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Leadership

Why Channeling Your Inner Weirdo Helps You Get Ahead At Work

Let that freak flag fly, says an Ogilvy & Mather exec, and success is sure to follow.

I have succeeded at five different ad agencies over the course of nearly two decades by sticking to one simple rule: Be a freakin’ weirdo.

Weird, you question? Yes, weird. Weird is what fuels individuals in the most prolific agencies to remain the vanguards of new ideas. And despite the tendency to outfit agency halls with creative stimuli, channeling our "inner weirdo" is not a natural tendency simply instigated by odd-shaped chairs or brainstorming books. Weirdness—uncovering it, embracing it, practicing it—is one of the most difficult, yet most integral, components to success within the halls of any agency.

I first learned to unleash my inner weird when I was a child attending a Montessori school. And now as an adult working in the advertising world, I haven’t just grown up—I’ve grown weirder. Purposefully.

I was a Montessori kid back in the '70s and '80s when it was a relatively nascent and often misunderstood form of education. I credit my mom for being an early adopter of a teaching method that has since gained much steam across the country. Montessori education has helped give the world some revolutionary visionaries in the digital age, including Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and Sims designer Will Wright. Page once told Barbara Walters in an interview:

"We both went to Montessori school, and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, and doing things a little bit different that contributed to our success."

While I'm not putting myself in such esteemed company, we do share this unique educational background. The structure of the Montessori school—the encouragement to think freely, to create and to wonder—also unconsciously had other effects: I got weird. While other kids wore school-spirit sweatshirts, I fashioned a T-shirt with a hand-drawn dinosaur. While my neighborhood friends memorized Mr. Z, I examined trilobite fossils. And later, to my shock and amazement, I learned that some mothers choose to save their placentas for an iron-enriched postpartum feast. I was in 5th grade for that lesson, and it took me years to shake off the borderline cannibalization questions that have haunted me ever since.

Recently, I shared a thought with my boss—what if we gave the planners at our agency a way to channel their own inner weird? I was inspired by a quote from our founder David Ogilvy:

"Don't let your people fall into a rut. Keep leading them along new paths, blazing new trails. Give them a sense of adventurous pioneering."

I coined my thought as "declaring your minor." My missive was as follows:

We all have a major in our professional lives, our vocation, our professional purpose. But we all have another side—a pursuit, a passion, a drive or interest in something of inexplicable origins. It keeps us up past normal bedtimes and nags at us when we don't feed it. We are rare birds with passions, interests, and pursuits that sometimes may feel singular in their pursuit. We want to codify this personal passion as our minor.

We are asking you to declare your minor. It could be as weird as you want it to be—as long as you can loosely rationalize a connection to our industry. Once declared, we will work together to build skill-sets around those passions so you become a known resident expert in your field of study.

Since declaring my own weird obsession for Star Wars, I’ve found myself among a cadre of other such enthusiasts—a wretched hive of scum and villainy—who share seemingly never-ending Internet content. As a result, our strategic team was inspired to take a unique approach to a competitive review in which we likened our client’s brand to the rebel forces, and the rest of the category to Darth Vader’s invading force on the brand’s flavor innovation stronghold. The analogue helped us share time-sensitive, competitive intel and do so in an engaging way where we could collaborate on predicting the future moves of these imperial forces.

Being weird, I’ve come to realize, is only weird if you don’t use it to better yourself and those around you. Weird is the spark in innovation that separates the good from the great. Weird is the muscle behind adaptability and progress. Weird makes us broader thinkers, stronger leaders, and more adventurous co-conspirators. And while it’s been years since my Montessori days, I continue to channel my inner weird today with pride and purpose.

As David Ogilvy once said: "We pursue knowledge the way a pig pursues truffles."

Oink, oink, you weirdos.

John Manley is Ogilvy & Mather Chicago’s Executive Group Planning Director and a die-hard Star Wars nerd.

[Image: Flickr user Dawn Endico]