature designed you to be. Never mind whether you face disapproval from those who lack the courage to follow the same route.Advertising
Conformity has very little to recommend it. Trust yourself and trust others. Our world has so little trust even a little more is precious. If you can’t trust who you are—the naturally valuable, curious, interesting, and exciting person you were born to be—why should anyone else trust you?
Mediocrity and inner frustration are the true price of conforming. Only those with the courage openly to live their dreams can ever hope to find lasting satisfaction with their lives.
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order, who now lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest, and satisfaction to leadership and working life. Recent articles there on similar topics include Teaching eagles to run and The Law of Repulsion. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization
The Gentle Art of Saying No
It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.
But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.
What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.
But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:
- Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
- Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
- Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
- Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
- Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
- Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
- Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
- Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
- Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
- It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.
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