In 1954, Johnny Cash walked into the audition room at Sun Records.
At the time, he was a nobody. He was selling appliances door-to-door and playing gospel songs at night. He was broke, and his marriage was in ruins.
Cash decided to sing a gospel song for his audition. It’s what Cash knew best. What’s more, gospel was popular in 1954. Everyone else was singing it.
The audition, as depicted in the movie Walk the Line, doesn’t go as Cash planned. As Cash begins to sing a dreary gospel song, the record label owner Sam Phillips feigns interest for all of thirty seconds before interrupting Cash.
“We’ve already heard that song,” Phillips scoffs. “A hundred times. Just like that. Just like how you sang it.” This song, he says, is the “same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re gonna shout it.” He asks Cash to sing “something different, something real, something you felt” because that’s the kind of song that truly saves people.
“It ain’t got nothing to do with believing in God, Mr. Cash,” Philips says. “It has to do with believing in yourself.”
This rant jolts Cash out of his conformist, let-me-sing-you-some-good-old-gospel attitude. It brings out the part of him that’s been buried down by a crushing mortgage, a stale marriage, and too many years in the Air Force.
He collects himself, starts strumming his guitar, and begins singing Folsom Prison Blues in that deep, distinctive voice of his.
In that moment, he stops trying to be a gospel singer.
He becomes Johnny Cash.
He walks out of the audition room with a record contract.
We assume erasing our fingerprints from our work and following the herd makes it safe. We hide behind what’s expected and what’s accepted. We’d rather be wrong collectively—we’d rather fail singing the same gospel song that everyone else is singing—than risk failing individually. So we chase trends, adopt the latest fad, and, as Cash would say, walk the line.
The line “no one does it that way” stops a conversation before it begins. If no one does it that way, it means it can’t be done. If no one does it that way, it means we don’t know what might happen. If no one does it that way, it means we’re not going to do it that way.
This monkey see, monkey do approach creates a race to the center. But the center is too crowded with other gospel singers.
Becoming extraordinary requires becoming more like yourself—and embracing your own Folsom Prison Blues. When you do that, you become a magnet that attracts some people with the same force that it repels others.
The people you attract are your people. The others aren’t.
You can’t be liked by all and disliked by none. If you aim for that unachievable objective, you’ll only reduce the force of your magnet—the very source of your strength.
This doesn’t work if it’s a gimmick—if you’re just trying to get attention or zigging simply because everyone else is zagging. This isn’t rule breaking for the sake of rule breaking either—rebelling without a cause against the establishment. Rather, it’s an intentional bending of the rules, driven by a desire to live in a way that’s aligned with who you are.
It’s only by embracing, rather than erasing, your idiosyncrasies—the things that make you extraordinarily you—that you become remarkable.