Everyone endures a particularly cringeworthy period of life. For me, that period was 4th grade.
We had just emigrated from Bulgaria, and figuring out the cultural norms of the United States was tough. I didn’t speak English. I used a fork and knife to cut my pizza slice at lunch. I couldn’t play kickball. And I gave up all hope when I was presented with a breaded, deep-fried, sausage on a stick you Americans call “a corn dog.” Every day was something new, and every day I hated that I was different.
^^ Me before I was confronted with the realities of American cuisine
That meant a few things. It meant eating lunch alone, and always feeling like an outsider. As an adult, I’m able to reason my way through the situation and understand why it happened. But as a 9-year-old, those experiences re-wired my brain and warped my thinking for years to come.
We moved, and I got to start 7th grade with kids who didn’t know me during the fork-and-knife pizza days. I still remember walking into my new school thinking, “You can be whoever you want to be here.” So, naturally, I over-corrected.
Suddenly, I worshipped at the altar of conformity and conventional wisdom. I hated advice like, “Always be yourself,” because being yourself, in my mind, rendered a vivid image of sitting alone at a cafeteria table. I was over-the-top nice, I never had an opinion, and I ate pizza with my bare hands like a savage. I was boring, and it was exhausting.
By the time I graduated college, I had friends, I was generally well-liked, and I was never alone. But now, not only did I still feel like an outsider, I also felt like a fraud. This is referred to as “normative social influence,” a type of conformity in which a person publicly accepts the views of a group but privately rejects them. It’s a pretty lonely way to live.
Five years ago, I moved to New York, which gave me a clean slate. Starting The Profile was the most honest and original thing I’ve done. I decided to stop pretending, but you can’t quit this habit cold turkey. It haunts you in weird ways. First come the anxious questions: “Who could possibly care about my opinion?” “Which writer’s style should I imitate?” “Who will ever read this thing?” But then come the questions that matter: “What is my voice?” “Who am I writing this for?” and “What the hell do I actually believe?”
Last week, I got to meet two of my favorite writers: James Clear (author of Atomic Habits) and Tim Urban (author of Wait But Why). Tim explained just how hard it is to create original work in the face of conventional wisdom. “When you’re trying to create something truly original, you make a bunch of mistakes,” he said. “Originals are a mess.”
In this life, we only have two options: create or imitate. Independent thought is hard and messy and often unpopular, but it’s also liberating. We trip up so many times because we care about the crowd’s opinion. There’s a “right time” to get married, have kids, quit your job, build a company, and eat pizza with a fork and a knife. Who decides that? Hopefully, it’s you.
I recently read author Anna Quindlen's thought-provoking commencement speech (h/t to James Clear for featuring it). Save it, print it, frame it. Here’s what she had to say on originality:
“Nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great ever came out of imitations. The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.
“This is more difficult, because there is no zeitgeist to read, no template to follow, no mask to wear. Set aside what your friends expect, what your parents demand, what your acquaintances require. Set aside the messages this culture sends, through its advertising, its entertainment, its disdain and its disapproval, about how you should behave.
“Set aside the old traditional notion of female as nurturer and male as leader; set aside, too, the new traditional notions of female as superwoman and male as oppressor. Begin with that most terrifying of all things, a clean slate. Then look, every day, at the choices you are making, and when you ask yourself why you are making them, find this answer: for me, for me. Because they are who and what I am, and mean to be.”
“This will always be your struggle whether you are twenty-one or fifty-one. I know this from experience. When I quit the New York Times to be a full-time mother, the voices of the world said that I was nuts. When I quit it again to be a full-time novelist, they said I was nuts again. But I am not nuts. I am happy. I am successful on my own terms. Because if your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all. Remember the words of Lily Tomlin: If you win the rat race, you're still a rat.”
Now, on to the excellent profiles of the week:
— The billionaire who killed his electric car project [**HIGHLY RECOMMEND**]
— The NFL’s unbreakable bond
— Eli Manning’s final days
— The world-class ticket scalper
— The machine that could write this newsletter
— The ugly side of GoFundMe
— Gen Z’s big addiction
— The startup selling second-hand luxury goods
👉 If you enjoy reading profiles of the most interesting people and companies, tweet to tell others about it:
PEOPLE TO KNOW.
