We are a culture obsessed with observing greatness in others.
Part of the reason is because, selfishly, we hope that by learning about these super successful movers and shakers, that some of their greatness will rub off on us.
But there's one important piece that we may fail to account for: Greatness comes from being different. Put another way, greatness comes from being abnormal.
Diagnosed with being different
By its very definition, greatness is reserved for the special few who are outside of the statistical confines of normalcy. For all us who strive to be the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, what we don't think about are the sacrifices we'd have to make to be able to push into the outer edges of such remarkable abnormality.
One of those sacrifices comes in the form of a clinical diagnosis. Blessed or cursed with conditions and disabilities such as ADHD, dyslexia, and autism spectrum disorder, there are many instances of such great figures having "abnormal" minds and brains.
The list of leaders, artists, athletes, and other famous people having such diagnoses is long. The top of the list includes Elon Musk, diagnosed with autism/Asperger's; Richard Branson and Steven Jobs, as dyslexic; and many others.
Their brains are wired differently. Their greatness comes from the very thing that society tells them makes them disadvantaged, disordered, and dysfunctional.
The superpower of being abnormal
There's plenty of evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, that suggests that these so-called abnormal individuals have a distinct advantage in being able to think differently.
Peter Thiel has gone on record saying that Asperger's is a good thing for innovation in business. In his 2014 book Zero to One, Thiel and co-author Blake Masters write, "If you're less sensitive to social cues, then you're less likely to do the same thing as everyone else around you." Groupthink is bad for business. And, according to Thiel, the best inventors and innovators make their mark on the world by going against the grain.
Further, we know from research that compared with non-dyslexics, dyslexic adults present consistent evidence of greater creativity in tasks requiring novelty or insight and more innovative styles of thinking.
Thinking about being different as something good
A key takeaway from more modern psychology and neuroscience is that what it means to be "normal" versus "abnormal" is arbitrary and exists along a continuum. Boxing people into neat and tidy psychological categories doesn't reflect the reality of the human mind.
Even us ordinary folks can be both "normal" and "abnormal" at the same time. We can, in fact, push into the outer edges of greatness in some form or another.
Remember the following as you're trying to find your own version of abnormal greatness.
1. Be open to abnormality
The number of skills, talents, values, attitudes, and behaviors required for greatness are numerous. There will be something within you that is different from most. Be open to different possibilities. And push into mental territories and the versions of yourself that you haven't yet explored.
2. Go look in the shadows
The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung spoke about the archetypal "shadow self," the version of a person that is dark and frightening and that tends to be repressed into the unconscious. But often the most remarkable versions of ourselves lie in the shadows.
"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light," Jung once wrote, "but by making the darkness conscious."
3. Be OK with disapproval
Being different can be hard. On the road to finding your own version of greatness, you'll have to rub some people the wrong way. You may even have to piss some people off. Doing so, however, goes against our very evolutionary nature.
Most people are obsessed with keeping a good reputation. It explains why we humans are capable of existing among unrelated kin in big social groups: Cooperation is the result of a person's fear of ruining their reputation. Just know that the anxiety of possibly being ousted by the group is likely overblown.
4. Remember to wear your red shoes
Fortunately, you can strive for uniqueness and still maintain a good reputation.
Professor Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School talks about exercising "creative nonconformity." The "red sneakers effect," as it's been dubbed, helps to explain why being different can get others to see you in a positive light.
Just be careful to express yourself with sincerity. People will see right through you if you come across as fake or as trying to pretend.
So, go be abnormal.