“Individuality and autonomy, these are the things many pay lip-service to. In fact, it’s almost become a new form of conformity. We talk about being our unique selves, about letting our colors shine, but deep down we know this is just talk. Under pressure when it really counts, we want the same thing as everyone else. We do the same things as everyone else.”
— “Lives of the Stoics”, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
We’ve likely never lived in a time where uniqueness has been treasured more than today. At least that’s what people say. Let’s try a thought experiment. Go to your Facebook feed or Twitter and post something that goes against the popular convention of your group and see what happens. You’ll likely get browbeat to the point of silence, or you’ll be defriended.
Despite our professed love of the unique and different, it’s not exactly loved if it doesn’t conform to popular sentiment. In a way, it’s very reminiscent of the past. Holiday and Hanselman explain in Roman times being unique could lead to lots of problems. They couldn’t defriend, so they just exiled or killed you.
They devote an entire chapter to the stoic philosopher and politician Paconius Agrippinus. While others kept their heads down in chaotic political times, he did the opposite. The philosopher thought of humanity as thread in a sweater. We all try and blend in.
When asked why he didn’t conform, Agrippinus said he wanted to be the small red thread which stands out and causes the others to look beautiful. If he couldn’t do this, there was no point in living. Unfortunately, Rome didn’t feel the same way about red threads, and he suffered for it. It’s still not easy being a red thread today.
While it’s an enduring problem, there are many who colored themselves red and were eventually accepted into the sweater. Hopefully, we can learn something from their stories in our personal battle with conformity and uniqueness.
Don’t Copy The Desires Of Society
Naomi Hasegawa owns a small nondescript shop in Kyoto called Ichiwa. They sell a traditional fried dough on a stick to passersby. You likely wouldn’t give her shop a second look. However, this business is a true red thread; it has existed since the year 1000.
Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno in their article in the New York Times asked Naomi how the business is handling the pandemic. She didn’t seem concerned. While other businesses are being crushed by the challenge, Ichiwa appears unaffected. However, being a red thread, it doesn’t operate like a traditional business.
In the article Professor Toshio Goto of Japan University of Economics explains Japan has 19 businesses that have existed this long. He says they’ve managed to make it 1000 years by practicing “kakun” or family ideals. This means they take a literal pride in their product, treat their employees like family, and strive to be a servant to their community. This is Ichiwa’s basic blueprint.
- Naomi’s family never took their earnings and attempted to expand, creating savings to protect them from bad times instead. They’ve also avoided debt.
- Ichiwa only focuses on fried dough (mochi) and offers one form of refreshment — tea.
- They’ve avoided attempts to modernize, turning down Uber Eat’s request to set them up for delivery.
- Naomi and her family accept they’ll never get rich from the business. Their purpose is to see the business continue in their family and serve travelers visiting the shrine.
In the modern age only 25% of new businesses last 25 years or more. From my experience, just about everything Ichiwa practices goes against what I learned in business school.
However, the uniqueness of their model is ideal for surviving. It’s no wonder why they’ve existed 1000 years when so many other businesses have crumbled before 25. So, Naomi Hasegawa might say you can become a red thread by adjusting your desires from what society tells you to want.
Make Your Own Path Instead Of Following Another’s
Bruce Lee’s life can be called a war against conformity. In John Little’s book “Bruce Lee: The Art of Expressing the Human Body”, he explains Lee spent his life going against conventional wisdom. At points he’d literally have to fight against those who wanted him to comply with their way of doing things.
When Bruce first began teaching Westerners martial arts, local masters called him a traitor and demanded he conform. When he ignored them, this group picked a champion and challenged Lee to a fight. He’d win the showdown, embarrassing his challengers and opening the path for students of any origin to learn Kung Fu.
To become a stronger martial artist, Lee attempted to find a training regimen to make this happen. However, in the 1960’s there were no books or resources on this. He could only find bodybuilding magazines. Through trial-and-error Lee invented his own exercise method akin to circuit training, creating a body fitness junkies and martial artists everywhere envied and tried to copy.
Lee also ran into the same problems in his film career. Although he got sidekick gigs, Hollywood didn’t see him as the traditional leading man. So, Lee went back to Hongkong, creating his own martial arts film genre. The success he generated in Asia couldn’t be ignored anymore by Hollywood, who eventually saw his potential as a star.
If Bruce Lee lived today, he’d likely say you can become a red thread by creating your own path. The one society makes for you isn’t the only way, no matter what you’re told.
Find Your Own Tribe To Sustain You
Amanda Palmer And Her Husband Neil Gaiman (2011) — Picture By Manfred Werner, Wikimedia Commons
While on the Jordan Harbinger Podcast, author Seth Godin told the story of another red thread. Amanda Palmer and her punk band the Dresden Dolls created a strong underground following which eventually got them a record deal with a huge label. Godin says after their second record the company wasn’t happy.
They only sold 20,000 albums. Just for perspective Lady Gaga and Eminem each sold over 200,000 by July of 2020. The label cut Palmer and she was given the advice to either look for another label or retire. Fortunately, she had another idea. She tried a new platform called Kickstarter and offered all kinds of personal goodies to her fans who would chip in to fund her next record.
Godin says she created the most effective music Kickstarter campaign in history, raising over a million dollars in a month. However, this isn’t the magical part. According to Amanda, only 20,000 funded the campaign; the exact amount that disappointed the record label enough to fire her.
While hundreds of thousands are necessary to keep a large label happy, Amanda could hit a homerun with only a fraction of that. So, she might advise you to become a red thread by finding your own unique tribe. You don’t have to conform to the whole world’s tastes, a small fraction of that can make you a success of your own definition.
How To Be The Red Thread In The Bland Sweater
Despite endless praise for uniqueness, many often go out of their way to conform in most ways possible. At least I know I do. So, we can say the words of Agrippinus still ring true in this present day. However, we can be that red thread if we follow some advice from the unique characters we’ve examined.
- Society may tell you to desire a certain thing, but that doesn’t mean you have to. If you scale your wants down, you can achieve considerable freedom where the herd can’t. The uniqueness also allows you to thrive when the crowd fails. The 1000-year history of Ichiwa attests to that.
- Following existing paths only allows you to conform and follow existing paths. If you’re willing to explore and ignore the naysayers, you can create your own way. Would we all know Bruce Lee’s name if he was more conventional?
- Society will likely chastise you to conform your tastes to the masses and accept their definition of success. However, this isn’t necessary. As eclectic as your tastes are, there’s a group to welcome you. Likely this group will also support you in your endeavors due to your common bonds. Success in your small unique group will look much different than society’s ideal. It might even eclipse it.