Saturday, January 14, 2012

A zebra's stripes: Learning to stand out by who you are

As a child, I loved to read animal and nature books.  Every weird trait, interesting factoid, strange pattern of living fascinated me.  The more I looked, the more I loved the uniqueness of every plant and animal.

At the same time, I was also being steeped in the subtle message that as people we need to conform and fit in as "nicely" as possible.  School was and continues to be focused on remediation: You are deficient in this way (Fix it).  Rather than focusing on how my peers and I had different personalities and strengths, we were measured by a common ruler that incentivized convergent thought and behavior.  

A zebra's stripes no longer evoked powerful emotive responses (daring contrast, unashamedness...).  Over time I could no longer see the stripes but only the herd--what was once a completely right brained experience became conditioned to become an exercise in categorization, and value for the whole and not the individual.  

Likewise, many of us have been conditioned over time to lose or suppress some of our greatest strengths as individuals.  Over time, we pick and choose when to express certain traits or quirks when we think they are appropriate for the environment, rather than finding an environment where we can be more of our true selves.  

Warren Buffett, is a paradigm of someone who has persevered in his values and unique identity.  He is notoriously patient, practical, and trusting--not necessarily what you would expect from one of the richest and greatest investors of the world.  Being patient and practical, Buffett invested in only companies he could forecast the business future for the next 20 years.  Buffett carefully vetted the senior managers of companies he invested in and trusted them to run their own businesses.  His careful, long term approach (coined "value investing") was the outwards manifestation of his unique and enduring traits.  

More than the billions of dollars he has generated, Buffett's greatest satisfaction comes from being able to enjoy his work.  At the University of Nebraska, he told the audience of college students, "I am really no different from any of you...if there is a difference between you and me, it may simply be that I get up every day and have a chance to do what I love to do every day.  If you want to learn anything from me, this is the best advice I can give you."  

1.  Are you aware of how you are different than other people?
2.  What ways can you apply those strengths to your CURRENT work/school environment?  Remember, Buffett was able to make a significant impact on the world by carving a niche in a seemingly incompatible environment.
3.  Close your eyes, visualize waking up and being excited to start your day.  What would your perfect work/school day be like?  How can you use those details to CHANGE your current work/school environment?

[Note: Buffett is also an example of someone who hasn't been corrupted by ludicrous amounts of money.  He is among a group of wealthy philantropists (Giving Pledge) who have pledged to donate more than half of their net worth in order to make the world a better place.  Despite his wealth, Buffett also continues to drive a used pick-up truck to work, living with the same Omaha, Nebraska values that helped him become successful in such a turbulent profession.  His son, a corn and soybean farmer, was recently named to replace Buffett and will act as the guardian of the company's values.]

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