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]

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23 Comments

  • Jill McNamara

    This is the best article I've read in a long time. Makes me proud of my weirdness and proud to be in an industry that accepts me for my weirdness! Thanks for sharing. 

  • Guest

    Why should an individual who has interests outside of advertising be considered weird? I think that someone who is solely invested in advertising is the true weirdo. 

  • Gina Rau

    In my opinion, weird is very different from creative, fun, inquisitive, adventurous, daring, and youthful. These are all qualities that allow people to explore ideas and solutions, to try new things on. Being unique is different than weird. Weird doesn't always lead to creative, new ideas. I like the overall message, but disagree with "weird".

  • Stephanie

    I agree, weirdness for its own sake can often only lead to meaningless absurdity (e.g. Lady Gaga), but I think he here meant "creativity" or "thinking outside the box" and only used the word "weird" because those terms are so overused. How many articles have you read on creativity/outside the box vs. weirdness?

  • jer

    This is all good.  This is what we want in a civilization, in ourselves, to go inside, touch that authentic spark and say it, share it, be present with it, own it, be it.  Thanks to all for sharing from the inside out.  This models the very world we want to live in.

  • Ruben Berenguel

    Beat me on weirdness if you can:

    * I'm a mathematician (finishing my PhD, I have one published article on complex dynamics)
    * I work in online advertising & optimization
    * I moonshine as artisan shoemaker (I make shoes from the ground up: design, cut, sew and sole) together with my girlfriend, we've had orders (men and women alike) from all around the world
    * In my rare spare moments I program websites, do calligraphy, draw, play the guitar, run and play go. And I used to do karate back when I lived closer to a good dojo. Oh, and I'm learning Russian, Icelandic and Finnish.

  • jhaime

    re: the image, it's a chair, stuck to a wall, nothing abstract or creative about it. Tomorrow, I'll stick a 'watch out for deer' sign where they're building new houses, how anti-whatever and 'ironic'. 

    As always, Fast co (real creative name) pull in readership from their army of spammy tweeters...oh, don't worry, you're in great company with Forbes, Mashable and Techcrunch. 

    If you want to build something that lasts, work hard, make mistakes, learn from them, be honest with yourself and your team, improve every day, relax when you can, read helpful anecdotes and oh, live a little. 

    Yes, you can be 'progressive' and create classroom 'chaos' to sculpt a new educational frontier *star trek pun* but ultimately an individual from any background can accomplish anything, just look at Madonna and Angelina Jolie, pair of absolute fuck-up junkies before getting their shit in order. 

    Note to the eds, shove your pretentious bollocks and come back with some proper journalism. 

  • Georgia Koch

    I love this article! I just launched a Kickstarter campaign to self-publish a book of my drawings, all about feeling weird: bit.ly/ifeelweird

    Much love to all the weirdos out there! 

  • Dan OBrien

    It's called being true to who you really are.  Freak flag or geek flag, we've all got a backstory.  That inner voice that we've been told to stifle is the one we have to let loose.  The bigger the gap between how we naturally act and how we think we should act, the less authentic and energized we are.

  • Guest

    you can't be that wierd:

    a) you work in an advertising agency
    b) your claim to wierdness is starwars... wow, mainstream SF is so out there. 

  • Guest

    Seriously. Try again, bud. Working at a giant ad agency has seriously watered down what you consider to be "weird" to the point where actual weirdos find this post laughably safe and conservative. 

  • Mmmagenta

    That image is of Brian Goggin's epically weird installation "Defenestration" in SF. THAT is true artistic genius weird!