The first time you go to Austin, Texas and walk through the airport terminal, you can’t help but notice stores with “Keep Austin Weird” t-shirts on display. It sends a message to the traveler that something is different here. Sure enough, once you hit the streets of this college+capitol town you are bound to run into weirdness. And it’s a uniquely wonderful place.
Most people seem to get more set in their ways as they age, but I’m increasingly convinced that weirdness is wonderful.
The other day my friend, Raman, asked me to be a guest on his comic book podcast. I initially flinched at the request since I’ve never been a comic reader, much less knowledgeable enough to be a comic book podcast guest! But he said the point was to expose people to the concept and talk about their experiences. So I said “why not?” I’ve been reading my homework assignment, a series called Planetary. And it’s really interesting. The comic format, world creation, character development, and overall story are completely different from anything I’ve been reading or watching in the past 40 years. It opened my brain to new perspectives and creative directions for work and life.
Weirdness in Business Works
At its best, business offers you the chance to build something new in hopes that other people discover and purchase. The biggest problem is that your potential customers are very busy, bombarded with thousands of other messages, and usually happy enough to keep doing and buying what they have been for years. And whatever business you’re trying to break into likely has lots of other competitors who are years ahead of you. The only solution: Be Different.
Ryan and I constantly have to remind ourselves to think differently in building our professional network startup, Hearty. Late last week I was putting together our first weekly newsletter. My draft had very logical sections in areas that we wanted to educate members about. In my head I could see it coming together in a standard email template.
I shared it with Ryan and went to the next item in my to-do list. He came back a few hours later with a challenge for us to re-think our approach completely. Instead of yet another boring weekly newsletter, could we go with a unique theme that feels more like a fun “gamer’s guide” rather than yet another bore-fest. I listened, completely agreed, and started fresh with a guiding tagline: “The most fun work-related email you’ve received this week.” Not a high bar, of course, but a very inspiring creative brief!
A lot of this kind of thinking comes from putting yourself in your customers’ shoes and remembering what it’s like to be human. We plod through our lives doing, seeing and hearing the same things. We crave interesting information and experiences, and will gladly exchange our precious attention when we come upon the new.
No one wants another boring email update, so throw some fun gifs into their inbox.
No one wants to read another dense job description, so record a minute of video about why this job is amazing. No one needs another “UX job board” so let’s create a leaderboard of the best UX Designers. In a sea of sameness, where every company is following the playbook and using the template, your business has incredible potential to win by just being different. Quite often, the goofier and more unpolished the better—as it shows you are human and that you care.
Think of the new products you’ve purchased lately. Did they come from the “leading brands” bought at the “leading retailers”—or were they unique items from passionate people? I’d put money on the latter. Every brand that exists today came from founders that brought something new and different to a crowded marketplace.
Not only does weird work for your customers, it’s a lot more fun to work on. I smile when I write for our newsletter, thinking about how I might make many other people smile. Our team’s Slack is frequently alive with creative ideas. And it’s incredibly motivating to look at what your biggest competitor is doing and say: Let’s do the opposite of what they do.
Add Weirdness to Your Life
I’ve found that creativity in my work comes from exposing myself to weirdness in my daily life. In drafting this post I quickly came up with a list of unique experiences that I’ve had in the past few years: Overnight running relay, buying Bitcoin, lamp making, rodeo watching, live podcast taping, live-band karaoke, curling, and more. I can remember all of these experiences clearly. Each was fascinating and fun at the time, and armed me with understanding about myself and other people that continues to pay off years later.
You might awaken a passion that you never knew was inside you. A few weeks ago I shared how I got into meditation by finally giving it a try. Another personal example came when I first saw someone playing the Rockband video game. I know it sounds silly, but I had always wondered what it would be like to play guitar, and this game looked like a way to get a tiny slice of that experience. I was also curious about this whole class of games and the way they use gradually increasing difficulty and various rewards to build a skill.
I ended up spending many hours playing songs and upping my game. Eventually I got to expert level and even won a contest playing “Sweet Child of Mine” in front of hundreds of people on a stage. Then I realized it was time to learn how to play a real guitar. I started taking lessons, continued to improve, and after 4 years I got to jam with some musician friends and held my own. And I freaking loved it.
Most of the time you won’t fall in love with the weird new thing you try. I joined some people to brew our own beer once. It was interesting to learn the elements of the process and how brewers go about their craft. I learned that it takes an attention to detail, interest in chemistry, and extreme patience that I just don’t have. However, I gained an understanding of what makes brewers tick and a greater appreciation for the unique products they create.
It’s especially magical when you have experts that can bring you along the journey of trying something new. They’ve been-there, done-that and can help you skip the stress of figuring out where to go and what to buy, while also pointing out some of the more special moments. Again, you also learn more about people in the process—whether it’s your friend who discovered a passion for canoe camping, or an expert guide who spends her winter teaching guests to snowshoe. Many of my new experiences involve deep conversations along the journey which I can recall just as clearly as the event itself. So when a friend asks you to come along on an adventure, the default answer is “yes”. Just keep it safe, don’t spend more than you can afford to lose, take only pictures, and leave only footprints.
Your children (including nieces/nephews/etc.) can be fantastic sources of discovery. When they hit their teen years, my daughters asked me to take them to the local “Comic Expo” show. I was pretty reluctant to go. My impression was that these comic-con events were full of strange people in strange outfits who needed to “get a life”. But I sucked it up and did the Good Dad thing. It was strange, and it was interesting. I’ll never forget watching attendees in crazy costumes checking their fake weapons with security at the entrance. The people inside were so creative and having so much fun together! In future years my girls spent months crafting their own costumes and had a blast giving and receiving compliments with others in the conference halls. My older daughter has since gotten into a top costume design college program and sells her original creations for hundreds of dollars.
So knock on your kid’s door right now and ask to play their favorite game, watch a viral video they shared, or listen to the music that’s going through their earbuds all day long. You will learn something new and it will bring you closer together.
Ironically, the “Keep Austin Weird” phrase was first said as a rallying cry to fellow residents at a time when the city started growing quickly. Major corporations arrived and the weirdness of eclectic bars and small businesses was in real danger of being ironed out.
We should think of our own lives as a microcosm of this threat. We start out curious and exploring, but are processed through years of school and work that want to turn us into neat, cookie-cutter shapes. Thankfully, the pace of change in the world today is loosening the power of such sameness, and the future will belong to the weird.