Philosophy Friday: On Crowds & Being Different
On 21 August 1548, a teenage Michel de Montaigne, later essayist and philosopher, witnessed the terrifying power of a restless crowd. A tax collector had gone outside the city walls to reason with rioters who were enraged about an unpopular new tax. Unfortunately, the man lost his nerve, and the angry masses fell upon him, tearing him apart. It was a life-long warning to Montaigne on how vicious and unforgiving a mob of people can be.
Individually, most of us wouldn’t dream of killing another human. However, at massive gatherings, anything goes.
“You ask me to say what is particularly important to avoid. My answer is this: a mass crowd. It is something to which you cannot entrust yourself yet without risk.” – Seneca
Crowds are bad for us. The ancient philosophers knew that. Seneca, a Roman statesman and philosopher, thought extensively on the subject. In his writings, he comments on how groups bring out the worst in us. And the larger the gathering, the worse the effect.
“Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.” – Seneca
Why is a Twitter outrage worse than an individual’s objection? Crowds can amplify prevalent emotions like a giant echo chamber.
What did Seneca recommend we do? Shun large mobs as much as possible. Not much good comes from them.
“Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve.” – Seneca
There exists another angle to this ‘not running with the crowd’—that of not doing what everyone else is doing—of being different. If you want extraordinary outcomes in your life, it’s essential to step out on your own and be yourself. When you’re the norm, you are going to get average results. To be your best self, to do your greatest work, you will need to leave the safety of the crowd.
Yet, stepping away from the crowd is not easy. The mob dislikes outsiders—outsiders threaten its very existence. If too many insiders dissipate from the group, it will cease existing.
Once you leave a group, entrenched insiders will shun and dismiss you. They may call you ‘insane’ to label you as an outsider while simultaneously signalling their rightful place within the group.
However, being labelled a pariah is a lie—it’s groupthink, mere confirmation bias writ large, nothing more. It’s not only OK for you to step away from the crowd—it’s required. When you’re in a category of your own, that’s where you’ll find gold because no one else is looking in the same spot. It has to be that way—it’s how the world works.
So, what’s it to be? The apparent safety of the crowd and mediocre outcomes? Or do you want a more colourful and rewarding life? You know what you need to do.
Be yourself. Be different. Shun the crowd. Achieve extraordinary results.