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Being like everyone else isn’t the answer. Being like no one else is the answer. You have to be incompatible.

In this week’s, Six Links Worth Of Your Attention #18, Hugh McGuire (from Librivox, iambik and a co-host on Media Hacks) recommended that I watch the Bloomberg TV documentary, Bloomberg Game Changers: Steve Jobs, on Apple co-founder and CEO, Steve Jobs. There’s no doubt that Jobs is an iconoclast, but what really struck me was when someone described him as "incompatible," and pushed it further by saying that’s what makes him so unique, special and creative. Guy Kawasaki went on to say that Jobs is so different from most other people, that getting him to even think like everybody else would be like trying to explain to a fish what it is to fly.

This pushes well beyond what we would consider to be a visionary.

Think about what it takes to really breakthrough. Think about what it takes to truly be a visionary. Think about what it takes to actually change the game. It’s not easy. People are not going to like you, and odds are that you’re not going to be able to be exceedingly social, simply because you see things differently. Why does someone commit suicide? I have (sadly) known more than a few people who have taken their own lives. It never really makes any sense. The problem comes in trying to understand it. You can’t put a rational thought around a situation that is not rational. People who are incompatible don’t think and operate the same way that the rest of us do. Trying to see them as we see others is not rational.

What makes someone incompatible?

  • Change. Incompatible people don’t mind change at all. They try. They fail. They change. The don’t look back. They look forward. The only constant in their lives is that things will change, and this is fine with them as long as it leads to perfection.
  • Disruptive force. Most people see their actions as irrational. These people scream, yell and probably demand what seems to be the impossible out of people. They don’t work regular hours. They don’t care much for vacation. Their life balance looks nothing like our work/life balance.
  • Artist. It doesn’t matter if they’re inventing the iPad or a new irrigation system. Their work is not their work. Their work is their art. It is what they were meant to do and – in the end – it is art. Both in the creation process and in the final product. Incompatibles embrace the artist’s way and follow their muse. They don’t care much about market research or customer insights. They know better than both.
  • Revolutionary. The work they do isn’t just a few steps above the competition, they are – literally – revolutionizing their industry (and sometimes even creating their own industry). Everything they do is about causing maximum disruption to the way things used to be.
  • The reality distortion field. According to Wikipedia: "a term coined by Bud Tribble at Apple Computer in 1981, to describe company co-founder Steve Jobs’ charisma and its effects on the developers working on the Mac project. Later the term has also been used to refer to perceptions of his keynote (or Stevenote) by observers and devoted users of Apple computers and products. In essence, RDF is the idea that Steve Jobs is able to convince himself and others to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bluster, exaggeration, marketing, appeasement, and persistence. RDF is said to distort an audience’s sense of proportion and scales of difficulties and makes them believe that the task at hand is possible."
  • Alone. There are only a handful of visionaries. The word may be tossed around to describe a whole lot of business executives, but there are only a few true visionaries. These people usually are very lonely. They are lost in their ideas and drive. It makes it challenging to navigate relationships and they feel that people either can’t understand them or don’t have the knowledge base to comprehend them. Yes, they believe others are stupider than they are.

Being incompatible isn’t a bad thing. 

It’s easy to get all negative about people who are incompatible, but imagine a world without people who did not fit in? Imagine a world without people who knew there was a better or different way to do things? Ultimately, we have to accept incompatible people for who they are, and simply hope that enough people can get past their reality distortion field to help them realize what is burning so deep inside of them.

We need more people who are incompatible.


  1. Mitch – I have to ask. Incompatibility = learned trait or something you are born with. I find these sorts of people are born with a certain something others don’t have. Same way with teachers. You are either a teacher or you aren’t. Sure you can learn how to lesson plan, etc. but that isn’t the true essence of one.

  2. The Incompatibility of few has been part of the human condition since we humans were “invented”. As -George Bernard Shaw said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
    Social groups in all societies are configured by “normal” people to operate using “normal” guidelines to satisfy “normality” and to encourage us to be compatible, to follow convention, to “tow the line” and to “never rock the boat”. Should you wish to live a calm, stable life, practice the above, be forever successful and “happy”. Contribute to mediocrity.
    We all want what is best for the collectivity. What is there now is far from the best. But, shall you not propose anything outside of the present convention, regardless if it may make things better for the collectivity. Irreverent you, get in line.
    Which brings us to the education system. Vocational, technical institutions are there to fulfil specific quantifiable requirements in our societies. Should not universities dedicate a great part of their curriculum to “explore” rather than to “teach”? But, I guess not. In our “just and correct modern societies” It maybe consider cruel to set free to “explore” all those with limited vision, without a priori haven given them “the lantern” of specific guidelines which would then defeat the purpose of exploring since will be teaching them to “think”.

