There’s something to be said for the courage it takes to challenge the status quo, to innovate, to call for change. But I sometimes witness people trying awfully hard to be “different” just for sake of being different, without weighing the costs and benefits of what they are trying to achieve.
Any time you choose to break trail — to veer outside accepted norms or commonly accepted patterns — it takes a certain amount of energy and focus to maintain your momentum. You can no longer rely on the support of the larger group to carry you along and make things convenient. In fact, you are likely to meet with all kinds of resistance.
Suddenly, you have to start pulling against the tide that was previously pulling you. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s a great way to develop new strengths. But because it can be so energetically costly, it’s important to be clear about what you are trying to accomplish, and why. Otherwise, you can wind up committing yourself into an entrenched struggle that, in the long run, just doesn’t matter all that much to anyone, including you.
When it comes to selecting your defining moments of difference, you have to know how to choose your battles. When I look back on my life, I can see moments when I chose to stand up and fight for things that, in retrospect, look relatively unimportant to me now. But I can also see moments where I threw all of my determination and passion behind choices that, while they seemed unpopular, unusual or downright foolish at the time, wound up making a lasting difference, or influenced significant outcomes that still give me satisfaction decades later.
Based on what I see as the difference between those two types of scenarios, here’s the advice I would offer someone trying to decide whether “going rogue” is really worth all the trouble.
First, consider your values: Does the effort in question speak to your most basic principles and priorities? Does it represent an inviolable belief or an inherent sense of what is right and wrong? Would shying away from it leave you feeling deeply disappointed with yourself in some way? Does pursuing it bring a sense of assurance and inner peace, even if the initial results might be messy? If so, it’s probably worth doing (and that’s why whistleblowers, advocates for social change and people who stand up to bullies do what they do, even at very great cost to themselves).
If this isn’t about your core values, explore what your driving motivations are, and where they are coming from. Undertaking a rebellion because you are bored, annoyed, or trying to get back at someone for petty reasons is usually a bad idea. Look for another, more constructive way forward.
Next, consider your intended impacts: Do you want to draw some attention to a key issue or a new possibility? Do you want to change the course of a long-established pattern, or challenge the assumption that something “can’t be done”? Are you trying to make a significant difference in what you see as an important issue? Or do you just want to shake things up a bit, take the world by surprise, perhaps express your uniqueness somehow?
Your answer might be “all of the above,” and that’s fine. Just spend a little time envisioning how you want this thing to play out, and over what period of time. Then consider whether you have the strength and determination to carry out your intended efforts alone, or whether you might need to build a coalition of support. Taking the time to create a thoughtful plan based on a clear vision can make all the difference in whether your road less traveled leads you where you want to go or lands you up-creek without a paddle.
Finally, consider the unintended impacts: When you elect to “go your own way,” the people and systems around you may benefit enormously, but they often wind up paying a price, too. Change is disruptive. Conflict can be exhausting. So take a moment to think beyond yourself and your own priorities and contemplate how your choices might affect your family, friends, coworkers or community — for better and for worse. Consider what you might be putting at risk in the name of your quest, and whether you (and they) can live with both the best- and worst-case scenarios.
Of course, no matter how much you plan and contemplate, you can never control all the outcomes of all the decisions you make. In some cases you just need to follow your gut. And in many cases, the best part about leaving the beaten path is discovering territories within yourself and your life that were formerly unknown — even to you.