David Heinemeier Hansson

May 2, 2022

It's hard to escape being ordinary in a connected world

There's a scene at the beginning of The LEGO Movie where the main character Emmet is faced with the brutal assessment of his bland ordinariness by the people he works with. A few quotes: "Look at Randy here, he likes sausage. That's something. Gail is perky, that's something... I mean, all [Emmet] does is say yes to everything everybody else is doing.. We all have something that makes us something, and Emmet is... nothing". Ouch.

This scene pins the deep fear in most people that the worst you can possibly be is ordinary. Plain. Bland. Not unique. If you don't have something special about you, your friends will barely even notice your existence. Thus making it utterly existential to ensure that you "have something that makes you someone".

That used to be pretty easy. As the LEGO movie goes, all Randy needed to be someone is that "he likes sausage". That might be a caricature of a personality, but not by much. I remember growing up with that being pretty close to what made someone something. They really liked comic books! They were infatuated with frogs! They were really good at soccer. Or Mortal Kombat. Or came from a different country. Just a little something, just anything.

But that was before the internet. When your comparison group was mainly a small group of friends, or maybe your class, or at most your school. It wasn't the whole damn world. It wasn't a single dominance hierarchy, as Jordan Peterson would put it. It was lots of isolated games of social belonging and uniqueness. None of which took that much effort to play to proficiency.

Now, because of the internet, or more specifically, because of social media, you are so easily drawn into comparing yourself and your uniqueness with the whole damn world. And there are just too many people who like comic books. Or frogs. Or are way better at soccer or Mortal Kombat than you. And they're in your face all the time, because the best of everything, the most unique species of every subcategory, bubble to the top. Thus diluting whatever would have made you special in your little group in an instant.

I think this global competition for uniqueness is partly to blame for the syndrome that Freddie deBoer describes in "Mental illness doesn’t make you special". That one way to stand out as unique is to embrace and accentuate every quirk of personality, every sliver of peculiarity with a diagnosis that can form an integral part of one's personal branding. I don't just like frogs, I'm obsessed with them. Is there are diagnosis that fits this that I can apply as a sticker to my life, which will render me just that little bit extra unique?

Clearly this is not all there is to it. And plenty of people are finding help or solace in describing or labeling aspects of their inner being. I found Mark Dominus' critique of deBoer's piece, and the comparison with Pippi Longstocking's freckles, compelling. But it didn't invalidate the insight deBoer is positing: That getting a diagnosis appears to have almost become a badge of honor and uniqueness in certain circles.

There's a sense of irony in the fact that where the social ideal used to be that above all you wanted to be "normal" – but with a dash of quirkiness to just stand out a little! – it now often appears that in some of the social games being played it is about being as "weird" as possible. As afflicted as possible. As oppressed as possible.

This connects to the new scoreboard of intersectionality. You think you have it bad? Ha. You're only suffering from two axis of oppression! I have three (or four or five!)! And together these strains, together with that diagnosis, is what make me extra special and worthy of attention.

We're a mimetic species. We notice, we copy. In a global competition for uniqueness, there's a constant game of one-upmanship running to find the next facet to highlight why we're actually special.

The charge against Instagram used to be that it presented these unrealistic highlight reels of achievement and happiness. A bar that nobody could actually meet. That critique was and is accurate. But maybe searching for uniqueness in the stratosphere of accomplishment was still superior to searching for it in an identity of oppression or diagnosis.

That's an awful choice, though. We need to find a way back to isolated circles of uniqueness. Where someone can be something by being a slight variation on an ordinary template, one replicated a million times over around the world, but never forced into direct competition.

Because if we can't find a way to make being mostly ordinary okay, we're condemned to search for that "something" in ever more pathological places. I don't think we want to see what the third, fourth, or fifth generation of such an adaptive evolution looks like.

Then again, it isn't clear how we turn the ship around. Maybe it's simply bound to get worse for a while. Happy Monday!

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.