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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