Scott H Young

Nonconformers Need Better Social Skills


A few readers have emailed me, following my own self-education, whether they should drop out of college and learn on their own. If you’re smart, you can probably learn better on your own, so it’s not an unreasonable question.

Unfortunately, it’s a really hard question to answer. If you plan on becoming a surgeon, licensed engineer or lawyer, you need a degree. For entrepreneurs or programmers, the value of a piece of paper is murkier.

But these limitations ignore a bigger one: most people suck at marketing themselves. Even if a degree isn’t a prerequisite to competing in your field, the advantage of credentials is that they do the signalling work for you. The more unconventional you are, the less you can leverage positive stereotypes to define yourself.

Does the World Punish Nonconformity?

Bryan Caplan thinks so. He wonders why employees don’t offer free trial periods of their work, to encourage employers to hire them. Yes, there’s a risk you won’t get paid, but that risk is balanced against being unemployed.

Bryan thinks the reason is being unconventional in the hiring process sends a bad signal. If you’re good, why offer a return policy on your services? Breaking the rules here might mean you’ll break the company’s policies, not take direction or be unable to fit into a team. Being weird can hurt you.

If you graduate from a great school, you’re signalling intelligence. But you’re also signalling your ability to conform. Pursuing a self-education may show people you’re smart, but also that you don’t have the patience to obey the rules when needed. Even if many employers say they want creative geniuses, most really want obedient workers.

The world mostly punishes nonconformity. If we see people who are different, we almost always shun them instead of admiring them. The great men and women of history, who heralded new discoveries and ways of thinking, were more often met with pitchforks than with praise.

Being Weird as Risk-Taking

I’m definitely not normal, and I think my eccentricities have helped me greatly. So the fact that society punishes nonconformity, in general, doesn’t mean we’ll all be better as sheep. Instead, I’d like to argue two things:

  1. The world tends to punish nonconformity. All else being equal, it’s easier to be mediocre and normal, than mediocre and weird.
  2. These constraints mean a lot of conventional behavior is highly inefficient. If you pick the right moments to be an outsider, you can reap huge gains in your life.

Nonconformity is a form of risk taking. You move away from the fat middle of the bell curve and onto the edges, where both extreme successes and spectacular failures lie.

Social Norms and Unconventionality

Much of social skills is simply being normal. Not “normal” in the sense that you need to have conventional hobbies, interests or beliefs. Instead, I mean “normal” in that you follow social norms—you make eye contact when speaking to people, you’re not overly arrogant or meek, you speak at the right volume. Most people who are “weird” break these unstated norms in ways we often can’t articulate.

Scientists have known for some time that what we consider beauty is mostly looking normal. Beautiful people have more averaged faces, their faces and bodies have fewer deviations from symmetry. This underlies a lot of the more variable appreciation of beauty which depend on fashion and culture.

This suggests that what we think might be an exceptional trait, such as beauty, may actually be the result of lacking major deviations from normalness. I think social skills is mostly normalness, overlaid with extroversion. We see people as charming, largely, because they make fewer social mistakes than the rest of us.

This is why I believe charismatic leaders and speakers can get away with being so weird in many other ways. Their social skills allow them to appear “normal” on a subconscious level in so many ways that their eccentricity doesn’t matter. If your unconscious communication builds rapport with me, I care less that your higher-level weirdness sets us apart.

My friends who are extremely successful (and unusual on many dimensions) tend to have excellent social skills. Their on-paper weirdness is more than compensated by their charm.

The Rewards of Being Different

Of my friends, it’s the weirder ones that are the happiest. They earn more money, have more adventures and lead more interesting lives. Part of that might be because they’ve found some opportunities they can exploit by avoiding the herd.

But I suspect much of it is that these people have embraced enough unconventionality in their lives, that they’ve learned to offset its costs. That gives them a freedom to be themselves in a way that people who haven’t learned those skills cannot.


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28 Responses to “Nonconformers Need Better Social Skills”

  1. You’ve nailed it! I totally agree with this, but wouldn’t have articulated the concept of social skill vs. weirdness so well. I’m “weird” in plenty of ways, and many of them by choice. I don’t rebel against conventions for the sake of it, but if conventions don’t fit in with my personality and my purpose, then I ignore them.

    It’s never easy, but it is easier because I am an extrovert, and the social skills – as you have described – has an considerable impact on how people view and accept my weirdness.

  2. Kim says:

    Interesting point. I guess it’s part of what differentiates nonconformers who are successful and those who aren’t. That and if they’re extremely good at what they do.

