Conformity Is The Surest Path To Mediocrity

Louis Chew


The best in the world do things very differently.

We know that. It’s why there are articles on the habits, routines and methods of people like Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. We study them extensively in the hope that the little adaptions we make will improve our lives. Doing things differently is what made these people the best in their field — it stands to reason that it would benefit us mere mortals as well.

The Radical Polgár Experiment

A Hungarian psychologist by the name of Laszlo Polgar was someone who had no qualms about radical experiments. After studying the biographies of hundreds of intellectuals, he identified a common theme among these men — early and intensive specialisation in a particular subject. We know this today as deliberate practice. To test his theory, he made it his mission to raise his own children and turn them into prodigies.

Unlike most men who invested in romancing their love interests, Laszlo Polgar would propose to his future wife with an idea — that they would commit their lives to raising child prodigies. A woman by the name of Klara agreed, and so they were wed.

Chess was the sport that the Polgars decided on. Progress in chess was specific and measurable over time. All three of Laszlo Polgar’s daughters were home schooled, with a special focus on chess. While their peers watched TV and played outside, the Polgar sisters would be tackling chess puzzles and mastering their craft.

All three Polgar sisters accomplished much in their own right. They trounced adult opponents in their teenage years and dominated tournaments from a young age. The oldest, Susan, would become the women’s world champion. However, it was Judit Polgar, the youngest sister, who would go on to be the strongest female chess player of all time.

She would become the youngest chess grandmaster ever — both male and female — at just 15 years old. She never accepted the path many leading female players take — competing in separate women’s events and aiming at the women’s world title. Instead, Judit Polgar’s main competition were men, where she would be the only woman to play against the top male chess players in the world — fighting for just the women’s title was too easy for her.

Today, there is unanimous agreement that Judit Polgar is the best female chess player of all time.

Normal Is The New Average

You don’t need to brought up by parents who are hell-bent on raising a child prodigy. What you do need to realise is that the best in the field are outliers not just in their accomplishments, but also in their habits and routines. They are willing to be different even if it earned them rebuke or criticism — Laszlo Polgar was in a constant fight with the Hungarian authorities on how best to raise his children.

We instinctively think we are above average. We don’t want to be average. Yet ironically, we want to be normal and have the same interests as most people do. We don’t want to be different and stand out. Having the same interests, routines, habits as everyone else ensures that we stay in the majority and are hence part of the ‘in-group’. But by design, we are setting up ourselves to be average.

What’s the problem with average? There’s nothing wrong about having a statistically average performance. The problem arises when you choose to be average — to be just like everyone else — because you are choosing to be mediocre. Being like everyone else is a guarantee that you will never fully develop your innate talents and strengths. By extension, you will never be the best version of yourself. That all but guarantees mediocrity.

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti

Non-Conformity On A Daily Basis

Oscar Wilde once remarked that “Everything popular is wrong”. It’s a mantra that I try my best to live by. I avoid spending time on fashion and celebrity culture whenever possible. I don’t have an Instagram account even though all my friends use it. I avoid these things because they have little value to me — peer pressure and the desire to fit in doesn’t change that.

Don’t get me wrong. I watch Game of Thrones and other TV shows, just like everybody does. Game of Thrones has great storytelling and is sure as hell interesting, that’s why I watch it. However, I don’t watch it because everyone else does.

What I’ve personally experienced is that there is a better signal-to-noise ratio when you avoid doing something just because it’s popular. You have perspectives and mental frameworks that are different from those whom you spend a lot of time with. You don’t get influenced and pressured to do something to fit in. You get to focus on what matters most; you get to define what matters most.

Dare To Be Different

It’s not going to be easy. You will not be the life of the party. You might even lose a few friends along the way. You have to go at it alone. But it’ll definitely be worth it.

In 333 BCE, Alexander the Great attempted to untie the fabled Gordian Knot. Oracles had prophesied that the one whom untied the knot would go on to become the King of Asia. With the end of the knot hidden from sight, nobody had been able to find an elegant solution to the problem. When Alexander could not find the end to the knot to unbind it, he drew his sword and sliced it cleanly into half, thereby producing the required ends.

There are geniuses and pioneers who at the age of 21, have accomplished more than what anyone would in their life times. They did not take the same route that others did.

With the world so inextricably connected today, non-conformity can be extremely difficult when there are thousands of people judging your every move. But like Alexander, you will need to be bold and take the road less traveled. Any sane person would have considered Alexander a cheat and his solution absurd — you will likewise have to bear that label until you succeed.

The Road Less Travelled

Chris Guillebeau, author of The Art of Non-Conformity, is one who rejects living the conventional life. He has visited all 193 countries in the world before his 35th birthday, and has managed not to hold a traditional 9-to-5 job. In his personal manifesto, titled A Brief Guide to World Domination [you need to check it out], Chris discusses the normalisation of mediocrity. He writes:

“If there is any good news to the normalization of mediocrity, it’s that when you do something excellent, it will be so uncommon that you will instantly stand out. People will be amazed, because they’re so used to the good enough that the excellent is truly rare. This can work to your advantage when you decide to take things up a level and exceed the low expectations around you.”

The message is clear — being unconventional is not always easy, but it is definitely rewarding.

Moving Forward

Don’t be afraid to be different. The things that make you different are what make you, you.

Adopt different routines. Get up earlier. Take cold showers in the morning. Spend time meditating. Pick up a new skill. Journal your learning.

Above all, remember to take the road less travelled.

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Louis Chew

I explore underappreciated ideas. Currently writing about tech and business in Southeast Asia - check out