  3. I disagree on that not all of them think others are stupider than they are, and not all of them are born with it, you can become a prodigy or savant and depression is a problem of the mind if you do not unfold it properly after you fold it… It’s not about people being stupid it’s more of a language problem. Maybe he should give people the so called Psychedelics he is known to have used for his creativity while explaining his ideas to them.

  4. Wonderful and Powerful piece, Mitch!
    I knew a couple of people who accelerated the end as well and there is absolutely no concrete thought in my head that can reconcile it. But it does point to the fact that we admire individualism while we push it away. We don’t understand those who make their own rules yet we look at them with amazement.
    The tortured soul that cannot be confirmed is left looking for a place to belong.
    I question that the incompatible feel superior or smarter than us, they are just defiant in our regulated world.
    Further to Ryan’s point, I believe many (if not all) of these traits are born with you and to some a lifelong struggle to find a place for those traits while others who soar and let others follow.
    “Every society honors it’s live conformists and dead troublemakers.”
    Mignon McLaughlin

  5. Spot on piece Mitch, nicely of the beaten path.
    I would add Nicholas Taleb to this small group you have dubbed “The Incompatibles”.
    His indescribably insightful book “Fooled by Randomness” set a bar few will reach.

  6. I wonder if we would have more “incompatibles” is there was greater societal acceptance. We tend to view these people as a bit “off”, until they produce something of mass appeal. What if we encouraged these attributes and built an educational system around it where these talents, views, perceptions could be nurtured from an early age?

  7. Oh, I have to disagree here. You seem to imply that some of the true visionaries simply can’t connect with people (hence, why they are “incompatible”). But I like to believe that the very traits that you list ADD to the ability of some people to connect.
    For instance — I’m a change agent — but I make sure the changes I implement have clearly recognizable benefits. So people want to connect because they see the positive changes that occur. Or I work totally insane hours — simply so that when someone does want to connect with me, I can drop everything for a moment and connect. Or…I’m an artist — so I give gifts of art to everyone I meet. And OH, yes, please pass me those Reality Distortion Field glasses. ‘Cuz why else would everyone who works for me work *all the time, as hard as they can and still love it?”
    I am not alone, and I don’t think the true “visionaries” are alone either. Especially today, when everything you do can be done so much better, so much faster *through connecting*.
    I don’t think true visionaries are “incompatible” with anyone. However — I agree there are *other* people out there who might be incompatible with the visionary. 🙂

  8. I think there will always be exceptions, but I would tend to agree with you. I’m not sure you can learn to be incompatible. It sounds like it would be inauthentic. Can you teach someone to be eccentric? I’m not sure.

  9. OK, not all of them… but apparently (according to this documentary), Jobs is like that. If an incompatible doesn’t think everyone else is stupid, they often do feel like they are either misunderstood or that others can’t understand them. Maybe “stupid” was a little harsh.

  10. It may be that they’re simply less understood by the masses, and that makes them feel that what they say or do is not being comprehended. Someone who didn’t think that they were “on to something” might be insecure and these people tend to be more defiant.

  11. Help me understand your side here: look at the real ground-breakers: Einstein, etc… do you see them as team players? I think people like to connect with those who are on the fringe, but are they always able to integrate into the “everyday”… I doubt it… that’s what struck me most about this documentary.

  12. Oh I agree probably most are like that and Lisa tagged them not ‘true’ visionaries. But I don’t think that matters either, they are all visionaries compared. Job’s frustration probably comes from the inability to convince the rest of the team of his vision(s). If he feels misunderstood, it’s probably because he is using a more advanced OS than the rest of his team, with a little autistic side effect that has not been fully unfolded. When he learns to use his Kernel instead of any OS then he can communicate with others effectively regardless of their OS. Alternatively he can bring a Shaman into the board meetings, to facilitate OS upgrades. 😉

  13. looking through a different angle at this documentary:
    Behold the believers of all belief! Whom do they hate the most? Him who breaks down their tables of values, the breaker, the lawbreaker.. He however, is the creator.. “Thus spoke Zarathustra”

  14. Funny enough I just saw the link to this documentary you’re referring to!!! Sounds like Guy has had a little upgrade himself.
    PS. I don’t consider Edison as a true visionary if that’s the term in Lisa’s OS.

