29 January 2006

Categories of One

Several of the people I’ve mentioned here belong in what I call “categories of one”: there is only one Richard Branson for example, and only one David Bowie—to pick two Englishmen of the same generation. It’s not merely that these men have not been successfully copied; they can not be copied. John Creasey, John Darnielle, Mike Leach, and John Boyd—each of them is, in some key way, uncopyable.

Actually, you could say that this commonality does puts them into one collective category. The point is that each of these people have the same basis for being amazing: differentation. It is a fundamental principle of entrepreneurship, and it leads to the most interesting careers.

Everyone talks about being “unique,” and surely each of us is unique in terms of our fingerprints, our ineffable experience of life, and so on. But the truth is that most people are not functionally unique. In fact, they’re quite easy to categorize: “salesman who’s into sports and his family”; “sad sack who can’t get a date despite his obvious attractive qualities”; “status-conscious SuperMom”; “silverback executive who insists on deference from others”; “mopy grad student”; “good-time girl”; or what have you. It’s not that these people lack the basis for doing some unique and individual, but that they do not, in practice, seize upon (or make) their opportunities to do so. The roots of this are probably various, but for many people it comes down to fear and discomfort when setting out on their own; it remains, for most people, much more comfortable to pursue the tried-and-true.

Most people pursue their careers this way, which helps to explain why so many people find their work boring and the progression of their careers so unsatisfying. The category-of-one folks, though, are pulled too strongly by their own unique vision, or their thirst to work out their internal tensions, to settle for less than an idiosyncratic path through their life and work. Mike Leach warmed the bench on his high school football team and took a highly unusual path to being a collegiate head coach. His greatest qualification for holding his job is an obsessive internal genius for the workings of football offense. Likewise, fighter pilots typically don’t promulgate important theories of military doctrine with profound applications for business strategies; that’s why John Boyd was John Boyd.

Lately I’ve seen a couple of interesting quotations in this vein. The first one, which I cannot find verbatim, is from Shaquille, who said, in essence, that you don’t want to work merely to be the best at what you do; rather, you want to carve out a spot for yourself so that you’re the only one who does what you do. He was, in other words, essentially paraphrasing Jerry Garcia, who said, “You do not merely want to be the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.” A good description of the Grateful Dead, to be sure.

This concept—being the only one who does what you do—has featured prominently in the systematic research done by Jim Collins. In his book Good to Great (which really does deserve its hype and monster sales), he puts forward what he calls the Hedgehog Concept. It is named after the distinction drawn by Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” In this extended metaphor, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. As he explains on his Web site, Collins believes that each company must identify that thing which it and it alone can do better than any other company in the world. All of the companies that made the transition from good to great in Collins’s study shared this trait, despite coming from a range of industries.

Shaquille and Jerry and Jim are all saying the same thing, which makes sense because what is true for great companies is also true for great rock bands and for outstanding individual performers, in sports or elsewhere. But again, we’re not taught to think of our lives this way. We are taught, by and large, to minimize our risks—the risk of bankruptcy, the risk of being unemployable, the risk of being too different for the audience to grasp. At some level, this is pragmatic as a lowest-common-denominator strategy, since many people do lack the talent or the mindset to pursue this course—they actually are better off sticking with the tried-and-true.

But does this apply to most people? And more to the point, does it apply to you? I doubt it. Most people, if they will try, can carve out a niche for themselves, even if they only ever become “famous” within the confines of their own company, their own department, their own church, or whatever. Moreover, I believe that most people want this; they want to be known for some little thing, at least, that sets them apart from the mainstream, even if only in the safest of psychological contexts.

One of my favorite category-of-one types, someone I have taken as an inspiration, is Keith Ferrazzi. The short version of Ferrazzi’s career is that he’s the son of a working-class family who used his chutzpah, smarts, and hard work to become one of the greatest connectors in the business world. I could tell you more about him, but I would only be cribbing from this terrific Tahl Raz article in Inc. magazine. Raz went on to collaborate with Ferrazzi on a book, Never Eat Alone. The book is well worth your time if you want to mark the business world with your own imprint—an imprint arising from your own personality and unique qualities. (If you want to read more, Ferrazzi also keeps a blog and writes columns.)

Ferrazzi understands that people get ahead in business not by being like everybody else, but by being themselves, by channeling their own uncopyable attributes into creating value for others. In my experiences, this applies just as well in academics as in private enterprise. We see it in the meteoric rise of one-of-a-kind scholars like Niall Ferguson, who use their talents, hard work, and uncopyable perspectives to win success at the same time that so many would-be scholars meander through graduate school, do all of their work in the vein of others who have gone before them, and then face the brutal academic job market with little more than bewilderment.

Your career is like a business—in fact, it is the business you carry out in the world—so why would the same rules that apply to Jim Collins’s great companies not apply to you? And why wouldn’t the same commitment to uniqueness that animated the Grateful Dead apply to you? It comes back to differentation: you do have a unique set of attributes, for better (if you’re smart about using them) or for worse (if you let your weaknesses hold you back). Do what I try every day to do: Find your own personal Hedgehog Concept. Commit yourself to following it, then reap the rewards from being yourself. If nothing else, your life will stand the chance of being as interesting as Shaquille O’Neal’s, Keith Ferrazzi’s, or Jerry Garcia’s. It's a chance well worth taking.


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