    The topic of social skills and nonconformers reminds me of Cal Newport’s “Beyond Passion: The Science of Loving What You Do.” (http://calnewport.com/blog/2010/01/23/beyond-passion-the-science-of-loving-what-you-do/) I think the social skill aspect might fall under ‘relatedness’ category of the Self-Determination Theory as part of the leveraging strategy.

  3. Ben says:

    Hi Scott,
    Your observation – that people who are eccentric but have good social skills help them build rapport with peers – is interesting and insightful. And that is perhaps what an eccentric person should practice in order for him to navigate himself well in the social side of the world. I am curious as to how this idea was formed. Could you share with us how you gained this particularly rare insight/idea?

  4. Glori says:

    You make a good point. Sometimes though, the “weird” ones (including myself) use the “this is the way I am” card and we end up being labeled more as weird.
    What I’ve learned is that we should also make the effort to conform even just a little bit if we are to expect other people to make the effort to understand our “weirdness”.

  5. Derek says:

    Hey Scott,

    I liked how you pointed out the bell curve analogy. That’s exactly what I was thinking before I read up to that point. By not conforming, it’s harder to succeed, but much, much more rewarding when you do.

    It’s definitely true that you have to go out of your way socially and make your own paths when not relying on your degree. One way in which I do this is something you touched on: I always offer a 100% money back guarantee in any freelancing/consulting work I do.

    The way I see it, I’m confident in my work and if the client isn’t satisfied, I don’t want their money anyways. I’ve closed more deals as a result of this and have never once had someone ask for a refund. I did voluntarily give a refund twice when certain metrics weren’t met, but both times the client would have been satisfied without it.

    I learned years ago when first getting into online direct marketing that you can, and should, offer wild money back guarantees, sometimes even double or triple money back. The net positive effect from doing this far outweighs the negative. Most people are just stuck in a scarcity mindset or are worried they will get taken advantage of.

    Anyways, good write up. Lot’s of things to think about here.

  6. Monica says:

    I think this advise could probably be succinctly summarised into “don’t be as asshole”. This is a contentious point, I am sure, but I have found too many non-conformists take on their non-conformism as some sort of badge of identity, a symbol of their uniqueness and superiority over the “sheeple”. Non-conformists are generally hyper-intelligent, unfortunately, this also breeds arrogance and an inability to genuinely listen to or work with people they consider their intellectual inferiors (which tends to be just about everyone else). Charming non-conformists succeed because they can not conform without making others feel belittled not because they have some magic secret elixir of charisma. Charm is more about how you can make people feel about themselves than how you can make people feel about you and a little humility and genuine interest in others go a long way – mixed with passion and real talent, it is a magic combination.

  7. ALeftie says:

    Resonate with you.
    I’ve always been a nonconformist. And I can’t be happier when I do things in my own way.
    The World punishes nonconformity for sure. But we’re not victims. We just need better social skills. I am already training myself.
    Thanks for this post.

  8. Jeff says:

    As usual, you are remarkably insightful, Scott. To note that we are judged by others not by our deeds but by our appearance is something I find very few individuals even realize. Most don’t even realize there’s a difference between reality and their mind’s opinions and interpretations! :)

    I would like to rephrase one of your statements, though: It is easier to be less-than-mediocre and normal than it is to be excellent and weird.

    The reason I say this is from being autistic. Since I am socially awkward in several ways, such as my body language being “abnormal,” I don’t have the option of being charming to cover up my weirdness. For most individuals, the weirdness is where they stop observing.

    The result of that interplay is that there is a black and white categorization of people that I can count on: 1) those that judge and with whom I will be infinitely challenged to communicate with and 2) those that understand that interpretations are not equal to reality and who will, sooner or later, see past my weirdnesses to see my actual character and capabilities. This second class of people I find I can very easily communicate with, depending on how quickly they get past their interpretations.

    So, at the end of the day, my options in the world are set by other’s choice either to reject or to (at least) tolerate me. The reason being, of course, that social charm is really something I stopped aspiring to a long time ago. It’s just too much work to mechanically indoctrinate all the unspoken (I assert unknown in most cases, or at least not examined) rules that would engender that interpretation of charm from others.

    I’m curious, with social charm being off the table to someone like me, what other options might you see to pursue in getting past the social judgements of others?

