Becoming an Outlier

September 13, 2023
4 mins
Cory Levy

What does it mean to be an outlier? In the world of statistics, an outlier is a data point that diverges significantly from other observations. But when it comes to people, being an outlier is both a blessing and a curse.

We've all heard the stories of people like Einstein, who couldn't get a teaching job but later revolutionized physics, or Steve Jobs, who was ousted from his own company only to return and make it an icon of innovation. Those individuals embody a form of excellence that isn’t immediately obvious to the average reader. But what sets these outliers apart, and how do they master the art of being exceptional?

One of the defining characteristics of outliers is intrinsic motivation. They don't need the external validation that so many other people crave; they’re driven internally. The thing about intrinsic motivation is that it doesn't always align with societal expectations. When you're busy following your own path, it can sometimes look like you're lost.

Many people mistake outliers as rebels without a cause. This is a misconception. The goal of an outlier is not to be different, but to think differently. Nonconformity for its own sake can be just as blinding as following the crowd. The real magic happens when you use nonconformity as a tool to explore opportunities that others don't see.

Anyone who's ever done any kind of creative work knows that timing is everything. Great ideas are often the product of the intersection between preparation and opportunity. Outliers often have a unique perspective on timing. They don't necessarily look for the 'perfect moment', they make the moment perfect by aligning their actions with their vision.

Being an outlier doesn't mean going it alone. History's great outliers often had strong networks of mentors, friends, and collaborators who shaped their thinking and offered them emotional support. The idea of the "lone genius" is largely a myth. Even Einstein had Marcel Grossmann, and Jobs had Wozniak. The trick is to surround yourself with people who challenge you, not just those who validate you.

There is, of course, a cost to being an outlier. Society, by its very nature, is skeptical of those who challenge the status quo. The emotional toll can be significant, and the path is fraught with risk. But what's often not mentioned is that this path is also liberating. When you aren’t weighed down by societal expectations, you can achieve a form of freedom that most people only dream of.

While passion and vision are crucial, outliers also demonstrate an obsessive focus on their craft. They understand that without mastery, vision remains just that—a vision. They spend hours honing their skills, often to the point of exhaustion. But they also know when to step back and recharge, understanding that burnout is the enemy of innovation.

One of the paradoxes of being an outlier is that while you may be certain about your own vision, the path to realize it is anything but certain. Learning to navigate this uncertainty is an art in itself. It involves a mix of intuition, calculated risk-taking, and an almost Zen-like acceptance of failure as a stepping stone to success.

Being an outlier is not for everyone. It requires a unique blend of intrinsic motivation, mastery of craft, and a high tolerance for uncertainty. It also involves the courage to defy societal expectations, and the wisdom to surround oneself with the right people.

But for those who can master this intricate dance, the rewards are indescribable. Not just in terms of success, but in terms of personal growth and fulfillment. And that is the true art of being an outlier.