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Uncommon

In Praise of the Uncommon

Don’t commonize people. You will never produce heroes that way.

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All of us have heard, perhaps many times, complimentary references to the so-called “common man.” He (or she) is widely regarded as praiseworthy simply because of his sameness, as if being virtually indistinguishable from millions of others is a good thing. I don’t buy it. I prefer to encourage uncommonness.

Imagine a world without the uncommon. No Thomas Edison, no Joan of Arc, no Michelangelo, no Steve Jobs, no Margaret Thatcher, no Benjamin Franklin, no Simon Bolivar, no Luciano Pavarotti, no Rosa Parks. No positive examples to look up to, only a boring mass of humanity with no champions, heroes, models or prize winners. No thanks.

Imagine attending a concert of “common” performers. Who would go see a film if it was advertised, “This movie is no better than the average.”

Or think of a parent telling a child, “Johnny, if you work really hard, some day you can be common!” Setting a promising child’s sights no higher than average strikes me as a form of abuse that can stunt personal growth and achievement.

Have you ever seen the animated 1998 DreamWorks film, Antz? The setting is an ant colony in which all ants are expected to behave as an obedient blob. This is very convenient for the tyrant ants in charge. The debilitating collectivist mindset is shaken by a single ant who marches to a different drummer—namely, his own self—and ultimately saves the colony through his individual initiative. If it wasn’t for that very uncommon ant, the whole lot of them would have gone down with the ship.

I’m reminded of a short essay called “My Creed” by a New Yorker named Dean Alfange, an immigrant from Turkey. He wrote it some seventy years ago:

I do not choose to be a common man. It is my right to be uncommon, if I can. I seek opportunity, not security. I do not wish to be a kept citizen, humbled and dulled by having the state look after me.

I want to take the calculated risk; to dream and to build, to fail and to succeed. I refuse to barter incentive for a dole. I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence; the thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of utopia.

I will not trade freedom for beneficence nor my dignity for a handout. I will never cower before any master nor bend to any threat. It is my heritage to stand erect, proud and unafraid; to think and act for myself, enjoy the benefit of my creations and to face the world boldly and say, “This I have done.”

Sometimes the uncommon person is offensive, intrusive, or even violent. But on most occasions, he’s simply a little rebellious or peculiar and, at the same time, a positive good for society. He (or she) is just different. How boring this world would be if everything and everybody were common and conventional!

We should be grateful for the uncommonly good, the uncommonly productive, the uncommonly generous, the uncommonly inventive, and the uncommonly courageous. They are the men and women who leave the world not just as they found it, but as a better or freer place because of their specialness.

It is the uncommon who dare to speak truth to power, who break established barriers, who raise our standards, who perform with unparalleled excellence, and who, to borrow a line from the old Star Trek television series, go where no man has gone before.

Think Different” was the name for a 1997 Apple ad campaign that paid tribute to the unusual among us. Featuring footage of famous personalities from Bob Dylan to Thomas Edison, it celebrated the uncommon in 60 seconds with these words:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify them or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them—because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

George Washington Carver was a very uncommon man. With apologies to God, Carver practically invented the peanut—or at least took it from a nondescript ground nut to a popular food. He preached and practiced the notion that personal success requires that you step out of the crowd and distinguish yourself. As he put it, “When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”

Amen to that. I don’t know about you, but I have no interest in homogenizing people in a socialist or egalitarian blender. Commonism is just one letter away from communism, a deadly poison. Don’t commonize people. You will never produce heroes that way.

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