Blame Seth Godin and his darn Purple Cow.
If you really want to insult someone these days, call them ordinary. Or, mother forgive me, average.
Clearly, the last thing on earth you want to be is … like everyone else.
So people struggle hard to differentiate themselves. Mothers ache to give their kids a leg up in the world by gifting them with a unique baby name.
If you work in marketing or sales, you go to bed every night refining your unique selling proposition (USP). The concept is vital if you want customers to pick your toothpaste over Colgate, or your yoga studio versus the one 30 minutes away that also offers Pilates.
But with the explosion of social media and personal branding, these ideas have spilled over into every kind of business, including your personal business.
Want to convince the coach he should move you from the bench to the field? Try a USP. Interviewing for jobs? You won’t get hired without a USP. Worried about getting trapped in the elevator with the CEO for 60 seconds before he drafts the next round of layoffs? Better have a USP in your back pocket.
Before you know it, women will demand their boyfriends produce a USP instead of ring prior to agreeing to marriage.
I like being creative, but this focus on being unique is getting out of hand. Let’s stop the madness right now.
It turns out there’s a huge benefit to being similar. Let me show you how to tap it.
Celebrate your sameness
One of the best ways to get your friend to actually read the book you’re loaning her is to say something like, “If you enjoy Malcolm Gladwell, you’re going to love this book!”
One of the worst things you can say is, “You’ve never read anything like this!” Your friend will probably say “Huh,” raise her eyebrows, and then let the book sit on her coffee table for a few months until you ask for it back.
Twitter suggests users you might want to follow based on the people already in your stream. Amazon and ebay both recommend great new products based on what’s already gone in your shopping cart.
Apparently, there’s a lot of money to be made from similarity.
It applies to job hires as well. People put a ton of effort into differentiating themselves on their resume, but if you don’t have a referral from someone who works in the company, you’re already at a disadvantage.
Why? Bosses are basically responding to the same pitch as the loaned book: Do you value Mary’s work? Then you’re going to love her recommended new hire, Bob!
The trick is not to make yourself different from everyone else, but to make yourself similar to something really, really good. Trust me, there’s room in the world for more of the good stuff.
The power of numbers
Remember the band Devo? They were deliciously different and they still make for a good Halloween costume.
But they didn’t have the impact of someone like Kurt Cobain. I’ll argue the difference wasn’t talent, but the very idea they were uncopyable.
Imagine, for example, a man on a street corner with a megaphone. He could have some really powerful things to say, but more than likely, he won’t have the same influence as a pack of protestors. And while we tend to idolize the protest organizer (or leader) the point is that every one of those protestors plays a key role.
When one person walks away, the entire group loses power.
The “different” campaign led us to believe if we weren’t leading, we weren’t succeeding. Instead of searching for the next great thing to unleash on the world (or your management), try lending your talents and voice to someone who’s already working on a good idea. You’ll generate a lot of goodwill in addition to upping your chances of making a real impact.
Sometimes what we need to give is bigger than ourself.
The more we like something, the more we want
I used to live in Dayton, Ohio. It’s your typical midwestern town in the U.S., where you’d expect the populace to be conservative, meat-and-potatoes kind of people. No purple cows here!
Then I noticed something funny. In addition to your regular staple of burger joints like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s, a whole new crop was popping up. First it was Five Guys, then Smashburger, and then E/O Burger (short for Extraordinary Burger).
Not only was this an atypical market for “gourmet” burgers, but the places were thriving. It wasn’t unusual to go to one and find a line out the door … for a burger!
And I had to admit, every time I went to one of the new burger joints, I was more inclined to try out the others. Apparently I wasn’t alone. Competition wasn’t driving down business, it was enhancing it.
Someone told me once you never want to open a pizza joint in a town that doesn’t already have one. That’s not just a lesson for entrepreneurs.
Find what people love (whether it’s your boss or your grandmother) and give them more of the same. They’ll eat it up. Literally.
It’s all been done before anyway
We love to celebrate trend-setters: Apple, Amazon, The Beatles, Richard Branson, Madonna. We love their foresight, their courage, and most of all, their ability to shape the world they entered.
Did you catch that? The world they entered. Very few, if any of them, had a truly novel idea.
People took Godin’s Purple Cow at face value. They thought purple was the important part.
Godin urges us to be remarkable, not necessarily different. If you can take the same old thing, polish it up, and make it shine, do that.
End the angst over being different. Stop shucking the oysters of your talent in search of the elusive black pearl.
What your mother told you on the day you were born is still true: you’re already as unique as you need to be.
Now go do something about it.