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Former executive vice-president of Telus, educator, adviser and author of Be Different or Be Dead.

Fitting in has been hammered into our heads our whole lives.

School teaches us to comply and conform to what the textbook says. Our parents reinforce at a very early age that being normal like everyone else is the thing to do, that not being like others gets you noticed and gets you in trouble. Business encourages us to find best practices and copy them as the way to improve performance.

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As a result, we have created herds of people who are all alike in some way.

This is a real problem in organizations in which establishing a competitive advantage is the ultimate goal. An advantage isn’t about copying what another organization does; it’s about creating a uniqueness and distinction that is unmatched by anyone else.

And it’s also an issue for individuals who are looking to get a job and start a career. Getting that interview and landing that position is not about looking like every other candidate; rather, it’s about standing out and being noticed as someone who demonstrates special attributes that others don’t possess.

Gecko or chameleon?

The point is this: If an organization or individual does not possess anything unique about them, why should anyone notice and care about them? Why should they be chosen over the plethora of options people have?

If they are not different in a way that is compelling and appealing to others, they will blend into the crowd and will disappear from anyone’s radar.

What do you notice and find more interesting: a chameleon or a gecko?

A ptarmigan or a cattle egret?

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Your identity is determined by your context, the frame you live in. It could be the market segment your organization competes in or your MBA graduation class.

In both cases, the challenge is to find a way to gain a competitive edge and be successful given the many others seeking the same result.

If you are indistinguishable from others that share the same context, you will have no identity to those witnessing you and deciding whether or not to engage – other than family, of course, who have no choice in the matter.

Success is achieved for both organizations and individuals by staking out an unmatched position that separates one from their context; that separates them from peers, colleagues and competitors.

The best isn’t good enough

Jerry Garcia, business genius and leader of The Grateful Dead, nailed it: “You don’t want merely to be the best of the best, you want to be the only ones that do what you do.”

Claiming a position like being the best, the leader or No. 1 doesn’t separate you from your context for several reasons. First, it’s not unique – many make claims like this. Second, it rarely can be substantiated with hard facts. Third, it’s not believable.

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Stepping away from your context is not about using comparatives like “better” and superlatives like “best”; it’s all about being “the only one” that does something.

It’s a simple expression of what you do that no one else does. It can be observed and it can be measured.

It doesn’t have to be complicated

Finding what makes you uniquely special needn’t be complicated. It’s a matter of discovering what interests people and satisfying it in a special way that surprises others and makes them remember you.

  • Strumming a signature long, protracted guitar chord at the end of every song.
  • Amazing problem-solving abilities of employees who directly deal with customers every day.
  • Having employees who genuinely care about others.
  • Offering a personalized video résumé that speaks to your audience.
  • Being the first one to put their hand up and volunteer for a project that will take personal time.
  • Remembering the names of people you meet.
  • Creating a character for your grandchildren – mine was “Papa Troll” – that enriches their lives with fun.
  • Giving credit to peers and colleagues rather than wanting to personally grab the spotlight.
  • Using uncommon words and your own language that is a bit out there, such as “yummy incoming” and “cut the crap.”
  • Having a simple and informal communication style that captures the hearts of other people and makes you real.
  • Keeping promises made in a world where this attribute is very rare.

Get it in your head

Stepping out of your context begins with having a mindset that makes it a constant priority; you live and breathe it every moment of every day, whether you are in an organization or in your personal life.

You are always looking for opportunities to surprise others and do things differently than what they expect.

Be the chameleon.

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