The billionaire who killed his electric car project: James Dyson, the billionaire British inventor and entrepreneur, poured billions of dollars into a passion project: an electric car. To make it work, he had committed four years, hundreds of engineers, and 2 billion pounds ($2.5 billion). And then it failed. At a time when every company speaks about innovation and disruption, Dyson’s decision to kill his electric car is a case study in the delicate balancing act of embracing ingenuity while keeping an eye on profits. (Fortune)
“An electric vehicle is not just a big hair dryer.”
The NFL’s unbreakable bond: Texans’ receiver DeAndre Hopkins says he owes his career to his mom. Millions of people watch when Hopkins dives for otherworldly catches, racking up more receptions through the first six seasons of a career than any other player in NFL history. Except his mom. She can't see her son, but she knows he's there. This is such a powerful story of resilience, devotion, perseverance, and a true unbreakable bond between mother and son. (ESPN)
“I'm telling you: There is light after darkness."
Eli Manning’s final days: Nobody knows for sure if this is the end of Eli Manning’s career. But if it is, this profile deconstructs what it would look like. Manning never adhered to any norms, never fit any preconceived notion of what a football player should be. He’s been studied his entire life, written about and dissected, and still no one has been able to define him. Those closest to him—teammates, friends, family—all claim the outside world has never understood the real Eli Manning. Here’s a rare look into the psyche of the two-time Super Bowl champion. (Sports Illustrated)
“He has an iron stomach. He eats it.”
The world-class ticket scalper: OK, so this is a crazy story that’s very hard to describe. It’s a lapsed Mormon's tale of sinners, scalpers and the search for God in his decades-long descent into the underworld of ticket scalping. The most important rule in the game? Don’t ever trust anyone. Take an intimate look inside an international Mormon ticket reselling ring. (SB Nation)
“My clean-cut Mormon looks usually closed the deal, but there were also critical soft skills — a smile, counting money slowly, a somber nod — that eliminated doubt if the straights were hesitant.”
COMPANIES TO WATCH.
The machine that could write this newsletter: In February, OpenAI, an artificial-intelligence company, announced that the release of the full version of its A.I. writer, called GPT-2—a kind of supercharged version of Smart Compose—would be delayed, because the machine was too good at writing. This article attempts to answer the question: What happens when companies try to put words in your mouth? Here’s how predictive-text technology could transform the future of the written word. (The New Yorker)
"Humans would stop writing, or at least publishing, because all the readers would be captivated by the machines. What then?"
The ugly side of GoFundMe: GoFundMe has become the largest crowdfunding platform in the world— 50 million people gave more than $5 billion on the site through 2017. In an era when membership in churches, labor unions, and other civic organizations has flatlined, GoFundMe offers a way to help and be helped by your figurative neighbor. But there are limits to those well-intentioned campaigns, and sometimes, it can get ugly. (The Atlantic)
“If it’s a way to perform need, how must it feel to put yourself out there and not receive anything in return?”
Gen Z’s big addiction: Juul’s USB-drive-looking vaporizers and sweetened flavors, with names like mango, cucumber, and creme, may well help longtime smokers give up their smoking habit. But they’ve also attracted millions of nonsmokers, including a lot of kids. Researchers warn that Juul’s high-nicotine pods and Instagram marketing could be undoing decades of antismoking gains. Now, interviews with former employees show Juul knew early on that its high-nicotine e-cigarettes appealed to kids. “Oh, God, look how young they all are,” Pax Labs’ former CMO remembers thinking when he saw the crowd at a Juul event. (Bloomberg)
“Unfortunately, sometimes the next response I get from those same teens is, ‘Wait, there’s nicotine in this?’ ”
The startup selling second-hand luxury goods: In 2011, Julie Wainwright founded TheRealReal, a platform for selling previously owned luxury goods. Selling used clothing wasn’t a new idea; vintage and used-clothing stores have been around forever. But resale businesses were little local shops that catered to aficionados, hipsters, and people on a budget. Wainwright, however, decided to go global and high-end. Here’s how she studied consumer behavior and turned TheRealReal into a billion-dollar company. (The New Yorker)
“We want to be able to provide a full closet clean-out.”
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