Why are we all weird?

We were still weird, even 17,000 years ago. In the Chauvet caves of southern France, you will see the evidence today. Here the cavern walls are decorated by intricate paintings. Even with little tools, early humans still wanted to show their strange side, and these paintings are evidence. Being odd these days is simpler than ever before.

We’ve long since left the caves behind for a planet of material prosperity due to centuries of technological growth. Innovations such as industrial farming, energy and modern medicine mean that most of us do not have to think about simple survival anymore. Now we can devote more of our time and resources, be it amateur astronomy or open-source software, to whatever interests us. We are wealthy, basically.

The internet, on top of this, helps us to find people that share our interests. This helps us to grow our niche obsessions and occupations and deepen them. Imagine a budding player with a bagpipe. They were only able to serenade those within earshot in the old days, and there is no assurance that they will appreciate the effort. But now the same musician can post a YouTube video and get positive reviews from other enthusiasts around the world about the bagpipe.

The main message here is it is easier than ever to be weird because of our rising wealth and connectivity. So what does that mean for corporations, creative people, and other producers? For one thing, they no longer have to settle for a one-size-fits-all production and marketing strategy. Instead of producing a product that meets the needs of everyone in the mass market, you can now concentrate on selling to a committed few.

Take the example of equipment for high-end audio. In order to fork out $1,000 for a yard of specialized stereo cables, the average customer isn’t worried enough with audio quality. The readers of Stereophile magazine could, however. The creators of this cable will find financial help for their unique art by ads to audio obsessives through specialized media and internet forums.

Commerce is not of course, the object of being weird; it’s just a result. Relation is the real goal. The weird rising tide helps individuals to build a culture around what they care about. It helps individuals to break from the unsatisfactory world of mass culture and find their tribe.

Let’s take bread as an example. You had to settle for plain white Wonder Bread a few decades ago if you decided to buy a loaf. Mass manufacturing meant that it was inexpensive, predictable, and stocked everywhere in supermarkets. Today, artisanal companies have a dozen choices to give you: spelt, sunflower, gluten-free sourdough, whatever suits your taste.

It’s useful to imagine human behavior as a bell curve graph to understand this transition. That’s typically a good, symmetrical mound for a given population. Yeah, there are some outliers on the fringes, but in the center of the big hump, most people fall.

That hump is the ordinary,” the people who buy Wonder Bread. But the curve shifts as more people accept “the weird”-that is, their own peculiar impulses and behaviors. The middle mound shrinks, and it grows on those fringes. Across every sector, this same trend is replicated. The ordinary masses that make up the center are dispersing. What we deem a hit show, a show like Mad Men, draws 15 times less audiences than it did in the 70s with The Beverly Hillbillies. For a few weeks instead of a few months, a bestselling book would only top the charts. As people flock to what really concerns them, “the popular” is simply no longer so popular.

The main message here is as the usual core begins to erode, people can use their power to align with their own strange tribes. So is the bell curve flattening a positive thing? Godin claims so. A diversified market means more competition, because they have more influence because people have more choices. Consider a fruit vendor outside Berelli, India, in a tiny village. He doesn’t have tons of cash, but he can order a D-light solar lantern with internet access and three bucks. He is a force in the global marketplace now and his decisions impact what is next made.

Where else would nice to be weird? What about being in the classroom? Standardized schooling is one of the best ways that normal education has been implemented. Conformity is rewarded by the existing system in the US: just act and pass your exams and you can graduate. Simple, huh?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a regular student with four million pupils in school. It’s impossible to expect every learner to be the same. In fact, as they reach the job market, pressuring students to give up their weird ways may also be a downside. Only think of Yo-Yo Ma or Richard Branson, or almost anyone who admires our culture the most. Those who crack the mold, we still love. The school system of the future should leave room for students to find their own path, no matter how odd. After all, we are all weird, and that’s a good thing.

The notion of standard is an innovation of a bygone age when by treating everybody the same, industrial manufacturing, mass media, and the mass market aimed for productivity. Today individuals are more free to practice individual choice with increased material wealth and universal internet access, and they are choosing to be odd. All from advertisers to educators, should find ways to cater to this rising individualism in order to remain significant.

On a final note, several firms will attempt to cash in as weirdness continues to accumulate cultural cachet. You can’t claim to be strange, though. People can tell when a product is made by a mass marketer attempting to pander to their tribe, and in favor of the real thing, they’ll still reject it. Currently, the only way to make money is to be weird.

Check out my related post: What do you do with the dip?

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