Brain Food #614

The energy needed by distinctiveness

Thoughts of the day

Jeff Bezos started Amazon in his garage, in 1994. He is currently the world’s richest person, and undoubtedly one of history’s most successful businessmen. Bezos’ annual Letters to Shareholders always contain nuggets of wisdom that can be applied not only to work, but life in general.

In a section of his 2020 Letter, which was also his final one, he includes a passage from Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker on what he calls “a basic fact of biology”:

Staving off death is a thing that you have to work at. Left to itself – and that is what it is when it dies – the body tends to revert to a state of equilibrium with its environment. If you measure some quantity such as the temperature, the acidity, the water content or the electrical potential in a living body, you will typically find that it is markedly different from the corresponding measure in the surroundings. Our bodies, for instance, are usually hotter than our surroundings, and in cold climates they have to work hard to maintain the differential. When we die the work stops, the temperature differential starts to disappear, and we end up the same temperature as our surroundings. Not all animals work so hard to avoid coming into equilibrium with their surrounding temperature, but all animals do some comparable work. For instance, in a dry country, animals and plants work to maintain the fluid content of their cells, work against a natural tendency for water to flow from them into the dry outside world. If they fail they die. More generally, if living things didn’t work actively to prevent it, they would eventually merge into their surroundings, and cease to exist as autonomous beings. That is what happens when they die.

Bezos goes on to comment, “While the passage is not intended as a metaphor, it’s nevertheless a fantastic one, and very relevant to Amazon. I would argue that it’s relevant to all companies and all institutions and to each of our individual lives too. In what ways does the world pull at you in an attempt to make you normal? How much work does it take to maintain your distinctiveness? To keep alive the thing or things that make you special?

What Bezos and Dawkins are saying, is that life requires a constant effort, not just for survival, but also for differentiation, or as Bezos calls it, ‘distinctiveness’.

“We all know that distinctiveness – originality – is valuable. We are all taught to “be yourself.” What I’m really asking you to do is to embrace and be realistic about how much energy it takes to maintain that distinctiveness. The world wants you to be typical – in a thousand ways, it pulls at you. Don’t let it happen.”

Both on an individual and a collective level, this pull towards the equilibrium will mean that the further we push away from it, the greater the constraints will be, the forces that pull us back. Like pushing against an elastic band, the intensity increases with the resistance.

The effort may sometimes feel endless, because it is. Every living organism, according to Dawkins, is fighting to not be absorbed into its environment, every single moment. When you are working on something that does not feel ‘normal’, something that no one else is doing or no one else has thought of, that could be the sign of an opportunity. When something becomes increasingly difficult, that may be the moment you are getting close to a breakthrough.

French artist Henri Rousseau created paintings of fantastic jungles, disconcerting visuals with oversized flowers, imaginary creatures, and predators always captured at the moment of attack, or just seconds before it. He created harsh worlds that could simply be communicating Dawkins’ message in a different manner: it is a jungle out there, and only those who dare to be different survive.

Like many other artists who were ahead of their time, Rousseaus’ genius was only recognised post-humously.