Originally featured at the Huffington Post.
No matter if you are in business, education, or the arts, you have probably been told, “try to be more like that person.” You’ve been told be more like that person who sleeps only four hours a night, is extra good at math, or is super out-going like that annoying waiter from Office Space. However, chances are that you need to sleep, you aren’t a math pro, and you aren’t super out-going. And chances are, you’re never going to be that person.
So you’ve got a choice. You can either be the half-assed version of the “model of success,” or you can choose to be the best version of yourself by capitalizing on and refining your own natural skills and talents.
As individuals and as a society, we need to realize that diversity comes in many different forms, includingmental, social and physical skills. People can improve these skills, but many skills are rooted in one’s genetics and educational background, so there’s a limit to improvement in many of these categories – especially when time and money are scarce.
Now this is not to say that people shouldn’t address their weaknesses or abandon learning basic skills. But it does mean that individuals and our society need to recognize that people have different skills.
The proposition that both individuals and society as a whole should embrace diversity is not just some hippie idea. Diversity is a core idea behind both free market capitalism and scientific inquiry. As a business researcher I live in a world where professors actively disagree with each other and symbolically give each other the middle finger through academic journal articles, diverse methodologies, and innovative strategies. The growing field of business sciences and behavioral economics thrives, because it lets these people disagree and be themselves.
Not everyone can be the “model of success.” And nobody who is a “model of success” can do everything (or at least very few can). Finding your niche is maybe the most important thing you can do to be successful. And in the end, it’s probably a lot more fun to be striving to be the best version of yourself than trying to become a half-assed version of “Perfect Peter” over in the next cubicle.
In fact, people derive a lot of pleasure from obtaining “optimal distinctiveness.” That is, the state of being different but not too different from their peers. Companies who force employees into a single mindset ruin people’s (especially westerners’) strong needs for individualism and distinctiveness.
Additionally, people enjoy their work more and are often most productive when they enter into a state of “flow.”Flow is characterized by being pushed to one’s own limits, not another person’s limits, such that one can experience the immersive joy of being challenged, but not overwhelmed.
Research on flow is part of a body of research that shows that often what’s best for employees is what’s best for employers. This is especially true in the modern era when people’s jobs require creativity and a lot of mental activity. Studies show that constant quality work breaks, vacations, and weekends off improve productivity, because they keep the mind clear and healthy. The computer and tech giant Google is so successful partially because it treats employees like people not machines. Google and other companies recognize that people have physical and mental limitations and most importantly that people are different from one another — and that being different is not a bad thing, it’s something to embrace.
Google makes sure to let employees be creative and be themselves. We should all make sure to do the same for ourselves and those we work with.