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On the scale from individualist to conformist, where would you put yourself?
Do you think of yourself as a leader, as someone who makes your own decisions; or as a follower, someone who lets others make the decisions for you?
I asked my father a variant of that last question once when I was 11 years old. Someone had told me that there are two kinds of people in the world—leaders and followers—so I asked Dad, while he and I did the laundry one Saturday morning, which category he thought I fit into.
He considered the question for a moment, and then said, “Well, son, you’re a leader—but you have no followers.”
His answer still makes me laugh, probably because it was so true. Since this series of essays deals with a particular premise—big hard things can only be done together—that has a direct bearing on the question of whether you’re a leader or a follower, let’s explore the subject for a minute.
I originally heard that phrase—big hard things can only be done together—uttered by a television news pundit, whose name I can’t remember, but when I heard the phrase it stuck in my consciousness and stayed there. It seemed to refer back to my father’s answer in some way, too—and have a direct bearing on whether I wanted to be a unique individual and forge my own path in life, or follow a path someone else had already made.
Today, many of us think of ourselves as autonomous individuals. Independent, self-reliant and self-governing, an individualist usually follows his or her own personal interests rather than one particular philosophy, framework or social structure. If you’re an individualist, you probably believe that you have agency—the ability and the right to make your own decisions and break your own trail, free from the strictures, traditions, values and belief systems imposed on you by society.
The existentialist philosophers were individualists, insisting that each person has agency in building a fulfilling and meaningful life for themselves.
So if you think of yourself as an individualist, you’re definitely in step with modern culture.
What? Wait—aren’t individualists, by definition, intentionally not in step with modern culture? Ironically, modern culture has now brought forth a new kind of quasi-independent person, who I think of as a herd individualist.
A herd individualist sees himself or herself as an autonomous, free-thinking and independent person—but actually follows societal trends pretty slavishly, adhering to the newest cultural movement to maintain a self-image that seems cool, forward-looking and innovative. Inevitably, though, herd individualists become part of larger, trendier social patterns that simultaneously affect millions of people—whether they’re aware of it or not.
Who, for example, was the first hipster to grow a beard? That one innovative, existentialist, break-the-mold guy, obviously, can lay claim to being an individualist. The millions of herd individualists who later became followers of the trend that one guy started? They obviously can’t.
Actually, real individualists are pretty rare. True individuals, often outcasts, pariahs, pioneers and social misfits, sometimes suffer for their independent choices. They never follow the herd. When they take their own path, it actually upsets the herd. Groundbreaking artists, actual free thinkers and iconoclasts, those individuals chart their own course:
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Art is individualism, and individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. There lies its immense value. – Oscar Wilde
Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual you have an obligation to be one. – Eleanor Roosevelt
We all have some of that herd instinct within—that’s a universal human trait. When I discovered the Baha’i Faith during my teenage years, it initially frightened me, because I knew it was different, and would definitely separate me from the herd. Raised as a pretty conventional Protestant, like most adolescents I felt a great need for acceptance. Teenage peer pressure is powerful, and the desire to conform and be like others and fit in can operate on adolescents in a very oppressive, herd-mentality way. Those who deviate from the prescribed norms, who truly are individuals, often suffer the extreme derision and sharp cruelty teenagers can dish out.
So I had a choice when I encountered the Baha’i teachings—should I follow my heart and my spiritual instincts to go in that direction, even though it was definitely not a known quantity among my teenage friends and might get me ostracized; or should I stay away from anything that could brand me among my peers as strange or weird or different? Should I risk being a social pariah because I had taken another path; or should I conform? Should I lead or follow?
When I read this profound passage from the Baha’i teachings, I decided to lead by following my own heart rather than the opinions of others:
That individual, however, who puts his faith in God and believes in the words of God—because he is promised and certain of a plentiful reward in the next life, and because worldly benefits as compared to the abiding joy and glory of future planes of existence are nothing to him—will for the sake of God abandon his own peace and profit and will freely consecrate his heart and soul to the common good. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 96.