“Don’t follow the crowd”
“Blaze your own path and do your own thing”
“Be your own person “
College commencement speeches and self-help authors are full of this type of folk advice. We are encouraged and expected to drive off on our own, use our own self-created ideas in order to build our lives, reports, projects and careers from scratch.
Behind all this advice is an unspoken expectation that the one who follows ends up unhappy and unsatisfied with life. We like to think of crowed followers as lemmings simply going along with the flow and failing to living life to their the full potential.
Before continuing we need to define our terms. Since most commencement speakers don’t define what it means to “follow the crowd” I’ll give my definition here.
Follow the crowd: (v) to follow the rules, best practices, wisdom, and expectations of those whom have gone before and societal norms.
From the top of my head here are a few good reasons TO follow the crowd:
- When operating a vehicle on public roads
- When pre-flighting an aircraft
- When operating heavy farm equipment
- When building a house
- When at a small arms firing range
- When conducting open heart surgery
- When transferring fuel, hooking up to shore power, or lighting off engines
- In Calculus 101
- When going through boot camp
- When working at your first entry level job
- When you START working at your second, third, fourth and fifth job
- When buying and operating a franchise
- When operating a nuclear submarine
- When playing chess
- When dressing for a job interview or your college graduation
- When withdrawing money from a bank
- When going through airport security
- When teaching your children about hard work and respect
- When following doctors’ orders
- When showing your mom/kids/spouse that you love them
Just looking at this list makes me wonder about the counter examples? Even in extreme examples such as Elon Musk, Steve Jobs or Sir Ernest Shackleton; they all followed the crowd to a point and then made slight deviations from the crowd which resulted in their success.
Come to think of it I can think of very few reasons why you would NOT want to follow the best practices of the crowd in nearly everything you do. Even in the most extreme examples of people and companies that we assume blazed their own path still spent the preponderance of their time following the crowd and using basic tried and true methods to achieve excellence. What often differentiates these athletes, artists, inventors and companies from the mean is that after, and only after, mastering their trade (by following the crowd) they were able to make a small change to that process resulting in massive deviation.
A few examples of people we hold up as those that blazed their own path:
- Michael Jordan: The man was born talented, tall and strong. But rather than blazing his own trail and starting the NBX he followed the rules of his coach, his body, and his game resulting in one of the world’s best athletes.
- Jackson Pollock art: Jackson started as a conventional artist, followed the crowd to art school and learned the basic fundamentals of art. However, his art only became beautiful because he first learned to follow the crowd, learned fundamental art concepts and then deviated from them.
- Edison & Einstein: Both individuals were crowd followers, they mastered the basics of business, science, math Interesting note of history, there was one area where Einstein did not follow the crowd, that was in maintaining his family life. As expected this resulted in solitary man with estranged children.
- Saddle Back Leather (My favorite Company of all time). At first look it appears they have a totally original idea and original company. However, on second look maybe they are just following the best practices of the crowd. They make leather goods (a 10,000+ year old trade), super high quality with 100 year warranty (differentiation), and brand the goods with an amazing story and solid philosophy behind their business.
None of these examples did someone start from scratch; they all stood on the giants that went before them, mastered the tried and true basics and then made small incremental changes resulting in a better, and sometimes an amazingly better, product.
Just thinking through these examples and counter examples reinforces my belief that personal success and fulfillment is really more about following the best practices of the crowd, operating with excellence and mastery than it is about being on your own. Once you have achieved that mastery then, and only then, should you consider making a few tweaks to tried and true methods.
So, next time you go to a College graduation and a celebrity trots out the same tried and true speech to the graduating class of “Cut your own way & don’t follow the crowd” you can think to yourself,
“looks like he’s just following the crowd.”