Standing Out in a Crowd

Aug 07, 2006

One trait that I have often observed in those design and environmental professionals who are known in their field is they aren’t afraid to stand out in a crowd. Whether it’s their bowtie, their red metal spectacles, or the ancient ‘59 Porsche 356 coupe they drive every day, something makes these people seem different from everyone else. Marlon Blackwell, a local architect here in Fayetteville who also teaches here at The University of Arkansas is a good example of someone who is not afraid to stand out. His projects make him known— some love his work and some hate it— but you always know it’s his. Right now, he’s building a new house for himself a couple blocks from where I live in an older neighborhood called Wilson Park and many are aghast. It looks like two very modern mobile homes, one bridging a ravine, and the other resting on top of it forming an “L” shape. Marlon is not afraid to be different from everyone else! Or how about someone like Peter Van Dermeulen, the founder of Power Engineering (Hailey, ID)? Everything about Pete made him stand out, from his bowed legs, to his handlebar mustache, to his wearing a fly fishing vest, complete with flies, in meetings in their company conference room. Pete once told me some years back that he did something like 15 acquisitions and lost money on all but one of them, and it was so good, it made up for all the others. What a character he was! Or how about the Memphis architect, Roy Harrover, designer of Memphis Municipal Airport, the original Mud Island, and much more. Roy always had on a blue blazer and penny loafers, and smoked Marlboro Reds. You could tell it was him from miles away. He did every noteworthy project in Memphis from the 50s to the 80s. Or how about the late Dr. Roy F. Weston, who kept returning from retirement to take back the reins of his firm. He was a character known for his Cadillacs and powerful personality and he built what at one time was undoubtedly the most prestigious environmental consulting firm in the nation. Then there’s John Portman, still referred to respectfully as “Mr. Portman” in the halls of the development company and architectural firms that bear his name in Atlanta. He changed the world of architecture when he challenged the norms of his profession and became a developer who designed his own projects. And who did Tom Wolfe want to interview for his smash novel, “A Man in Full?” John Portman, of course! The point of my ranting is this: You will not be at the top of your field— the very top— if you’re too worried about what everyone else thinks. You aren’t going to get there by fitting in and blending in with the crowd. You may get there (no guarantees, of course!) by looking different, sounding different, and being fundamentally different from others who do what you do. Those who aren’t afraid to stand out will be better known. The better known you are, the greater the probability you will get the opportunity that no one else does. One thing I have always prided myself on is this: I am not preaching to you anything I don’t practice myself. Those readers who know me know that’s true. Conformity is the path to mediocrity. And mediocrity is no fun! Originally published 8/07/2006

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