Different is synonymous with great. The people around us who stand out usually are great, so it makes sense to connect the two ideas.
I asked my girlfriend recently, "Who comes to mind when I say the words: radically different?" One of the first names she mentioned was Martin Luther King, Jr.
I didn't ask who she thought made a significant impact. I didn't ask who she thought of when I said revolutionary or influential. No, not that. I asked her who was different. Dr. King, I must admit, was a unique man, but that probably wouldn't be the first word I use to describe him. I would call him a leader. Historic. Great.
The more I thought about it, though, the more it makes sense. For example, Coco Chanel was historic, great; a visionary. So were Ronnie O'Sullivan, Patrice O'Neal, and Warren Buffett. They were all the best (or close to the top) in their respective fields, but the underlying current is clear:
They're all radically different.
Chanel: Root yourself in philosophy, not the times.
Coco Chanel wasn't just a fashion designer, she was a philosopher. One of the first to embrace men's clothing on a woman's body, she had a penchant for breaking the norms.
However, she wasn't just trying to make a fashion statement—she was staying true to what she believed in. She felt equal to the men around her and guided her life as well as any man could. This was a belief held in the early 1900s, a much different time for women, but it was her philosophy and her principle.
This influenced her taste and innovative spirit for fashion much more than considerations of what would sell or what the rest of the world thought. People who are carried by the winds of the times or by fads and styles are never radically different, though they may be hip. It won't last, and they'll always be playing catch-up.
"In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different." - Coco Chanel
Ronnie O'Sullivan: Work harder than everyone else.
The felt has to feel like home to play a game like snooker at a high level. For those of you who don't know snooker: take an American pool table, add a foot or two (or three) to each side of the table, make the balls a little smaller, and shrink the pockets, too.
That's snooker, and it's much more difficult than 8 or 9-ball in the United States.
Ronnie O'Sullivan, however, plays the game with the fluidity and confidence of a man unchallenged. He clears the table in record time and controls the white ball as if it's under a spell. It's incredible to watch; even more so when you realize you can't reproduce it.
Rocket Ronnie isn't the best for no reason. He's been playing since he was a small child in bars with his father. All he's known for the majority of his adolescent and adult life is snooker. I would guess he's spent more of his life playing snooker than sleeping.
With more reps and more practice comes more skill. Of course, you have to train yourself and be critical of technique and strategy. If you repeat the same mistakes over and over, you won't get any better. You'll improve your muscle memory to make the same mistakes.
However, if you know the fundamentals and know how to self-correct and coach yourself, it's time to bear down and practice more than anyone else. Nobody can touch Ronnie O'Sullivan when he's at his peak, because he's worked harder than everyone else. To us, it's godlike, but it's a matter of practice—not providence.
Patrice O'Neal: Maintain your freedom.
Some comedians today will tell you that Patrice O'Neal was the most talented comic ever to live. He's up there with names like Richard Pryor, if not surpassing. But you probably haven't heard of Patrice even though he's renowned in comedy circles.
In large part, this is because Patrice didn't do anything he didn't believe in. He verbally abused showbiz executives for being miserable and made fun of them like he did anyone else. He walked the walk, once denying a quadrupled salary from VH1 to continue a web series.
The fact that he didn't care about making tons of money or becoming world-famous enabled him to say whatever he pleased. He didn't owe anything to anybody. While other comedians were forced to hold press conferences to act like they were sorry for jokes they made, Patrice appeared on Fox News defending even the worst of them on live television, saying things I'd prefer not to repeat in writing.
He gave himself a license to be different. Though he may not have used it for good all the time, you can, and it'll make you a lot happier if you do. If you have a controlling boss, you have to find a way to deleverage their power against you. If you owe tons of money, you'll be controlled by that debt until it's gone. There's nothing worse than losing your freedom.
"You have to not be afraid to take a loss to get your point across." - Patrice O'Neal
Buffett: Default to different.
As an investor, you can't move do what the market does without thinking. Reading Warren Buffett's shareholders letters, you'll get the sense that he knows his actions are a bit contrarian. He looks at the market as irrational with no intention of following blindly. In fact, he caricatures it "Mr. Market," and gives the ridiculous man a persona. He knows Mr. Market won't lead him anywhere.
That's served him well, to say the least. For one, Berkshire Hathaway stock, according to the 2017 annual report, is up 2,404,748% since 1964. By defaulting to different rather than following market movements, he saved himself in times of panic when the fundamentals of the market hadn't changed. When everyone else gets too excited—irrationally exuberant—he becomes cautious.
It takes resolve to do that. If every market expert on television says you should buy a particular stock, you have to be strong to avoid that temptation. Warren Buffett has done that, and by investing differently, has become one of the wealthiest men on the planet.
"Mr. Market has another endearing characteristic: He doesn’t mind being ignored. If his quotation is uninteresting to you today, he will back with a new one tomorrow. Transactions are strictly at your option. Under these conditions, the more manic-depressive his behavior, the better for you." - Warren Buffett
A final note on being different
I'm not sure whether or not different is an end or a means. You might be able to argue it either way and to be honest, I don't know which side of that coin I'm on. However, will say that if you want to be a contrarian because it makes you seem cool, then that might not work out as well as it has for the people mentioned.
There's no rule saying you have to strive for different. There's also no rule that makes being different a bad thing to do. You can live a quiet life while holding firm to your philosophy or beliefs. You can still work hard even if you're not on a global sports stage.
You could also not work hard and have no value system. You could submit to everyone and have no autonomy, and you could just follow the crowd it's decisions. You could be the complete opposite of different.
But how much fun would that be?