Should You Be Out on Your Own, or Part of the Herd?

Hugh MacLeod’s great daily newsletter (which you should subscribe to here) had this cartoon today:

Don’t try to stand out from the crowd, avoid crowds altogether.

In the commentary, he acknowledges that this might not align with the fantastic work that Mark Earls has been doing over the past few years. The basic point that Earls is working very hard to get across is that we are not independent actors – when we choose things we are inevitably influenced by others. He has discussed this in two terrific books, which I highly recommend – Herd and I’ll Have What She’s Having (co-authored by Alex Bentley and Michael J. O’Brien). Here is what he said in a recent post discussing the new book:

…we all spend most of our lives in a world of other people (Freud famously quipped that we can never escape the Other) and much of what we do we do in imitation of other people or at least following the example of others (and not as the result of independent decisions, whatever we tell ourselves, our spouses, our therapists and any passing market researcher).

[There is a] much bigger insight into human nature that the science highlights: we are a fundamentally social creature, one evolved largely for a world of others like ourselves (and not for isolated, independent lives); we live almost all of our lives in the company of others (in the modern idiom, that we are always embedded in social networks of our peers. Most of what we do, we do in the company and under the shadow of other people – under the influence of others, if you like.

These two viewpoints lead to an issue that MacLeod frames like this:

But there’s a paradox: it’s hard to be any use to the crowd, until you’ve learned how to stand alone.

These guys are two of the best thinkers about business around right now. So while this is indeed a paradox, I’m not sure that it’s either/or, but rather it may be a both/and situation.

You do have to be apart from the crowd to be successful, but at the same time you have to understand how you’re connected to it. How? There are two ways. One is to be connected to a smaller part of the crowd – as Seth Godin says, a tribe. So maybe you end up with a little cluster of blue squiggles down in the corner.

Alternately, maybe you think of it in network terms – the way to keep in touch with the crowd is through a series of weak ties. You could redraft MacLeod’s drawing to look like this:

It’s less catchy, but maybe we should say:

Don’t try to stand out from the crowd, avoid crowds altogether – just make sure you have some links back.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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7 thoughts on “Should You Be Out on Your Own, or Part of the Herd?

  1. Herd was a great book. We are, indeed, social animals. Even when completely isolated, the herd still influences us – through its absence.

    In this instance, I see standing out and avoiding the crowd an illustration of thoughtful action more than physical presence.

    Standing out in the crowd might mean thinking differently, but avoiding the crowd (read: groupthink?) might be taking action contrary to the herd.

    We don’t need to spend time as hermits, but we need the courage to do things we believe in, regardless of what everyone around us might think. It’s all cyclical. We are both input and output.

    7Bn people on the planet. If each of us is one-in-a-million, there are likely 7,000 of each of us. Assuming only 1/8 the world’s landmass is habitable, I come up with a population density of 1-in-a-million per 7.2M sq-mi (18.75M km^2).

    What crowd? :P

  2. I am Normal.

    Herds don’t stand; they flow. We move along like a raft in a river.

    If you run with the herd, you will disappear. If you try to stand still, the herd will run you over or leave you behind. Any attempt to run against it is simply futile.

    However, we can exploit one degree of freedom! We can move Normal to the flow. Perpendicular. Right Angle. Orthogonal. We can accept the flow, and allow the flow to influence us, and yet still reach our goals. We can ford a stream, or cross a river, without fighting the flow.

    Innovators build the bridge for others to cross. And then “here comes everyone” across the bridge. A new flow develops, followed by a new normal.

    Rick DeWitt
    Mad Scientist, because Mad is Normal.

  3. That’s a beautiful comment Rick – thanks!

    You should read We Are All Weird by Seth Godin. It has some pretty useful reflections on normal, and what it means to be normal these days. Definitely worth the short time it takes to read.