Why being weird is your best creative trait
It’s hard to argue of a more valuable creative skill than an eye for the innovative and unique.
Just look at some of the biggest industry disruptors from the past few decades: Uber, AirBnB, Amazon. On the surface, the ideas these companies had were ‘crazy’.
Who would have thought the world’s largest accommodations company would own no properties? Or that the most popular transportation option would own no vehicles and employ no drivers?
Hindsight may be 20/20, but I guarantee if I had pitched these ideas years ago you would’ve sized me up for a straight jacket.
Whether you’re building a business, writing an essay, or designing a product, the status quo is an innovation killer. That’s why it’s so important to keep things ‘weird’ when you’re working.
Non-conformity, novelty — however you define ‘weird’, it’s something that goes against what’s commonly accepted, and works. ‘Weird’ is seeing things differently. It’s connecting the dots where we normally wouldn’t.
As illustrator Jessica Hagy explains in her post Why weird is wonderful (and bankable):
“Different isn’t always better, but better is always different.”
Why weird works
Psychologists have known for some time that when we experience a novel situation we more easily store this event in our memory.
The science behind why this happens is a bit longwinded but boils down to this:
‘Weird’ experiences cause a release of dopamine (a neurotransmitter related to motivation) in the part of our brain responsible for discovering, processing, and storing new sensory impressions. That hit of dopamine not only makes us more motivated to explore, but new studies have shown it also creates a stronger connection to long-term memory.
Our brains physically remember the weird and atypical.
“The imagination imitates. It is the critical spirit that creates.”
On a psychological level we give strange ideas more value than those that support what we already know.
As author Murray S Davis explains in his famous essay That’s Interesting!:
“If it does not challenge but merely confirms one of their taken-for-granted beliefs, [the audience] will response to it by rejecting its value while affirming its truth.”
Weird ideas and elements not only stick with us, but we give them more cultural value than those that just confirm what we already know and accept.
… to a point
Does this mean that you need to go out of your way to go against all social norms to be recognized?
Not really. After all, certain ideas and theories are common for a reason.
Our brains take in an insane amount of sensory information every day, which is why we’ve developed filters to help us judge new information and pick out what’s important.
A 2012 study from Google (opens PDF) showed that new visitors to a website judge its functionality and aesthetics in 1/20th–1/50th of a second. In about as long as it takes to blink your eyes your brain has taken in, filtered, and decided what’s important.
Too many complex or atypical elements and your brain tells you that this is a potentially hard task and you’re likely to move on. The key to making your work stand out and be memorable is to strike a balance between the weird and the typical.
Creating a culture of weirdness
Weirdness is becoming big business and companies are starting to catch on to the importance of embracing strangeness. Here are 2 examples:
- At online retailer Zappos every job interview famously includes the question “On a scale from 1 to 10, how weird are you?”
- At San Fransisco-based Method, employees are given homework assignments asking “How would you keep Method weird?”
Oscar Wilde (an equally weird and creative person) said that “the imagination imitates. It is the critical spirit that creates.”
“Different isn’t always better, but better is always different.”
Copying is safe. It allows you to latch onto ideas that have already been widely accepted. But it’s also a trap for mediocrity. Only in being open to the strange and different can we create work that stands out.
So, whether you’re looking for inspiration or just trying to get a leg up on your competition, here are a few ways to cultivate your own culture of weirdness:
1. Embrace your inner weirdo (or, why you should always go for TMI)
Psychologists have recently connected the idea of cognitive disinhibition with innovative creativity.
Cognitive disinhibition is the failure to ignore information that is irrelevant to current goals. If we think back to those filters that help us parse through sensory information, they’re also the same filters that hold us back from reaching the ‘a-ha!’ moment of creative insight.
“We give strange ideas more value than those that support what we already know.”
While some of this comes down to genetics, there are proven ways to let seemingly unimportant and weird information in. Practices such as daydreaming, letting your mind wander, or taking a walk.
However you do it, the idea here is to get into a place where those filters become relaxed and new ideas form.
2. Leverage the Lady Gaga Effect
In the 1930s, German psychologist Hedwig von Restorff discovered that we remember things that stand out more easily.
Take this list of words for example: apple, car, tomato, dog, rock, banana, pencil, Lady Gaga, helicopter, cat, cheese.
Which do you remember? I bet it wasn’t tomato.
In the context of the list, Lady Gaga stands out like a sore thumb — it’s atypical within the context of the list. The weird and strange are much more memorable when they exist in the context of the familiar.
Too much ‘out there’ at once, and your unique ideas get lost in a wash of weirdness. But find that balance between the familiar and the controversial and people will start to take notice.
3. Give the opposite a chance
Self-censorship is a major barrier on the road to creating unique and memorable work.
Instead of diving into an exciting idea we change how we think to be more in line with what’s ‘normal’ by asking:
Will people laugh at us for our ideas?
Will they get mad at what we’re saying?
Deferring to self-censorship means denying the world of who you truly are. Embracing your individual idiosyncrasies can go a long way in boosting your creative output.
“It’s not so much what you have to learn if you accept weird theories, it’s what you have to unlearn.” — Issac Asimov
Whenever you find yourself pulling punches, ask why? And then do the opposite of what you’ve been doing.
4. Find ways to hack weird ideas together
When asked about coming up with innovative ideas Apple founder Steve Jobs simply said: ‘Creativity is just connecting things’.
Truly innovative and creative ideas come from divergent thinking — connecting the dots where others haven’t.
The more strange and wonderful thoughts you let into your head, the more varied source material you have to pull from.
“Creating your best work possible means embracing strange ideas.”
Take this story from Stanford professor and author Robert Sutton about a software company he consulted for. When coming up with new ideas the company would take two stacks of flashcards and write technologies on one and industries on the other.
Shuffle the decks, pull one from each pile, and see what crazy (potentially innovative) ideas come up.
5. Reward success and failure. Punish inactivity.
Author, journalist, and bonafide weirdo Hunter S. Thompson had a famous saying:
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
Creating your best work possible means embracing strange ideas. Especially those that go counter to what is common.
Those who push boundaries, who create work that we revere and acknowledge fail more than they succeed. More than just keeping score, this is about trying. Embracing your own quirkiness means putting out work constantly and testing the waters to see what works and what doesn’t.
Let your weirdness be your calling card. And remember, every new innovation or trend stared as someone’s weird idea.