    Personally, I believe it’s high time humanity as a whole learned the differences between factual reality and their mind’s interpretations, as I encounter very few people who even realize there is a difference. In my experience, every person who learns this very basic distinction of critical thinking is capable of getting past social judgments. No one would think credibly of attempting to change how the world operates, however, so I continue to search for other options.

  9. Lauren says:

    When I was growing up I was shy esp. in school; so I became a bookworm reading everything. I had opinions about things that my classmates didn’t even think about. Being shy and/or introverted, my social skills weren’t the best. But over the years, I watched other people and put myself out there. I’m still interested in and read about all kinds of things, but I’ve learned not to bring those subjects up unless the conversation touches on them. Even then, I’ve learned that sounding like a preacher or lecturer makes one sound arrogant. I’ve learned to make my interests sound interesting. @Monica, I have a nephew who fits your description to a T: he’s loud, arrogant, argumentative, butts into conversations, and doesn’t know the difference between an opinion and a fact(though he thinks he does). He also thinks he’s “too good” to take a job(he’s been unemployed for over a year) that he considers menial. On top of all that, he doesn’t think he has problems.

  10. Rhkennerly says:

    Depends on the education, doesn’t it? Generally education shows you can persevere over the long haul, disciplining your mind & your body, juggling multiple tasks & deadlines.

    Specifically, the right education gives you breadth & depth of knowledge & experience. Exposure to different ideas, approaches, & people.

    The most nonstandard, creative, talented & effective people I know are PhDs.

  11. t.p says:

    Like Jeff said above, we function in a society that does not value “outsiders” unless in a very specific context in which their weirdness/uniqueness is recognized and valued. This applies to race, gender etc. too. So having said that, that would be a good next blog post- how do you accept your gifts if you are hyper aware of them being non conformist? Also how can you transform those nonconforming offsets into something that can allow you to be yourbest, provide value to others? so you are no longer seen as worth ignoring or judging? And instead seen as providing something meaningful to others. I think a list of ideas would be great, anything to help people struggling against what our brains have been indoctrinated with as “not normal” etc.

  12. HesSoPhamous says:

    So how to the weirdos, like me develop these skills?

  13. Nick says:

    Scott, a very engaging, articulate and insightful read.

    When I seen the title of this article I felt quite lucky, however having read the article and comments I thought I’d throw this into the mix.

    Interestingly I see myself being sat in the middle of this social seesaw. Either side is me ‘The Norm’ and me ‘The Non-Conformist’ and 60% of the time I’d say I’m smack bag in the middle. But depending on the extent of my focus, enthusiasm and lust for ‘living vs working’ I can slide either way the rest of the time.

    I’m becoming more aware of this all the time, however it’s very clear from looking at my diverse lifestyle, differing circles of friends that this is the case. In fact this has very probably contributed to the diverse, dynamic and multi-disciplinary set up of our studio and the contradictory clean and simple approach to our work.

    That said I’d say all of my friends would see me in the same light and as the same person. In other words, I’m pretty sure I’m not a psychitzophrenic, but maybe just discovering my work / life balance and my social stereotype.

    Any further comments on this would be appreciated. :)

  14. […] faite par mes soins, de l’article en anglais que vous pouvez trouver en cliquant sur ce lien. Il ne m’appartient en aucun cas. Cependant, si vous utilisez cette version française, […]

  15. Rebecca says:

    Hi Scott,

    I loved this post.

    I think that, when it comes to acting in a way that is “non-conformist” or unusual when trying to sell something (yourself to a potential employer, a potential client, etc.), the key is to think of everything from their perspective — in other words, while offering free work might seem to be shiny, who hasn’t had a terrible experience with something that was free or cheap.

    But, if you go ahead and invest time upfront to do something that DEMONSTRATES your ability in an arena that they want you to excel at (for example, designing your resume to their brand, if you are a graphic designer), then I think that it would be a beneficial unusual action.

    Thus, I would say that non-conformists need to have a higher ability to empathize with others (their target audiences).

  16. Lisa Johnson says:

    Okay but living on the edge and either utterly failing or succeeding greatly is exhausting. I’ve been homeless, I’ve been successful. I’ve never been happy.

  17. Gregory says:

    Hi Scott,

    Great post and a good reminder for us weirdos. :)

    I agree on many points. Social skills are really important for success in life. Yes, it’s hard to be a nonconformist for the most part. And I think it’s true that self-education isn’t always the best choice.

