I grew up a military brat. That meant growing up in a racially and ethnically diverse world. I had two best friends throughout junior high and high school. We played sports together, went through ROTC together, chased after the same girls, and got in trouble together. One of us was a Mexican, one a Puerto Rican, I was the white boy. And that`s how we referred to each other. We each had our own strengths. One of us was good looking, one of us was a leader, one of us was pretty smart. We were a dynamic team with probably the best kick-ass lip-sync version of The Commodores Brick House you will ever see. We never considered there might be a formula for a successful friendship. But we were young, what did we know?
We did what came natural to us. Which was have fun, take up for each other, and just be us: the Mexican, the Puerto Rican, and the white boy, for six years through junior high and high school. Two of us even worked together for a couple of years in our first job.
So now I need to tell you a little bit about the pride of Puerto Ricans, because it`s necessary for the rest of this story. Being a Puerto Rican wasn`t just a reference to where you were from, it was an identity that you wore proudly. Every Puerto Rican I knew had a Puerto Rican flag hanging from his rear-view mirror. Each also owned several t-shirts printed with either the words Puerto Ricothe commonwealth flag, or an outline of the island. They all greeted each other (at least in our circle of friends) with Vaya! accompanied by a hand signal of an extended thumb and forefinger in the shape of a V. Vaya was an interjection that meant Hey! or Go! It was an early version of Whassup?
One time there was this guy who wanted to be part of a circle of friends that included the Puerto Rican`s older brother. He was a white boy who wanted to be part of a racially diverse group that included Puerto Ricans. To be accepted, he thought, he had to fit in; to follow a formula that would get him accepted. So, the aspiring applicant to the circle bought a leather jacket and had it embroidered with both: the words Puerto Rico AND an image of the island. Except there was problem; the embroiderer made a huge mistake. They misspelled a word, substituting a for an . The poor guy ended up with a jacket embroidered with the words Puepto Rico.He evidently didn`t have the money, nor the forcefulness, to get the jacket replaced because he wore it in front of the circle and showed it off to submit his application for acceptance.
On the Island of Misfit Toys, that jacket would have been fine. But in our circle of friends, we were embarrassed for the guy. I remember that incident, but I don`t remember his name. He never did fit in.
In the world of business there is an overabundance of brands wearing a leather jacket embroidered with the words вЂњPuepto Rico. They are trying to fit in, uncomfortable just being the white boy and embracing their own uniqueness.
The Formula Search
Unfortunately, these businesses are enabled by a endless supply of marketing gurus peddling a formula for success; traffic secrets that will make you rich, social media handbooks that will make you popular, ninja SEO tactics that put you at the top. Every business book has case studies and examples lighting the path from good to great. You too can be just like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Tony Hsieh! If you will only follow their template. Well, you know how that ends up, don`t you? You really wont be just like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Tony Hsieh. Because if that were possible, you`d only ever need to read one book, right? The one with the formula for success.
Side Note: Do you notice how no one really wants to be Mark Zuckerberg?
So here`s the thing about Jobs, Bezos, Hsieh and yes, Zuckerberg: they didn`t follow a case study to success.
In fact, if you were to go to Jobs office and ask him to follow your formula for success, you would shortly be searching Bezos` Amazon for a new ass. Jobs, et al., may have had heroes and role models, but they didn`t need no stinking formula. They had an idea, they had a dream, and then they did the natural things that flowed from that dream.
So why then do we feel the need for some case-study inspired success formula to guide our business? What is so difficult about deciding to forge our own way?
The main answer, I think, is personal responsibility, or more accurately, the fear of it. Our hyper-connected world is breeding a culture of compliance. When you go with the crowd, you get liked. When you do something the crowd doesn`t like, you risk being vehemently attacked and ridiculed by an army of compliance sitting behind their judgmental keyboards.
So we search for answers in the crowd. When we use crowd-sourced formulas we are praised as being enlightened, even if we fail. When we forge our own way and fail, we face ridicule. And so we replace our authentic and natural identity with an abnormal ego-identity developed through our social interactions. The result is a marketplace filled with struggling, crappy, undifferentiated brands. This is a shame, because the world loses out on the next Apple, Amazon and Zappos. Even more tragic are the entrepreneurs who lose out on the authentically great brand they could naturally create, if only they just believed they could.
Authenticity takes courage. It means you have to get back in touch with your own ideas, beliefs, values, and desires. After that, authenticity involves a series of bold steps, your steps, and sometimes flipping the bird to the culture of compliance. And thus, creating a naturally authentic great brand is a choice between two paths. One choice is where you try to fit in with the cool circle of friends. The other is where you care more about your dream, than what other people think about your dream.
Maybe you will fail a few times first (and face ridicule), maybe you will succeed immediately, but the result will be naturally you. And maybe someday you will be the case study, and people will be following the path you created for a naturally great brand.