“the free soul is rare, but you know it when you see it — basically because you feel good, very good, when you are near or with them.”
― Charles Bukowski
Even as a child, Muhammad Ali took great pleasure in being different than the rest of his peers. He did so not because he was a rebel without a cause, but he certainly did it for the applause.
His defiance of the rules became most apparent when he began to train as a boxer. He refused to fight in the usual way, instead developing a style that would compliment his speed and agility. It was frustrating to try to punch Ali, as he kept dancing around the ring.
A few years later, he’d both irritate and confuse his opponents with his bold statements. After all, what could a fellow boxer expect from a man who claimed he was so fast that he could turn off the light switch in his room and be in bed before the room would be covered in darkness?
As children, we are often taught by our teachers and elders that there’s a certain way of doing things. There are rules and laws and norms that must be obeyed, unless we want to be ridiculed or even marginalized by others.
What we aren’t told, however, is the fact that a strong sense of self is the by-product of doing things our own way, the side-effect of ignoring the rules and venturing within ourselves for our own definitions of who we are and what we’re capable of.
The price of conformity is often a life of predictable boredom.
The price of independence is a life of introspection, constant struggle, and backbreaking work towards self-growth.
“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” — Steve Jobs
The not-so subtle art of being unapologetically yourself requires that you imitate no one, that you always question the rules, that you are willing to fight and operate according to your own internal rhythm, that you are more than glad to challenge those who try to impose their worldview on you, those who tell you who you should be.
Refusing to follow the most common of rules is the first step in being who you want to be. The truly remarkable individuals often frustrate others with their outlandish behavior and open disregard for rules, but are free in ways most people can’t even conceive.
The crowd often both fears and admires the unconventional authenticity of the extraordinary, but sometimes it happens that the crowd either loves or hates those who are unapologetically themselves.
One such example is Charles Bukowski.
A poet, a degenerate gamble, a womanizer, and an alcoholic, Bukowski was the type of person you either loved or loathed.
If you are who you are, without fear of being ridiculed, without need for validation, you are going to act as a spotlight on other’s own fear of assuming responsibility for who they are.
Bukowksi’s rare authenticity and courage to wear his flaws openly made a lot of people dislike him. He insisted on being himself and lived his life in such a way that it made it easy for people to hate him for who he was.
After all, he wasn’t wiling to pretend to be someone else, just so they could accept him.
This is the paradox of standing out. We are often afraid of rejection, yet those who are most rejected by society are those who, out of their desire to be loved by everyone, pretend to be someone they’re not.
Find Your Own Fire
“To be nobody but
yourself in a world
which is doing its best day and night to make you like
everybody else means to fight the hardest battle
which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”
― e.e. cummings
An often overlooked aspect of establishing an identity that isn’t tied to a definition that is imposed by society is the fact that you need your own fire.
Both Ali and Bukowski dedicated their lives to their craft. Self-confidence is the side-effect of being competent enough.
Going against the grain is a battle, and it’s far from an easy battle, and for this reason you need to work on developing a set of skills that will constantly test you against your own self.
If you want to stand out, you not only have to forget about your desire to blend in, but also stop competing and comparing yourself with other people.
The most extraordinary among us are powered from within, their ambition fueled by a desire to become better than who they were yesterday.
They climb to the top of the mountain because they are curious as to whether or not they can do it, not because they want to be above everyone else.
In order to be your most authentic self, you have to stop trying to compete with everyone else.
In other words, the goal isn’t to be number one, the goal is to be the only one.
The voice inside of us matters more than the million whispers we hear, matters more than the rules the world tries to throw on top of us, and it’s worth fighting to establish a human self that you can be proud of, even if it makes people angry, or bitter, or even aggressive towards you.
If you look within, you will find there all that you need to build a self that is capable of living a life that excites you. Within yourself you will find all the reasons you need to embark on the strange and perilous odyssey of becoming unapologetically yourself.
Find your fire, becomes so good they can’t ignore you, and then you will slowly become so interesting they can’t help but either love you or hate you.
And never forget that people don’t react negatively to what you do, but rather to how you act about what you do.
You could be the best in the world at your passion, but if you walk around with a question mark above your head, guess what answer the crowd is going to give you?
Did Ali ever ask the crowd whether he was the best or not?
If you stand for what you believe in, without the need to aggressively compete with others, you will soon be perceived not the as number one, but as the only one.