    I have to disagree on some points though. From all the charismatic people I have witnessed, most of them do small quirky things that set them apart from the rest of us. These are often small things, like pronouncing “sausage” in the French way, or having weird glasses. But they can be large things too, like contesting the most prevalent opinion on a given field (a common tactic for “gurus”). It seems they play an important part in their charisma. I’m not to say they’re oddballs though, they are normal in other respects.

    I think the key is “pacing and leading”, a term I borrow from NLP. You cannot lead other people, if you haven’t conformed to them to some extent. You need balance. But if you want to be a LEADER, you need to show them a direction. You have to be different in some sort of way.

    Charismatic people don’t hide their weaknesses. That includes weirdness. It says “I’m similar to you — but different.” Or “I can even get away with this”. Think about all the crazy things stars do. They seem really outrageous at first but sometimes it becomes a worldwide phenomenon.

    You’re right that you have to choose well the things you can be weird at. For example, I interviewed three really distinguished biologists two months ago. They are pretty normal when compared to other research people. But they had (at least) one thing common: they all had the guts to question important theories at their fields, theories other people considered as sacred cows at the time.

    I don’t think conformity causes the absence of free trial periods in work. It’s fear, lack of security that might be accountable. I live in Hungary, and many entrepreneurs are VERY reluctant to offer a 100% money back guarantee on anything. Unless, of course, other people in their industry are already doing it. But a trial version or a money back guarantee almost always results in more profits, not less. I read somewhere that Apogee was the first computer game firm to offer demos of their games. They were really afraid to do it first, but now everyone does the same. So other people, who are not even entrepreneurs, might be much more afraid to do so.

    I have a friend who had a job at Microsoft this way. The leader of MS Hungary was sort of his hero. He went into his office, and invited him for a coffee. Then he offered to work for him for free, just to be able to watch him in action. A month later he was hired. I used this tactic once with success. It certainly depends on what industry you are in. Also, in the US, it might be harder to just go to the office of a leader and make an appointment. But it works here, might work elsewhere.

    Your post was really thought provoking, thank you. I think it’s even better than being just informative.

    Regards,
    Greg

  18. George Millo says:

    A common thing I’ve heard from super-successful people (not just entrepreneurs) is that the most important skills are people skills, no matter what field you work in. After all, people do business with people they like.

    I think that one of the big failures of the current education system is that it completely glosses over these kind of ‘soft’ skills. In fact, if anything it teaches us (implicitly at least) that we _don’t_ need them, that all we need to do is get better at our specific craft – become a better doctor, programmer, guitarist, whatever – and we’ll automatically become successful at it too. When actually, success in a craft and skill in that craft don’t always correlate. Some people who are really skilled in certain endeavours still struggle to make ends meet, and some people who aren’t particularly good at what they do have still managed to wrangle their way to riches.

    I’m basically paraphrasing all of this from The Education of Millionaires by Michael Ellsberg (I’ve mentioned it to you before I think Scott), which is a really good book about all this and explores what the skills are that you need for success, separate from the ‘hard’ skills of a particular trade. Three big ones Ellsberg hits upon are marketing, sales and networking, which I suppose are all just different shades of the same thing – people skills.

    Far more important to me than getting my degree at the moment is trying to network with useful people (through student societies, online, whatever) and learn about marketing and sales. They say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, but I don’t see why I should wait until graduation to start worrying about who I know.

    (I hate the word networking though, it has sleazy connotations I think. I prefer to think of it as just relationship building.)

  19. Adam Isom says:

    Scott, I keep coming back to your blog because I love it, including this article.

    At the end, you say “I suspect much of it is that these people have embraced enough unconventionality in their lives, that they’ve learned to offset its costs.” Could you clarify what you mean? (I feel like this might have been important to what you’re trying to say.)

  20. Agota says:

    I definitely agree that non-conformists need better social skills.

    Non-conformity is often a trait that is visible from childhood, and it’s usually punished by society, especially by relatives and in places like high school, etc. This leads to people who aren’t that “normal” get in the habit of pushing back (..acting out, being arrogant, get into arguments, etc.) in order to survive under the daily pressure. The problem is that this habit often follows them into an adult life and makes them simply unpleasant to deal with, since they carry that perception that everyone is attacking them and that they need to prove something to someone. It takes a lot of self-awareness to solve issues that come from formative years.

    Also, people with lack of social skills tend to look down on social skills, because they often have bad associations with them (aka the popular jock or the popular girl who’s a total bitch who bullied you in high school). They unconsciously think that if they will acquire social skills, they’ll also acquire qualities they associate with them, like bitchiness or arrogance. They take pride in their lack of social skills, the same way that people who think that money is evil take pride in struggling financially, since “we might be poor, but at least we’re good people”.

