I was running along the six-mile loop in Central Park on a cold winter day when I passed the southern most end of the park where I noticed a large number of miserable looking pedicab drivers huddled together to keep warm. Periodically one reached out to a passing pedestrian, but no one seemed to want a ride in a bicycle-drawn carriage. It was too cold.
And then, to my surprise, a little further along the run I saw a pedicab — with passengers in it — circling the park. The reason this pedicab had been hired instead of the others was immediately obvious. On both sides of his small carriage hung signs with large letters that read “HEATED SEATS.”
In any highly competitive field — and these days every field is highly competitive — being different is the only way to win. Nobody wants to sell a commodity and nobody wants to be a commodity.
Yet, even though we all know that, most of us spend a tremendous amount of effort trying not to be different. We model ourselves and our businesses after other successful people and businesses, spending considerable money and energy discovering and replicating best practices, looking for that one recipe for success.
Here’s the thing: if you look like other people, if your business looks like other businesses, then all you’ve done is increase your pool of competition.
I was working with American Express in 1993 when Harvey Golub became the new CEO. He wore suspenders. Within a few weeks so did everyone else. In our corporate cultures, we school, like fish. We try especially hard to fit in when we worry about getting laid off. Maybe, we think, standing out will remind them that we’re here and then they’ll lay us off too.
But fitting in has the opposite effect. It makes you dispensable. If you’re like everyone else, then how critical to the business can you be?
That’s how my friend Paul Faerstein lost his job. He was very successful at fitting in. It was the early 1990s and he was a partner at the Hay Group. He was a good consultant — I learned a lot from him — and for a long time he acted like the other partners. He sold the projects they sold. Billed the hours they billed.
Then, in a year and a half, Paul’s mother died, his brother died, and he got divorced. He couldn’t keep up his sales or his billable hours. And here’s the important part: he didn’t bring anything unique to the table beyond those things. It wasn’t that he couldn’t, as we’ll see in a moment. But he didn’t. So he lost his job.
Trying to distinguish ourselves by being the same as others, only better, is hard to do and even harder to sustain. There are too many smart, hard working people out there all trying to excel by being the best at what everyone else is doing.
It’s simply easier to be unique.
Entertainment is a great example. In a field with a tremendous number of beautiful, sexy, talented people, what are the chances that you’ll be noticed by being even more beautiful, sexy, and talented? But, Susan Boyle was different. She broke the mold. Which is why her YouTube videos received over 100 million hits. If she looked like every other aspiring singer, would the world have noticed?
If you’re 60, don’t get a facelift and pretend to be 30. Embrace 60 and use it to your advantage. According to a tremendous body of research, talent is not inborn, it’s created by practice. Which gives a 60 year old a tremendous advantage over a 30 year old.
But even in our diversity-focused corporations, it’s hard to be different because we have cultural norms that encourage sameness. That’s why we have dress codes. And expressions like “don’t rock the boat.” My advice? Rock on.
That’s what Paul eventually did. After he lost his job, Paul realized that he was never fully himself as a partner in the Hay Group. He had more to offer. He wanted to connect more deeply with his clients, help them achieve things outside the scope of the Hay Group’s offerings, and engage with them on issues beyond the bottom line.
Now, his name is Paramacharya Swami Parameshwarananda (you can call him Swamiji for short). He is the resident spiritual master at an ashram in Colorado. His change might seem drastic. But it was easy for him because each step he took was a step toward himself. And now he couldn’t be happier or more effective. He serves on various boards and leadership councils and is a driving force behind several educational and humanitarian projects around the world.
He’s still doing many of the same things he did as a failed consultant in New Jersey, but he’s more successful because he feels and acts like himself. In his words, “I’m living my inner truth.” And he is indispensable. Not simply for what he does, but for who he is.
Now, I’m not suggesting you go live on an ashram in Colorado. For most people that would be absurd. And copying someone else who’s different won’t help. You’ll never be as good a version of someone else as you are of yourself.
How can you move closer to contributing your unique value? What are your “heated seats”? Can you be more effective by being more yourself?
Face it: you’re different. And the sooner you realize it, the sooner you embrace and leverage it, the more successful you’ll be. The same goes for your business.
That’s why one pedicab driver with heated seats can stay busy all day while the others huddle around each other, fareless, trying to stay warm.