  15. I was taking notes during the Jobs documentary to see what the patterns were like from the people describing him. When the movie was done, it seemed like many of the traits we would associate to other incompatibles.

  16. Not the entire education system. The “factory model” fills a need. But, could there be a parallel “think-thank system maybe classrooms” were the incompatible nonconformist could let loose their creativity without getting chastised for not “falling in line”? (I said parallel and not separate to calm down the outcry of “that’s elitism!!!”, we all should have equal access to it also!!!, since we are all equal).
    There would be several long terms benefits to that approach:
    One society/humanity “may” benefit from ideas incubated there. In time, this will hopefully assist society to understand that having incompatible nonconformists within its ranks, may be beneficial to the entire society, so the incompatible nonconformists would be considered a social asset.
    Another, perhaps less altruistic, but fair, would be that the the incompatible nonconformists would be less bored, fell less guilty and oppressed at least for a short period in their lives and somewhat validate their existence.
    It’s not a case for elitism, or, that some are better that others, it is just a case of being different.

  17. Hi Mitch,
    An enjoyable read as usual. I place this entry along side the one you wrote about letting go and being silly at times, as some of my favorite blogs by you.
    For anyone who hasn’t read that blog yet –
    The type person you seem to be describing, are, in my opinion, merely wired differently than the majority of the population. Often misunderstood while the world catches up to them,if ever.
    I would like to share this with you, as an example of an incompatible.

    Thank Mitch!

  18. I had Sir Ken for Tea and cookies yesterday.
    He made a mess, totally reworked “The System”, spilled the tea, cookie crumbs all over the floor. A total nonconformist. Love it.

  19. True, though thanks to blogs such as this one, we can enable change. Through a spark a great fire starts…

  20. Interesting thoughts on incompatibility. In addition, I do believe or existing “factory model” that Universities follow has to be rethought (perhaps by an “Incompatible”?)
    Am I missing something? Why would we need to make the parallel think-tank system accessible to all if it is to be incompatible? Would that not be a definition of our current University system? The “incompatibles” should be left to create/re-engineer the world without interference from those that only serve to anchor thoughts in the now!
    This does appear to be getting closer to a free-market solution than a university design problem….
    I say lead the way!

  21. There are probably many more incompatibles out there who have it beaten/schooled/trained out of them… mostly through the schooling system. We need to be able to identify these incompatibles early on and help them flourish.

  22. Hopefully one day, both business and Governments will identify the “incompatibles” as an excellent investment, both in quantifiable-financial and practical human terms.
    As the United Negro College Fund says: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

  23. I just watched the documentary and too many notes, but all I really have to say is two things. First – thanks to the “Six Links Worthy of Your Attention” for bringing this to my attention! Secondly – blessed are the incompatibles because they make the rest of the square pegs feel like it is okay to be different. Not every square peg will change the world in a big way; but most of us will change our little part of it.

  24. Maybe Taleb is am incompatible only within the circles I travel Mitch, an interesting possibility. Or are you telling me few people have deemed the premise of the book correct?

  25. He may be – I don’t know enough about him. I’m sure there are many incompatibles within specific industries that I have never heard of. This is just the first time that I’m hearing someone say that Taleb is like that.

  26. Agreed. I find just being around people like that helps me to give myself permission to be more creative, etc… It’s one of the primary reasons I attend the TED conference each year… I’m trying to be around more incompatibles.

  27. Excellent post, Mitch I think this is right on target and especially enjoyed the subsequent discussion about teaching “incompatibility.” I don’t think it can be taught per se, yet I think schools can do more to ignite sparks of any kids who are emerging incompatibles. Specifically, I believe classes such as critical thinking and philosophy ought to be taught in high school and I think a lot of this is done in secondary private schools much more than in the K-12 public school “factories”.
    So education should teach kids “how” to think rather than “what” to think.

  28. Letting young people know that their incompatible skills should be highlighted and worked with (so long as they are positive) is definitely something most of us can get behind. The challenge with it is that the majority of teachers will see these incompatible traits as bad things… the person is not a team player, does not listen to authority, doesn’t see things the way the other students do, etc…
    It’s very challenging.

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