In my teenage formative years, which (I will have to admit) occurred
during the 80s, educators and other people deeply involved in the
formation of young peoples' psyches laid great emphasis on building
and enhancing our self-esteem. Self-esteem, in fact, seems to have
been the cause and cure of every major problem suffered by any young
person in the 80s; if you caved to peer pressure, it was because you
lacked self-esteem. If you dressed in the latest styles, it was
because you lacked the self-esteem to differentiate yourself from
the crowd. If you dressed contrary to the latest styles, it was
because you lacked the self-esteem to trust in your abilities (rather
than your fashion) to stand out. Everything, it seemed, centered
around your self-esteem, or lack thereof. "Be yourself", they said.
"Don't be what anyone else says you are", and so on.
In what I think was supposed to be a trump card for those who suffered
from chronically low self-esteem, those who were trying to form us
into highly-self-esteemed young adults stressed the fact
that by virtue of the fact that each of us owns a unique strand of
DNA, then each of us is unique, and therefore each of us is special.
This was, I think, supposed to impose on each of us a sense of self-
worth and self-value that could be relied upon in the event that
our own internal processing and evaluation led us to believe that
we weren't worth anything.
(There was a lot of this handed down at my high school, for example,
particularly my freshman year when one of my swim team teammates
With the benefit of thirty years' hindsight, I can pronounce this
little experiment/effort something of a failure.
The reason I say this is because it has, it seems, spawned a
generation of now-adults who are convinced that because they are
unique, that they are somehow different--that because of their
uniqueness, the generalizations that we draw about people as a
whole don't apply to them. I knew one woman (rather well) who told
me, flat out, that she couldn't get anything out of going to
therapy, because she was different from everybody else. "And if
I'm different, then all of those things that the therapist thinks
about everybody else won't apply to me." And before readers
start thinking that she was a unique case, I've heard it in a
variety of different forms from others, too, on a variety of
different topics other than mental health. Toss in the study,
quoted in a variety of different psych books, that something
like 80% of the population thinks they are "above average", and
you begin to get what I mean--somewhere, deep down, we've been
led down this path that says "Because you are unique, you are
And folks, I hate to burst your bubble, but you're not.
Don't get me wrong, I understand that fundamentally, if you are
unique, then by definition you are different from everybody else.
But implicit in this discussion of the word "different" is an
assumption that suggests that "different" means "markedly
different", and it's in that distinction that the argument rests.
Consider this string of numbers for a second:
and this string of numbers:
These two strings are unique, but I would argue that they're not
different--in fact, their contents differ by one digit (did you
spot it?), but unless you're looking for the difference, they're
basically the same sequential set of numbers. Contrast, then,
the first string of numbers with this one:
Now, the fact that they are unique is so clear, it's obvious
that they are different. Markedly different, I would argue.
If we look at your DNA, and we compare it to another human's DNA,
the truth is (and I'm no biologist, so I'm trying to quote the
numbers I was told back in high school biology), you and I share
about 99% of the same DNA. Considering the first two strings above
are exactly 98% different (one number in 50 digits), if you didn't
see the two strings as different, then I don't think you can
claim that you're markedly different from any other human if
you're half again less different than those two numbers.
(By the way, this is actually a very good thing, because medical
science would be orders of magnitude more difficult, if not entirely
impossible, to practice if we were all more different than that.
Consider what life would be like if the MD had to study you, your
body, for a few years before she could determine whether or not
Tylenol would work on your biochemistry to relieve your headache.)
But maybe you're one of those who believes that the difference
comes from your experiences--you're a "nurture over nature" kind
of person. Leaving all the twins' research aside (the nature-ists
final trump card, a ton of research that shows twins engaging in
similar actions and behaviors despite being raised in separate
households, thus providing the best isolation of nature and
nurture while still minimizing the variables), let's take a small
quiz. How many of you have:
... we could go on, probably indefinitely. You can probably see
where I'm going with this--if we look at the sum total of our
experiences, we're going to find that a large percentage of our
experiences are actually quite similar, particularly if we examine
them at a high level. Certainly we can ask the questions at a
specific enough level to force uniqueness ("How many of you have
kissed Charlotte Neward on September 23rd 1990 in Davis,
California?"), but doing so ignores a basic fact that despite
the details, your first kiss with the man or woman you married
has more in common with mine than not.
- kissed someone not in your family
- slept with someone not in your family
- been to a baseball game
- been to a bar
- had a one-night stand
- had a one-night stand that turned into "something more"
If you still don't believe me, go read your horoscope for
yesterday, and see how much of that "prediction" came true. Then
read the horoscope for yesterday for somebody born six months
away from you, and see how much of that "prediction" came true.
Or, if you really want to test this theory, find somebody who
believes in horoscopes, and read them the wrong one, and see if
they buy it as their own. (They will, trust me.) Our experiences
share far more in common--possibly to the tune of somewhere in the
high 90th percentiles.
The point to all of this? As much as you may not want to admit
it, just because you are unique does not make you different.
Your brain reacts the same ways as mine does, and your emotions
lead you to make bad decisions in the same ways that mine does.
Your uniqueness does not in any way exempt you from the
generalizations that we can infer based on how all the rest of
us act, behave, and interact.
This is both terrifying and reassuring: terrifying because it means
that the last bastion of justification for self-worth, that you are
unique, is no longer a place you can hide, and reassuring because
it means that even if you are emotionally an absolute wreck, we
know how to help you straighten your life out.
By the way, if you're a software dev and wondering how this applies
in any way to software, all of this is true of software projects,
as well. How could it not? It's a human exercise, and as a result
it's going to be made up of a collection of experiences that are
entirely human. Which again, is terrifying and reassuring: terrifying
in that your project really isn't the unique exercise you thought
it was (and therefore maybe there's no excuse for it being in such a deep hole), and reassuring in that if/when it goes off the rails into the land of dysfunction, it can be rescued.