A Subtle Difference


I’m not really a “Be Different” kind of a guy. I know it’s the popular thing these days with many experts claiming it to be the only path to success in this highly competitive, and deeply recessed global economy. “You need to be unique, special, one-of-a-kind,” they say.

I don’t really agree.

While having an exceptional set of skills will certainly take you far, you have no chance compared to those who know how to build great relationships. And relationships are formed from the similarities that connect us rather than the differences that make us unique.

Evolution has wired our brain to notice differences, but not as a positive experience. We have a built-in warning signal that tells us to be careful and cautious whenever something unexpected appears or occurs. We become suspicious and often fearful when things and people don’t seem familiar to us. It can be seen in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case in Florida. It explains why Mitt Romney is having trouble connecting with voters. It is why so many marriages end with the utterance, “you’ve changed.”  Differences can capture our attention, but they also put us on guard and make us feel uncomfortable.  

That’s not to say that “different” doesn’t create some opportunities. It does. Especially when it comes to getting noticed during that initial attraction stage of a relationship. It’s just a matter of degree. Doing different will serve you much better than being different. Here is a simple example:

Whenever I speak at a conference, I will always bring home some business cards that people hand to me when we meet. I don’t end up with as many as if I actually attended the conference, but enough to notice a pattern. They all look alike.

Yes, there are some slight differences - different colors, different fonts, use of the front and back of the card. But for the most part, they are all the same. I can’t help but wonder why. Don’t get me wrong, I love things that are designed simply and beautifully and am not really a fan of anything “zany” or “outlandish.” Certainly not a business card. But I am surprised when tradition and convention (and perhaps taking the easy route)  takes precedent over the opportunity to stand out a bit.

Several years ago, I received a business card from the curator of a London Museum. It was standard white with a classic Times Roman font printed on one side only. Nothing remarkable. What made this card special, however, was it’s size and weight. It was slightly larger and thicker than any card I had ever received. I took it and included it in the stash of other business cards I received that day. What I found was that I could never tuck it away into my nice clean stack. While all the other cards blended perfectly together, this one always stood out. Not enough to be annoying, but just enough to cause me notice it. Over and over again.

I ran into the curator at breakfast the next morning and told him how much I liked his card and how difficult it was to bury amongst the others. We ended up talking for quite awhile and discovered that we both were Irish, loved baseball, had fathers who were doctors, and had just finished reading Dan Ariely’s book “Predictably Irrational.”  The difference of his card introduced us, the similarities of our lives made us friends.

Don't confuse doing different with being different. One will get you noticed, the other will get you feared.

James Kane