This article is about a near universal disease I observe in Americans. Odd, considering this is the land of rugged individualism. It’s about a powerful lesson in my books Succeeding and How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book.
Permanently damaged by middle school and high school
K-12 school, especially middle and high school, is a formative experience for almost all Americans. My wife was in Ethiopia for high school. Since there was no American high school there, she acquired a G.E.D. by independent home-self-study via correspondence school with the University of Nebraska. She was anxious to go to the U.S. and completed her studies a year early and entered college in the U.S. at age 16. So she was not formed by the experience the way most are.
The resulting independent streak caused many who knew her to worry that she would never marry because she would never find an equivalent independent-streak male.
I’m sorry, that’s incorrect, but thank you for playing. She found me, or vice versa. We have been together exclusively for 49 years—three sons, one daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren.
Everybody’s somebody’s baby. And there’s no accounting for taste, which is a good thing because we are all unique from our fingerprints to our retinas to our voices to everything about us.
Need to be deprogrammed
You guys who went to middle and high school—as I did—may need to be deprogrammed. For unknown reasons, I did not need to be deprogrammed, not even after public college at West Point where they really tried to program us.
One of the unintended consequences of middle and high school—and large, adult work organizations—is that they teach the lesson that you prosper by being popular, or failing that, at least avoiding unpopularity.
But that lesson is not true.
Oprah has great people skills; not everyone is Oprah; but they all seem to be trying to be
I think Oprah is successful because of just getting along with people. She was voted Most Popular Girl in high school. So it can be done. But the problem is that probably 95% of the other girls in her high school were consciously or unconsciously competing for that title and did NOT win.
What’s worse, probably that same 95% spent the rest of their lives continuing to try to find success by being popular with the assorted hundreds of people around them on a daily basis—trying to be Oprah—or at least avoiding offending the people around them.
Probably the most successful person in my lifetime is Steve Jobs. He revolutionized at least six industries in spite of dying young, not graduating from college, being exiled from the company he co-founded for ten years, and being a world class jerk. He won no popularity contests in school or afterward.
First off, understand that only a tiny percentage of us are Oprah. Trying to be her or anyone else you are not is suicidal.
You may, for example, be a great sculptor. Does that require being personally popular—or avoiding offending others? Not at all. Your personality is irrelevant in the sculptor business. Does that mean those who were not voted Most Popular should take up sculpture? They ought to consider it.
Choose the right medium for you
Chapter 8 of my Succeeding book is about “Choosing the right medium” for you. Most people give little or no thought to that. Big mistake.
To make a living, you have to relate to other people and persuade them to pay you money as a result. There are many media—which are avenues through which you relate to other people. Sculptors relate to others via a piece of marble or clay or whatever; farmers, via the crops and/or livestock they grow; and so on. Those non-face-to-face media do not require a great personality to make a great living.
I relate to others via writing. Do you need a personality for that? Not a universally-loved one. But also not a bland one.
If you can talk, you can write, but most good talkers fail when they try to write
The world is full of people who can talk as intelligently as I or other successful authors, and many of them would like to make a living as writers. It is a fabulous, world-class, great way to make a living. See my more detailed discussion of it in my book How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book.
But the vast majority of those who can talk just fine, cannot write just fine. They suck at writing.
Well, there is no logical explanation. Hell, if you can talk, just record what you say about the subject in question to an audience of a couple of your close friends, then transcribe it, and you have a good book.
So why don’t they do that? They don’t think of it. They figure you write a book on a yellow pad or computer screen. Fine. That is how I do it (computer). But if person A and I verbally discuss a field in which we are both knowledgeable, then we both go write an article about the discussion, mine will be commercially publishable and saleable. A’s will almost certainly not be.
Why? Mine will sound almost exactly like the verbal conversation; A’s will bear little resemblance to the conversation. Why? Because A will remove everything that he thinks might not be popular or that might offend someone or that might be made fun of or ridiculed or criticized.
Bland may avoid giving offense, but you can’t sell bland
That sort of behavior may help A be mildly popular at the office as it did at his high school, but however well blandness achieves popularity or avoids offending anyone in school and organizations, it ain’t worth spit in the writing business or in any area where they might the describe the most successful as talented.
