A few weeks ago, I went to my first Bruce Springsteen concert.
I was blown away. Here was this 73-year-old guy dancing, jumping, and sliding across the stage, pulling off moves that would put people in their 30s to shame. He played for 2.5 hours nonstop—seamlessly transitioning from one song to another with few breaks in between.
He’s been doing this since 1965. That’s the kind of longevity that most musicians can only dream about.
As I watched him on stage, I thought about what made him extraordinary.
It’s not his voice. He readily admits that his voice isn’t amazing. He can play the guitar, but “the world is filled with plenty of good guitar players, many of them my match or better,” he writes in his excellent memoir, Born to Run.
Instead of aiming for the same target as other musicians—trying to out-sing or out-play them—Springsteen instead doubled down on the quality that made him unique: His ability to write song lyrics.
Springsteen became a sensation for writing lyrics that capture the blue-collar spirit (“For my 19th birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat”), that show the distance between the American dream and the American reality (“Waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets”), and that allow his audience to find pieces of themselves in his music (“I want to know if love is real”).
The same man initially dismissed by audiences, agents, bandmates, and just about everyone else eventually became a rock ’n’ roll sensation.
Springsteen did what Brian Eno, another extraordinary musician, advises. People often want to “aim for the biggest, most obvious target, and hit it smack in the bull’s eye,” Eno says. “Of course with everybody else aiming there as well that makes it very hard to hit.” The alternative? “Shoot the arrow, then paint the target around it,” Eno explains. “Make the niches in which you finally reside.”
Stop aiming for the same obvious target as everyone else. Figure out your first principles as a person—the Lego blocks of your talents, interests, and preferences—and paint the target around them.
Your first principles are often the qualities you suppress the most—because they make you weird or different from other people. At some point in your life, you were probably shamed for embodying those qualities, so you learned to conceal them.
But here’s the thing: We notice things because of contrast. Something stands out because it’s different from what surrounds it.
If you blend into the background—if you show no idiosyncrasy, no fingerprints, no contrast, no anomaly—you become invisible. You become the background.
It’s only by embracing, rather than erasing, your idiosyncrasies that you can become extraordinary.