Often times in this world we’re pressured to join in the flow of conformity. Peer pressure is no joke. As human beings, one of our greatest desires is to be accepted. We are social creatures, and as social creatures we strive to be a part of the group. After all, it’s this social aspect that makes humanity extraordinary. What sets us apart is our ability to effectively come together to work towards a common cause. It turns out though, this is both a gift and a curse. It’s a curse because in this desire to be accepted by the group, lies the risk of losing individuality; your beliefs and ideas that are unique to you.
One of my favorite TED Talks is called “We Need to Talk About an Injustice” by Bryan Stevenson.
He starts his talk in a way that every great presentation starts: with a story. He begins by saying he grew up with his grandmother. One day when he was about 8 or 9 years old, he realized his grandmother was sitting in the living room staring at him. After about 15 minutes, she got up, came across the room to grab him by the hand, and said “Come on. We’re going to have a talk.” She said, “I’m going to tell you something, but don’t tell anyone what I tell you.” She went on, “I think you’re special. I think you can do anything you want to do. But I need you to promise me three things:”
- That you’ll always love your mom.
- That you’ll always do the right thing.
- That you’ll never drink alcohol.
When Mr. Stevenson was about 14 or 15, his older brother had some beer, and offered him a drink. Mr. Stevenson politely refused, saying “No it’s okay, I don’t feel right about it. You go ahead.” He goes on to tell the audience that he’s 52 years old, and he’s never had a drop of alcohol. He says this not because he thinks it’s virtuous, but because there’s power in identity.
I have a similar story. During my freshman year, I felt like I needed to be going to parties. Everyone else was doing it, and I wanted to see if it was something I would enjoy. At one of the first parties I went to, I remember seeing someone I knew from high school. I guess he had been watching me and noticed I wasn’t drinking, so he asked, “Why aren’t you drinking anything? Do you think you’re better than us because you don’t drink? He was visibly upset that I wasn’t drinking like everyone else was. Today, I’ll drink with my friends in moderation, but at that time I didn’t drink at all. I was raised in a similar way to Mr. Stevenson. Growing up, I was told drinking alcohol was dangerous, so I always made sure to avoid it. I never looked down on anyone else because they decided to drink. It’s just that not drinking was a part of my identity, and I was proud of that.
I think identity is more powerful today than it’s ever been because it’s so rare to find. How clear are you about who you are as a person? If someone were to come up to you and ask, “Who are you and what do you believe in?” Would you be able to answer? Beyond yourself, how often do you come across someone that truly stands for something they believe in?
Today there are a lot of people with loosely held opinions, not firm values and beliefs. Identity has become a lost art. Because to accept individual identity means drifting away from the crowd. This is where our desire to be accepted kicks in. It’s in this moment though, when identity must be firmly grasped. The power of identity is that it gives you guidance when deciding what to let into your life. Since I discovered that I didn’t identify with partying or drinking, I became aware of the fact that those things weren’t going to empower me or make me happy. From that point on I could start surrounding myself only with things that strengthened my identity. That gave me power.
The truth is what you believe does not make you better than anyone else. But what you believe does make you unique, and it makes you who you are. Ultimately you were meant to be an original. Not someone who is just a part of the crowd, but instead an original who makes the crowd better through your individuality. Find power in your identity, and inspire others to do the same.