The Plight of the Independent Thinker

The other day, I was having a conversation with a friend and the topic of our conversation got me thinking about a recurring theme in both of our lives. I suspect that if you’re the kind of person who’s even interested in the subject matter on this site, you might have experienced this yourself. If you’re the kind of person who marches to the beat of a different drummer, then you will totally get what this is about.

My Own Experience and the Impact of Reading

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been an independent thinker. I grew up without my dad in the home and for the same reasons it happens to so many other kids in that situation, I developed a tendency to keep to myself. There are all sorts of factors you could probably point to, but I think the resulting lack of self-confidence and the fact that I got picked on and ostracized because of it are probably the biggest ones.

Since I didn’t have many friends, I took to reading to pass the time. Instead of following the leader in some group of my peers, my heroes were the characters in the books I was reading. At first those heroes were fictional, but before I knew it, they were the great men of history who have been the subjects of so many biographies. I grew to admire them and even view them as mentors, even before anyone had suggested to me that not all mentors had to know me personally – or even still be alive.

The thing about reading so much is that once you connect with the world of books, you can’t help but use them to make better sense of the world you live in. What began as a basic way to keep myself entertained evolved to influence my thought processes and the way I perceived everything. When I would overhear conversations among my peers and others, I started to notice there were differences between the way I thought and the way most of them thought.

Peer Groups, Celebrities, and Group-Think

Most of them shared similar opinions on big issues and it soon occurred to me that that’s what happens when a person (any person, but especially a younger, more impressionable person) attaches themselves to a group of their peers. Their thoughts and ways become largely those of the group. The more outspoken leaders in the group tend to influence the quieter, more reserved ones. Even if those reserved ones actually did voice their differences, it’s likely the rest of the group would simply ignore them.

Note that the need for acceptance and validation is quite powerful, indeed.

Now if you take this up to the next level, society as a whole is influenced in much the same way. Except at this level, the influencers tend to be entertainers and other public figures. I love it when people try to tell me that they don’t believe in mass brainwashing, while their speech is peppered with the latest trendy words, phrases, and figures of speech.


Where exactly did they first hear those, if not from a common, popular source?

I always point out how certain decades had their own signature mentality. Think about the 60’s and the 80’s. When I think about the 60’s, anti-war sentiment and rebellion against authority come to mind. Compared to the 40’s and 50’s, the extent of it is quite striking.

The Power of Trends

It’s no accident that the trend-setting entertainers of their day were all writing songs expressing that exact sentiment. The lyrics of their songs were soon heard around the world and untold millions of impressionable youngsters who never cared about politics before were suddenly eager to burn their bras and draft cards to their music. While many considered that music the soundtrack of their lives, in a chicken vs. egg sort of way, we all know that music moves US the same way some of us are moved to create the music that moves others.

So how is it that the masses come to adopt the trends of others, if they aren’t somehow guided in that direction. I’m not even talking about whether it’s good or bad, but just the undeniable evidence that it happens. However subtle the influence might be, when you take a deeper look at it, it becomes obvious that this can be accomplished simply by making something more attractive and enticing.

Note that famous influencers tend to be rich, attractive, and highly skilled at their craft. Add to that a very obvious edge some of them have with regard to natural talent and you create a sort of otherworldly aura around them. Hence the power of their wizard-like influence on the common folk!

Notice how entire subcultures have sprung up, based upon the lifestyles of society’s favorite actors and musicians. Clothing styles, attitudes, and manners of speech have been copied all around the world by young people eager to fit in more comfortably with their peers and gain acceptance.

But every now and then, that all gets cast aside by the one person who just doesn’t fall in line with everyone else.

Marching to the Beat of Your Own Drummer

Look, I can’t count how many times I’ve had “friends” and acquaintances ask me if I’d seen the latest episode of Game of Thrones or The Mandalorian. Honestly, I’ve seen short snippets of both, but never watched a full episode of either. The same goes for music. I hear people using expressions that I don’t always understand, usually because they came from the lyrics to songs I’ve never heard. For most of my life, I’ve been that one guy who doesn’t get the joke or reference.

By this point, if I was trying to explain all this to the average Joe, they’d probably wonder what possible advantage there could be to being so drastically different from everyone else. And to tell you the truth, I’ve always had trouble answering that one, because I’ve just never known anything else. The way I grew up is the only way I know how to process the world and I don’t know what it’s like to follow trends of any kind without thinking about it.