When I wrote for a newsletter published by Harcourt Brace in the early 1980s, my editor and I once ran into one of his friends in Manhattan. He introduced me to the friend as “the talent” on one of his newsletters.
I think it’s not talent that distinguishes us from the bland masses. Rather, it is a willingness to just be ourselves and let the world like it or lump it.
A book I read on how to dress well by a famous expert on that said the well-known attractiveness of the way French women dress is their willingness to take a like-it-or-lump-it attitude about how others react to the way they dress. Just so. That is a much broader principle than just dressing or writing.
Stated plainly, to be a writer, you have to have some guts, or, as in my case, not give a damn what people think. The latter is probably the more common source of saying what you really think among successful writers.
How could such limited-popularity persons become popular writers? Ah! Excellent question and it is important that everyone learn the answer
You do not have to be popular with everyone to be popular with millions
Virtually everyone has three or four close friends in high school. Around them, you are yourself. They know and like the real you.
Yet you keep trying to get the other couple of hundred kids in your school to also like you, or you do the same at work. Why not instead make friends with the three or four people in all the other high schools in America who would have been your close friends if you had attended those schools?
There are about 37,000 high schools in the U.S. That would give you 3 or 4 x 37,000 = 111,000 to 148,000 readers—in just the class that was born the year you were born! Since most writing appeals to 20 or 30 birth years worth of people, your potential market of American BFFs is in the millions.
How can you ignore the people around you and zoom in on the three or four people who would be your best friends in every community in America? Write a book or periodical. Market it on the Internet. That way, you cherry pick those people—called readers/customers in the writing business—and they cherry pick you. You write only for your best friends, not for the other kids in your high school, or the grown-up versions of those kids.
Previously that was done in book stores, and worked about the same.
The office water cooler is not the only medium available to you
The point is life does not consist solely of competing for popularity around the office water cooler where your ability to schmooze and talk about sports or say “clever” things like, “Working hard or hardly working?” decides who gets to the top.
People with no personality can relate to others through inanimate objects or crops or animals or reference writing (just facts or tables; no creative writing) or art or playing a musical instrument or operating equipment or cooking and programming computers.
People with “everybody likes him” personalities can schmooze around the water cooler, go into politics or sales, and so on.
People with strong personalities that not everyone likes, like Rush Limbaugh, can go into radio, TV, print media, studio-only singing, public speaking. You get the idea.
A face for radio
People who have a face for radio or writing can do that while good-looking people do TV, theater, modeling. People who are discriminated against because of looks or ethnicity or gender can use media where no one can see them. If their voice does not reveal a discriminated-against ethnicity or regionality, they can relate to others via radio or telephone.
The vast majority of Americans are trying to hone their “people skills,” that is win the Most Popular Girl or Boy competition at their middle school or high school or around their office water cooler. And they are utterly certain that this is the single key to success in life.
They need to get out more. They need to think about whether every successful person in America followed that prescription.
Step one in life is to figure out who you are and who you are not. Step two is to be yourself. Step three is to survey all the various ways you can make a living in this world. Step four is to match your unique strengths and weaknesses to the best career, including medium, for you, and the best path within that career. That is what my Succeeding book is about.
I went to my 50th high school reunion in May, 2014. There I reconnected with a football teammate. He and I were acquaintances in high school but not friends. Because of a conversation we had at the reunion, I sent him one of my books that was pertinent. He later bought my Succeeding book and commented that it is too bad we did not know each other better in high school. If we did, we probably would have become good friends.
High school friends you did not know you had
I had not thought of that, but most of us, especially those who went to big high schools, colleges, and universities had more “best friends” there than they ever got to know. As a result of my books and other writing, a number of classmates from high school, college and grad school have become friends with me, but not until long after graduation. God bless writing.
But I must add that there probably also are some people who were neutral about, or mildly fond of, me at those schools, decided that they did not like me after getting to know me better from my writing.
The fact that a friend is someone who knows all about you and still likes you does not mean that everyone who gets to know all about you will like you.
However, it is true, that those people who would have been your friends if they had learned all about you, never can until they do learn all about you.
Writing is a great thing for finding those few people in any group—but very large numbers of people nationwide and worldwide—who become your true friends because they have always been in that select group—often without knowing it—who would still like you if they knew more about you.