Facing the Question of Non/Conformity A Letter from the Editor—and Eleanor Roosevelt—for Issue Four

Dear Readers,

People from Western cultures occasionally pay lip service to nonconformity.  But if you’re really at all unusual, you may have struggled with the real world implications of this question: should you try to fit in, or should you fully embrace the fact that you stand out?  What does it even mean to embrace this?  What are the benefits and costs of deviance?  These are the questions that tie our fourth issue together.  We’re delighted to feature the work of three new contributors: Dr. Roland Persson, Dr. Deirdre Lovecky, and licensed mental health counselor Leon Garber, all of whom explore these questions from their unique vantage points.

These questions were also important to Eleanor Roosevelt, as I discovered by chance while editing this issue.  I was reading her book You Learn By Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life because Michael Piechowski mentioned it in his address to the 2018 Dabrowski Congress last summer.  The book really backs up Piechowski’s belief (which he’s written about in Advanced Development Journal) that Roosevelt reached the higher levels described in Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration (TPD).

One of Roosevelt’s eleven keys is what she calls the right to be an individual.  And as I read the chapter where she explains this key, it felt as if the illustrious first lady had written it as the prologue to this issue of Third Factor.  Take this passage, for instance:

A child may worry you because he does not seem to fit into the group.  Frequently, it would make life easier for him if he conformed.  As Americans we simply must learn not to do this.  Many people try to to put everybody into a pattern; they think the same way and do the same things.  But watch your child and you will learn that often what seems a mistake to you may be right for him.

It’s easy to imagine a parent taking this child in for a consultation with Deirdre Lovecky.  After all, Roosevelt is clearly describing a young divergent thinker.  And it’s true: life would often be easier for him if he conformed.  But because he is a divergent thinker, it would also be a mistake—indeed, it would be close to impossible—for him to do so.  In her piece, The Divergent Thinker, Lovecky draws on her years working with the highly gifted and twice-exceptional to paint a compelling portrait of this experience.

Many people tell me bitterly that today they cannot “afford” to keep their individuality, Roosevelt continues, that if they want to “get ahead” they must conform.  She has no sympathy for this argument: No position can compensate for coming face to face with a robot when you are alone.  It struck me that this is particularly good advice for someone plodding through her teenage years, trapped in a social environment with those who have little in common with her except their chronological age.  She may know that she doesn’t want to turn into a robot—but she hasn’t figured out how best to break out of the robotic mold.  That’s the experience that Garber delves into in his piece, From Contrarianism to Authenticity: Why Our Inner Selves Rebel.

Even once divegent types learn to be truly authentic, it doesn’t mean that things are going to be easy for them.  Healthy nonconformity is something that well may take a lifetime to master.  Roland Persson’s piece, The Confusing Life of Being Too Different, is frank about the challenges and the costs.  Human beings are a inherently social, and that means life will never be easy for those who are extremely different from their social reference group.  There’s simply no getting around that.  Is there a path to happiness for such people?  Persson offers thoughts on this predicament from his own experience studying talent and giftedness in human resources and his experience as a professor interacting directly with highly gifted students and peers.

Sooner or later, Roosevelt continues, you are bound to discover that you cannot please all of the people around you all of the time.  Some of them will attribute to you motives that you never dreamed of.  Some of them will misinterpret your words and actions, making them completely alien to you.  So you had better learn fairly early that you must not expect to have everyone understand what you say and do.

Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual; you have an obligation to be one.  You cannot make any useful contribution in life unless you do this.

Eleanor Roosevelt
This passage was a valuable reminder for me, because though I did learn early in life that I couldn’t expect everyone to understand what I said or did, I occasionally took a non-developmental approach to facing this truth.  Sometimes, recalling previous misunderstanding and rejection, I would just simply shut up—and shut down.  That, however, is what TPD considers negative adjustment, and it’s not something that an overexcitable divergent thinker can live with for long, as I describe in Political Iridescence: Courage and Conflict in a Tribal World.  I think it’s a story that many of you will relate to, even though you may not agree with the specific content of my political opinions.

This brings us to our Excitable Read for this issue: it’s an old favorite of mine that I reread when I was facing the consequences of being what I describe as “an intellectual tetrachromat.” In This Star Shall Abide, Sylvia Engdahl tells the story of an overexcitable young man in a highly conformist society.  Unable to obey the law in good faith, he openly declares his heresy.  The novel discusses what happens to him after that.

For the record, I do hope you will eventually read something in Third Factor with which you disagree; and I hope that when you do, you will find that the argument was presented in good faith and got you thinking constructively, regardless of whether it changed your mind.  As I discuss in my feature for this issue, I’m a socialist, but I’d also love to feature the work of thoughtful people from elsewhere on the political spectrum, or anyone else who has a different take on issues relevant to our mission.  What do negative adjustment and positive maladjustment look like from “the other side?”  We want to know, and we encourage you to pitch us an article.  We also invite you to share your thoughts at our forum, the Third Factor Third Place; we know it’s been quiet, but conversations are finally starting to bubble up there, so check it out and chime in.  The important thing, as Roosevelt wrote, is to be sure that those who love you, whether family or friends, understand as nearly as you can make them understand.  If they believe in you, they will trust your motives.  But do not ask or expect to have anyone with you on everything.  Do not try for it.  To reach such a state of unanimity would mean that you would risk losing your own individuality to attain it.

We here at Third Factor obviously believe that the benefits of healthy, authentic nonconformity and divergence are worth the costs and the challenges.  But don’t take our word for it.  Read the articles and consider them for yourself.  And then see if you agree, as I do, with Eleanor Roosevelt when she says,

Remember always that you have not only the right to be an individual; you have an obligation to be one.  You cannot make any useful contribution in life unless you do this.

Sincerely,
Jessie Mannisto
Editor in Chief

P.S. Executive Editor Chris Wells is on the road this month, meeting with several experts who have lots to say on why the theory of positive disintegration matters.  She sends her greetings and will have lots to share with you when our next issue comes out, between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

P.P.S. If you want to pick up Roosevelt’s book yourself and you’re going to get it from Amazon, you can use this link to donate some of the cost to support Third Factor.


Interested in discussing this piece? Join the conversation in the Third Factor Third Place, our discussion forum.

Editor in Chief at Third Factor jessie@thirdfactor.org + posts

A divergent thinker who can't abide an echo chamber, Jessie has served as assistant to the Consul General of Japan, Google Policy Fellow, and CIA leadership analyst. She is now an independent writer and analyst.