When I hear that most people feel this way or that way about something, it’s entirely possible that I might disagree with that overwhelming majority. It’s not because I have anything against their way of thinking, but rather that thinking for myself comes so naturally to me that I never ask myself if I’m right to come to my own conclusions. As far as I’m concerned, it’s my duty to myself as a sovereign individual to preserve and protect that independence of thought, not question it.

Walking Away From the Crowd

If you’re anything like me, you can relate to at least some of what I’m saying. You might feel, as I do, that going along with the crowd isn’t as much fun when you do it as you’ve been led to believe it should be. You may have even given it a shot at some point, wanting to see how the other half lives, only to be disappointed and unfulfilled. It’s almost like trying to live in someone else’s world when it’s completely alien to you.

The other problem for someone like that is that not everyone’s going to like you when you’re that different from them. Members of the crowd prefer unanimity and if you’re not in lockstep with them, you’re going to get some negative reactions. I compare it to the analogy of captive lobsters, together in the same tank. When one tries to escape, the others pull him back in, refusing to let him escape the same fate that awaits the rest of them.

When it comes to humans, they have a tendency to get resentful over someone who is trying to stand apart from the crowd. The most obvious reason is because by rising above the rest, that person is in some way, making the others feel bad by seemingly reminding them that they don’t measure up. At least, that’s the way they see it. It strikes a nerve when someone steps up and makes it known that they’re not willing to accept the average. In their minds, you must think you’re better than them to think you have a right to color outside the lines or demand more than everyone else.

That’s exactly the reaction I still get when someone I know who hasn’t seen me in years asks what I do for a living, these days. They’re expecting me to complain about my dead-end job the same way they all do, but it never goes down that way. The minute I tell them I’m a writer, they either think I’m describing a hobby and don’t actually have a job, or they assume I must be living in a fantasy world, because that can’t possibly be true.

Either way, you’ll notice that if you’re on a different path, it has a way of upsetting some folks.

Closet Supporters and Supportive Strangers

What’s really odd is that there’s a small number who might actually admire you for having the courage to be different, even if they’re unlikely to say so. The funny thing about so-called “friends” is that they’re not always the best people to count on for support when you’re building your little empire. That might sound wrong, or like it shouldn’t be true, but if they knew you when you were a nobody and now you’re counting on their support to help make you into a somebody, they might not want to see you change and leave them behind.

The contrast between where you’re going and where they’re staying is too much to bear.

Sometimes the best support comes from unbiased strangers who have no preconceived notions about you, because they have no reason to want to hold you back. The stranger on his/her way up is no threat to their pride. But when it comes to you (a friend who they feel is supposed to be in the same boat they’re in), they will justify their envy by telling themselves that it’s better not to encourage you, because it might go to your head.

That’s a terrible way to treat one’s friends and it’s really just an excuse to lash out over something they refuse to accept. Unfortunately, that is very much a reality for those with deep insecurities and fragile egos. If you didn’t see that in someone before, you could be in for quite a painful and shocking surprise.

The Courage to Think Independently

The thing about this is that at some point, you just have to accept that you were made to march to the beat of your own drummer and make it work for you somehow. You have to not only rise in terms of your skills and capabilities, but also in terms with how you handle things like criticism and envy. You simply cannot become the winner you are capable of becoming, if you allow yourself to think like a loser. In short, your mental strength has to grow alongside whatever skill sets you’re working on and you MUST learn to make decisions without the approval of others.

Regardless of what they might think of you now, know that it won’t always be that way. Once you have proven yourself, it will be impossible for anyone to argue with your results. You will have earned your place among the world’s influencers and it will then be within your power to set the bar for everyone else.

Until then, keep working hard and always ask yourself whether what you’re doing is what you really want to be doing or what someone else wants you to do. The same goes for thinking. Are those views and opinions that you have really yours or are they the result of a groupthink mentality that you have fallen into?

Remember that you can choose to be either the influencer or the influenced. Don’t get me wrong, because it’s entirely up to you which one you choose. All I’m trying to say is that you have one life to live and it makes sense to live that life effectively and in such a way that you’ll have fewer regrets when it’s over. The best way to accomplish that is to own your own life. The best way to own your own life is to own your own thoughts and make your own choices.

And THAT, my friends, is what mental strength is all about!

Mark Abbott

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