How to Stand Out in a Crowded World

The comments on my last post turned up some pretty rad superpowers. Storytelling.  Making people smile. Priming exes for marriage.

But there’s a catch.

Since we’re not actually superhuman, most of us share our superpowers with others. It’s not like there’s no one else in the world, or even living on my block, good at building relationships.

There’s a gang of hugely talented individuals in this world.

Hell, my social circle is full of talented people. Stunning photographers and no-nonsense teachers. Results-oriented coaches and genius storytellers.

Most days, their influence motivates me. But, I’m not immune to the comparison trap. On these days, I can’t help but wonder, who am I to think I’m so special?

You must wonder that, too.

In a crowded world, what makes me so special? 

I’ll tell you what.

Getting up every day and flexing your superpower.

Acknowledging that your neighbor or your best friend may have that very same power, and finding the strength to invest in yours anyway.

There’s always room for improvement. So what are you doing about it?

I love, love, love hearing people’s stories. But while I can strike up a conversation with anyone, I can’t predict how the exchange will go.

Here’s why. I am so incredibly extroverted. So I talk. And then you…are supposed to talk back! Whether or not I invite you to respond by asking a question.

This does not work with the majority of people.

About 6 months ago, I realized that if I want to get other people talking about themselves, I better learn how to ask stellar questions.

Primarily, I’m learning by observing other people.

A former boss of mine asks the most provocative questions. Before I left my job, I observed her and noted some of the more interesting questions she posed, so I could use them myself.

My husband essentially asks questions for a living. I grill him regularly on his techniques. He’s very accommodating that way.

During my practice of observation, I met a man who is hands-down the best conversationalist I’ve ever met. He appeared endlessly interested in every person he spoke with. He remembered your name, even though you’d just met. He introduced you to strangers, providing relevant details that got your conversation flowing.

It was stunning.

So I complimented him on his skill. And asked how he remembered the names of strangers, something that has always stumped me.

That, my friends, is when he recommended I read How to Win Friends and Influence People. (Thank you, Frank! I will never forget you.)

It is no accident that I read this book right before heading out to Portland. Where I made so many new friends.

This practice of asking questions — it’s work. Sometimes I forget and lapse into my chatty, mile-a-minute self. Sometimes I ask a dud of a question.

It happens.

But I’m getting better with practice. I’m leveling up.

Keep working on your superpower. It’s the practice that makes you special, not the power.

AONC: Meeting Chris Guillebeau

This weekend was bananas. I met Chris Guillebeau, went to Milwaukee and the husband ran a marathon in 3:24!!


So let’s talk about Chris. If you’re not already familiar with him, Chris writes the widely popular blog The Art of Non-Conformity.

The Art of Non-Conformity (AONC) project chronicles my writing on how to change the world by achieving significant, personal goals while helping others at the same time. In the battle against conventional beliefs, we focus on three areas: Life, Work, and Travel…The site also tracks my own stated goal for world travel. In my journeys so far I have visited more than 140 countries, and over the next five four three years, I plan to visit every country in the world.

Pretty amazing, no?

In August, Chris announced that he was looking for 99 readers to help him launch his first book, also called The Art of Non-Conformity. The only criteria to receive a free copy is that you support the mission. Oh…and leave a comment competing with the other members of Chris’s “small army.”

Yikes! But I’m currently into joining. Signing up for things. So I left a comment – and I was selected. In the intervening months, I read the book, wrote a review on Amazon, signed up for the “unconvetion” and – finally! – met Chris on the unconventional book tour he put together. And I may or may not have acted like a “band aid” (except without the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll).

Ok…so what’s the book about? Let’s start with the mission of the book:

You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to. You can do good things for yourself and make the world a better place at the same time. Here’s how to do it.

Yes, yes and yes! But it’s not just a rah-rah piece. Oh, no. The book helps you get there, thanks to the following sections:

  1. The Remarkable Life helps you get past all those demons in your head (as well as the very real barriers you may face).
  2. Reclaiming Work helps you figure out how to make work better (hint: it is possible).
  3. The Power of Convergance makes a compelling case for thinking beyond just your own life – now is the time to start thinking about your legacy.

So you want the book, right? Great! Now back to the story.

After we met at the Unconventional Book Tour in Chicago, I sent Chris an e-mail, loaded with questions. And he answered! Right away! Good answers. Let’s get to it.

Brigitte: I had a chance to think about your comments while riding up to Milwaukee. One thing that struck me is that so many people decide they want to live a non-conventional life, but then try to model themselves after people who are already successful doing so (lord knows I’m guilty). Is this a good place to start, or would you recommend a different process?

Chris: I think it’s OK to start with modeling. That’s what most of us do anyway, consciously or not. And hopefully over time, more of our true self emerges, which is composed of some things learned from role models and other things that are fundamentally unique.

Brigitte: When we met, I asked, “How do you ‘get over yourself’ and give people advice?” Your response was intriguing:

  1. You don’t have to give people advice to make a difference, and
  2. Share stories from “the middle.

I took this to mean that if you made the leap, it’s very powerful to talk about the messy process of self-discovery. Am I on the right track with this interpretation? Would you elaborate on this idea a bit?

Chris: That’s the right track, yes. The point is that it’s easy to say “Go for it!” but that is only mildly helpful to most of us.

What is more helpful is to talk about the process. Exactly how did you go for it? What went wrong along the way? How did you resolve it? Those lessons are often useful in two ways: one, because we can learn from other people’s mistakes before making the same ones ourselves, and two, because it gives us the courage to make mistakes of our own and know that everything will probably be okay.

Brigitte: My blog, at its core, is driven by my personal path to happiness and how I sustain and nurture that happiness through a process I call “creative living.” But that’s not the only path. You strike me as a deeply satisfied person. What do you do – actively – to create happiness in your own life?

Chris: I’m not sure I’m deeply satisfied – I feel like I’m constantly striving towards something new – but thankfully that wasn’t your question. As to how I create happiness, I try to do things I enjoy while also working to build something bigger than just me. These days I feel like I’m doing that with 80% of my working hours. I’d like to get to 90%, but overall, I figure 80% is a good start.

Brigitte: Something that sets you – and your book – apart from so many other writers/bloggers is your strong emphasis on creating a legacy project, which you define as something that will provide tremendous value to others. A book that was pivotal in my own transformation, and that you quote in The Art of Non-Conformity, was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The idea of beginning with the end in mind as defined in this book had a profound effect on me.

What originally prompted you to begin thinking about your legacy work? Do you have any advice for people seeking to identify their legacy project?

Chris: Yes, I like Stephen Covey’s work too. In my case, I was turning 30 years old and had just moved back to the U.S. after four years in West Africa. I was trying to figure out “What’s next?” and “How can I change the world?” Starting AONC was my attempted answer at both.

As for other people, I like to ask questions as well. “What excites you? What bothers you? What would you really love to do?” are good starting points. Sometimes we need to start with self-discovery, as you mentioned, and then continue toward the greater goal of aligning our passions with the needs of others.

Brigitte: There was something that drove you to West Africa to begin with. I know you don’t like to rest on that, but it was pretty amazing. What sparked that drive?

Chris: I always said I would do something like that but never actually did anything about it. Over time if you say one thing and do another, that leads to discontent. So I was discontented myself, in other words, and finally managed to take action on it. And the story goes on from there!

And it’s an amazing story. If your local bookstore stocks The Art of Non-Conformity, buy it there. Or you can buy it on Amazon for a steal.