“Sameness” and “difference” are the type of yin and yang concepts that are bound to get one’s imagination going. And to me they’ve always been fascinating. Combined with my fascination for people and the workings of their minds, these two concepts have been an intellectual leitmotiv for as long as I can remember.

What makes people different? What sets them apart? What makes outliers, mavericks, iconoclasts? How are people similar? Are there things we all share? Why do we strive for differentiation and then end up with sameness?

To make a point, take teenagers, whose striving for differentiation is probably more blatant than that of any other age group’s . Emo, punk, rock, hip-hop, whitewashed jeans, all black outfits, piercings, tattoos – all are marks of differentiation, signs that shout – “I belong to this group!” or “This is my tribe!”. But when everyone strives to be different, the paradox is that everyone ends up being the same.

I’ve just finished a great book, “Different”, written by a marketing Professor at Harvard Business School – Youngme Moon. Besides having a real knack for writing, which kept me interested from beginning to end, Youngme Moon managed to get me thinking on how this paradox of differentiation leading to sameness ends up ruling our lives.

The book is about brands and the way brand competition leads in fact to a “competitive herd” where everyone is striving to “keep up with the Joneses”, so much so that companies end up offering the same range of benefits to a growingly bored mass of customers. Think of all the shampoos that promise to “increase volume”, “make your hair silky”, “offer a new and enhanced formula” -in their quest for “brand augmentation” (adding more and more characteristics and benefits to the product) they end up creating what Moon calls a “category blur” – a situation where the customer can no longer distinguish between brands and ends up being loyal to none.

Moon also analyzes what makes some brands stand out from the crowd and brings in Apple, Google or IKEA as examples of outliers who managed to break free from their respective product categories or  create a new category altogether. I won’t insist much on how these outliers came to be, even though I found Moon’s explanations on this fascinating, because I don’t want to spoil the book’s charm for those of you who will decide to read it. By the way, this is a book about marketing packed up with lessons for non-marketing people. If you simply want to get a fresh look on the world and on human behavior, this book is worthwhile.

What I will insist on however, is how this book about brands resonated with my understanding of people and how they differentiate from each other. It made me think that people striving to find their unique place in the world end up being no different from those companies that all produce shampoo which will add volume to your hair.

Although we all aspire to be different, we choose to express our uniqueness by imitating others who seem to have been successful in creating a “personal brand”.  Unwillingly, we seem to fall prey to the copy-cat syndrome in many areas of our lives.

We see this all the time – in peoples’ choice of coffee-shops, clubs, clothing stores, even in their choice of which university to attend or which company to work for – there used to be a trend (in Romania) of going to law-school and becoming a lawyer or notary, which then switched to a trend of studying  economics and working in a bank, which later changed to studying political science / communication/ journalism and working in advertising. I am not suggesting that many of these people aren’t really passionate about law, economics or political science, but others, and they  may be much more numerous then we think, chose that study path simply because it was that year’s trend. I include myself in this category – I studied political science  just because it was an anti-trend to that period’s mainstream trend of studying economics. And then I realized there had been many like me who followed the anti-trend…Luckily I ended up with a career that represents ME, not any trend, even though I can’t take any credit for that – it was sheer serendipity that I was in the right place at the right time and discovered a profession I didn’t even know existed, let alone aspired towards, but which, fortunately, fit me really well .

Now, working with people who are in various stages of their careers, I  get to count my blessings every day and appreciate how fortunate I was. I get to see how devastating the copy-cat syndrome may be for one’s sense of personal accomplishment. I frequently meet professionals at the peak of their careers who are haunted by a sense that they chose the wrong career, that they haven’t really found their way in life, despite being very successful in their jobs.

I have come to believe that, unless we stop and look inside, and think really hard about what it is that we stand for, we have little chance of finding real authenticity. Are you making your life’s decisions based on what you truly believe in, or based on what others expect you to do? Do work to pay your mortgage or because you truly find meaning in your work? Did you just buy that new car because you really needed it or because you had something to prove to whoever the Joneses may be in your neighborhood?

I don’t think the question is “how can we be different”? I think we are inherently unique, it’s just that the social/financial/cultural pressures around us are forcing us to conform, are driving us towards sameness, towards blending-in. It is my belief that all we need to do (and I’m not saying it’s easy, nor comfortable) is to dig inside to find what sets us apart.  Are you an apple or an orange? If you decide you’re an applorange maybe it’s time to start living accordingly.