In no way is this an attack on anyone…well, maybe it is, but if it is, I’m attacking myself as much as anyone else.
This is for all you designers. You creative types. You who work with branding. You people at the advertising, marketing, and design firms and who, in the 80s and 90s, wore thick-rimmed glasses and black turtlenecks. This is for those of you of the younger artsy generation who wear slightly thinner-rimmed glasses, jeans, and t-shirts from Threadless. You think you’re original, you think you’re different, that you walk to a different drummer, but you’re all the same. You wear the same clothes, you drink the same coffee, you listen to the same music, you like the same movies, you’re in favor of the same political movements, and you hate the same things (only you don’t call it “hate” because of course, you don’t hate, it’s everybody else who’s full of hate). In your efforts to be non-conformist, you conform to a degree more extreme than those you are trying to distance yourselves from.
Why do you do it? Maybe it’s because you didn’t want to be like your parents. Maybe it’s because you want acceptance. Maybe you just like being a rebel. There’s nothing wrong with all of this, unless you do it just for it’s own sake. That is, there’s no sense in wanting to be different from your parents just for the sake of being different from your parents. If your parents were mass-murderers and child molesters, then that’s another matter, and I hope you do want to be different from them (and if right now you’re thinking “Well, my parents are Republicans, and that’s almost as bad…”–please, get real).
Here’s a simple 25-question self-test you can administer to find out if you’re a conformist or not:
1. Do you wear designer glasses? I don’t mean a designer brand, I mean the smallish lense, thickish frame, glasses. You know what I mean, don’t pretend you don’t.
2. Do you have facial hair? Women, if you answer “yes” to this question then you don’t have to answer any other questions, you are definitely not a conformist and I will send you a certificate to that effect if you want.
3. Do you comb your hair or use your hands?
4. Do you wear non-dress shoes with little or no padding in the soles? You know, like skateboard shoes with vulcanized soles, or other lightweight shoes.
5. Do you wear jeans almost every day?
6. Do you wear a t-shirt almost every day?
7. Do you own at least one t-shirt that is either humorous or political?
8. Are you voting for Obama? Even if you aren’t, have you ever thought to yourself that his campaign has done a really good job with their branding?
9. Have you ever worn a long-sleeve t-shirt or thermal shirt under a t-shirt?
10. Do you admire skateboarders more than traditional athletes like football and basketball players?
11. Do you take pride in your knowledge of fonts?
12. Do you now or have you ever used a messenger bag or other type of bag with a shoulder strap (other than a traditional purse)? Guys, if you have ever used a traditional purse then you also get a free get-out-of-conformist-jail pass.
13. Do you own a watch with an unusually wide wristband?
14. Is the face of your watch unusually large?
15. Do you believe the United States is responsible for most of the problems in the world?
16. Do you own an iPhone or envy those who do?
17. Do you ever feel a sense of pride due to your overall image? Think carefully about this one because pride can often be masked as a mild sense of satisfaction or simply “liking how you look”. Also bear in mind that if you answer “no” you are lying.
18. Have you ever shopped at IKEA or wished all your furniture looked like the stuff at IKEA?
19. Do you now or have you ever owned a scooter?
20. Do you believe global warming is man-made?
21. Do you have a tattoo?
22. Do you own a fixed-gear bike?
23. Do you work in an office that has exposed brick walls?
24. Do you pride yourself on listening to music from bands nobody else has heard of?
25. Do you use a Mac?
I’ll let you determine to what extent you are a conformist based on your answers to these questions. Obviously, your answer to any one question is not what makes you a conformist, and even if you answer all the questions affirmatively you might not be a conformist, although I think there’s a decent chance.
If you did answer affirmatively to many of these questions and are starting to feel the blood rising in your face, then your next thought might be “I just like all that stuff, ok? If that’s conformity, what’s wrong with it?” Well, that’s just the point. Do you like what you like because you really like it, or because of external influences? I’ll be the first to admit that I am influenced by external influences, and sometimes I don’t mind it.
For example, I’m a skateboarder, and skating always has some fad going on within the industry. Right now most skateboarders are wearing shoes with vulcanized soles (think Vans if you don’t know what I’m talking about). This isn’t the first time they’re in style. I’ve been skating long enough that I’ve seen the fashion go from wearing high-top Nike basketball shoes to Vans with vulcanized soles, to skateboard brand shoes that look identical to basketball shoes, to today where we have mostly vulcanized soles, albeit under many more brands than just Vans.
When this trend first started a few years ago, I thought the shoes looked funny. But as I saw them more and more in the videos and magazines I got used to them, and I started to like how they looked, until I felt funny wearing the old style of shoe and started wearing vulcanized soles myself. This, in spite of the fact that vulcanized soles offer less protection, wear out faster, and don’t seem to grip as well. But I like how they look, and it’s hard for me to have fun skating if I don’t like how I look, regardless of whether anyone is watching or not.
Would you claim that I don’t really like vulcanized shoes? No, I really do like them. But why do I like them? Because I saw them so much that I got used to them and they started looking better than the other shoes.
Obviously there’s no harm in this, other than that my feet do take a little bit more of a beating. But other than that, nobody gets hurt by my choice. But what if it weren’t just shoes? What if the choice were something more meaningful, like who I choose as friends, how I raise my family, or how I vote? What if those choices are being influenced the same way my choice in shoes is being influenced, and what if I’m being suckered into choices that don’t make me happy in the long run? That’s the danger of conformity–that you can be manipulated into changing your mind about something to the point that you truly like something you wouldn’t have liked before.
And so, my designer friends, now that you realized you’re more or less just like all the other non-conformists out there, this is not a call to immediately cast off the shackles of conformity by doing something different than what you’ve been doing. If you tried to be different from all your designer friends chances are you’d just run to something at the same time everyone else is running to the same thing. I’m calling on you to not base your self-worth in being different, but in the truth. Sometimes the truth is what everyone else is doing or saying and that means you conform to the mainstream. Sometimes the truth is rebellious. Sometimes conforming to the truth means rebelling against those you once thought were rebels. Sometimes it means rebelling against what your friends believe. But the truth is what works in the long run.
For example, let’s take a fairly non-controversial topic like Macs vs. PCs. I’m a PC user, but I’ll be the first to admit that Macs are better, at least in some ways. They certainly look better, they’ve got the “cool” factor, the OS might be easier to use, and they might even run better if you compare the performance of a Mac to the performance of a PC with the exact same hardware specs. But at Mac with the same specs as a PC certainly isn’t the same price. Macs tend to be more expensive, in some cases costing twice as much as a PC with the same specs. For me, finding the “truth” when it comes to computers is finding out which computer is going to allow me to get my job done as efficiently as possible (i.e. speed). If we can assume, for the sake of argument, that I can buy twice as much speed in a PC as in a Mac for the same price, then the truth is that a PC is better for me, and if I were to give in to the good looks and cool factor of a Mac, then I’d be selling myself short.
Likewise, you might be selling yourself short in some way in your life and it might be due to the same character trait that resulted in you wearing those glasses you have on. If you are, would you prefer to remain in blissful ignorance or would you want to know the truth, which would then set you free to choose whether you really want to wear those glasses or not? Maybe if you delved into the truth more than you have you might change who you hang out with, how you raise your family, and who you vote for. Maybe you’ll just be that much more sure in your choices. But at least you’ll be free to choose.