    It’s sad that people don’t realize how important social skills really are and how much they miss out by not developing excellent social skills :(

  21. […] Nonconformers Need Better Social Skills « Scott H Young […]

  22. John Paton says:

    Hi Scott,

    I’m trying to figure out whether the fact that people with the best social skills simply tend to be the most normal has any implications for how we pursue personal development.

    Recently, I read about a machine called cleverbot– cleverbot.com– which tries to pass itself as human by responding to random questions. The way that the bot works is: 1) It stores all the previous conversations it has had with people, then 2) it sorts through the patterns of these conversations to find the best response for the situation.

    So far this machine has had one of the best records on the turing test (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_test). This result seems to hint at a similar phenomenon to what you are exploring in this post. The best social skills seem to represent the average of what people do.

    This makes me wonder whether approaching personal development by only studying the big achievers might be a poor approach. Perhaps averaging what everyone does is only a local truth that works with social skills. But then again there is the possibility that things like the best golf swing, the most efficient memory tactics, or the best way to problem solve can also be determined by averaging out lots of people.

    I think that this is at least plausible.

    If there’s a takeaway from this I think it’s that you shouldn’t get too focused on only understanding one example. The more examples you can expose yourself too, the better able you will be to learn a skill.

  23. Prince Sam says:

    Of a truth this article is truth.

    Superb truth indeed. Is condemnation to go by convention,what a limitation to the conversion of our well of potentials into creativity.
    Great post, I really marvel at the creativity of God’s creation

  24. Steven says:

    Steve,

    I think all your points are well taken. It really depends on the industry. Some industries, such as certain tech sectors, are full of more eccentric people and are more open minded. Some of them even highly value differences and creativity and test for them in the interview process. Other industries are more conventional and test for conformity.

    So not only does it matter whether you’re interested in a profession that simply requires a degree. But it matters if you’re going into a more traditional industry or an industry with more freethinkers.

  25. Scott Young says:

    Monica,

    Unfortunately a lot of successful nonconformists I know are assholes. Egomania, narcissism and success are not always found in different packages. I think you’re right, but I think general awkwardness hurts more than being a jerk.

    Jeff,

    I don’t think you can avoid it. Social skills matter. That doesn’t mean everyone will rise to that call by being cookie-cutter copies of each other. Being good socially doesn’t fit just one personality. But I think becoming the best version of yourself (particularly in your ability to deal with others) is crucial.

    Steven,

    Definitely–some areas like to look for eccentric genius, others want bland conformists.

    Adam,

    What I meant is that the more you push outside your comfort zone, the more you build mechanisms to compensate for the costs of being an outlier.

    John,

    The Turing test might be a bad example because the way it is defined, it almost forces more “averaged” responses to be more successful. If the computer did something very weird, that would stand out as making it less likely to be human, right?

    I think the element of social success occurs more on the subtle elements of communication, such as body language, eye contact, tone of voice, conversational pacing. For these, I’d say 90% of what makes up charm is being “average”.

    -Scott

  26. […] A very interesting read about the perils & advantages of nonconformity: Nonconformists Need Better Social Skills. […]

  27. Vincent says:

    Being weird is just being yourself and not conforming to the crowd’s ideal mentality and because of this, weird individuals develop their identity without the need for personal identification within a crowd. Perhaps this is why they are happier.

    ‘Weird’ people are usually introverts. ‘Weird’ to others because they enjoy lower-stimulation environments than extroverts do, they learn to cultivate the pleasures of solitude. Extroverts are usually initiative while introverts are ponderers and thinkers. It’s true that social skills are important and that introverts (weird people) should acquire and improve in this area of their life, but the extroverts (normal people) can also learn a lot from their introverts peers. ;) I am sure the key to success is to be able balance between the two.

    You should check out the book by Susan Cain entitled, ‘Quiet’. It’s a very nice book that touches a bit on what you wrote in this post.

  28. Johnny Mean says:

    Firstly, wicked post Scott!

    If you are a non-conformer and looking to improve your social skills. Guy Kawasaki’s book enchantment is a good read. It summarizes many resources out there and is easy to read with actionable items, not just theory.

    I am very unconventional to my approach in life and social situations. I have found that the unconventional successful people recognize that uniqueness as a source of strength and are quick to make allies.

    Turn an evening out into your own social experimentation lab and enjoy the process.

    Stay Frosty,
    @johnnymean

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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