When I was about 14, I jumped into a canal with my best friend during an outdoors gym class. It was a warm summer day, and we felt like swimming. Our socially well-adjusted classmates thought we were insane. By the time we made it back to school, recess had already started. This meant we had to walk over the crowded schoolyard in our dirty, wet gym clothes, on muddy bare feet, with leaves in our hair. The cool 17-year-olds at the smoking corner laughed at our sight. The interesting thing is, it never felt like a walk of shame to me. Instead, we considered it our walk of victory. It was the battle we won against the normal. We rebelled against the limited high-school-mindset of what was socially acceptable. We couldn’t stop laughing. We took pride in the disgusted looks. It bonded our friendship even deeper. We still consider it as one of the many good and fun adventures we experienced together.
When was the last time you did something really silly? The kind of thing that fills you up with delight just by thinking of it, despite of the social awkwardness that might accompany the action. If behaving silly is so much fun, then why don’t you act on your crazy ideas more often? What is it you are afraid of?
A lack of social approval is a lot like getting beaten up by monkeys
I love to use the ‘Monkey, Banana, and Water Spray Experiment’* as a metaphor for conventions. The idea is that you put a bunch of monkeys in a room with a ladder. If one monkey attempts to climb the ladder and grab the banana on top, all monkeys get punished. They all get sprayed with cold water. As a result the monkeys will beat up any monkey who climbs the ladder. One by one the monkeys are replaced with new monkeys. When a new monkey climbs the ladder to grab the banana, he gets beaten up too, even though the banana and water are removed now. Eventually the whole group consists of new monkeys who never experienced the cold water, yet never climb the ladder.
You are conditioned to behave like everyone else around you. Normally, you won’t get sprayed with cold water or beaten up as a result of your behaviour. However, the punishment is definitely there: in the form of disapproving looks, being laughed at or being the wacko who gets friendly smiles yet whom everyone keeps at a safe distance. A lack of social approval is similar to being beaten up by a monkey.
However, sometimes it’s worth to climb the monkey ladder, even if you get beaten up. There is value in acting on your urge to behave differently. There is value in behaving silly. There is value in questioning and breaking existing conventions.
Why break conventions? Two reasons.
First of all, people who don’t think for themselves are idiots. Idiots do not only waste your time, they are scary. I’m more scared of people who never question anything and say ‘that’s just how things work around here’, than of some charismatic leader with bad ideas, like say, killing half of its country’s inhabitants. The leader will thrive on people who don’t question his authority to make his plans work. My point: do things because you want to do them, not because everyone else does. It is possible to be more of an idiot by holding an umbrella than by jumping in puddles and dancing in the rain. Don’t be an idiot.
Secondly, breaking conventions usually equals a more adventurous, fulfilling and creative life. Don’t limit your potential as a human being out of fear of what people might think of you. Take a look at your role models. Every leader who made a positive change in history climbed the monkey ladder. They weren’t afraid to get beaten up. They questioned the conventional behaviour that surrounded them. Then, they changed the social perception of that behaviour. Convention-breakers are interesting people. They are inspiring. They show others what the world can look like when you throw conventional behaviour overboard and take your desires, dreams and silly ideas as a leading force instead. And 9 times out of 10, the world becomes a little more beautiful because of this shift. Be interesting. Break some non-existent rules.
How to break conventions?
Ask ‘why’ a lot. Be that annoying three-year-old who wants to understand everything about the world.
Treat the abnormal as a concrete possibility. You first need to realize that you could climb the ladder, before you start your climb.
Open up to ideas that make you freeze with fear, yet also give you a warm buzzing feeling. You only act on silly ideas when ‘the fun’ wins the inner battle from ‘the normal’. Sometimes fun needs a push.
Realize that everyone around you is a more concerned with themselves than whatever nonsense you are pulling off. When they do care, they have the attention span of a goldfish. Don’t live to please goldfish.
And lastly, dare to take the leap. It’s not always possible to change the perception of something silly into something that is socially acceptable and fun. Do it for your own pleasure, even when it is scary. Strike up an amazing conversation with a total stranger, play hide and seek in the supermarket, dress up like a pirate on a Monday morning or dance in the hallway. Climb that monkey ladder daily and hope that other monkeys will follow your lead.
PS. The Monkey image is a painting I made. You can buy the original canvas and/or prints in my Etsy shop.
* Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer