Over the winter of 2015, after having spent a wonderful and eventful Summer in Turkey, I decided to return to a small town called “Fethiye” for Christmas Holidays. I had little else to do, and I’d been hired by a friend to edit a book of his. The small port town was thus the perfect getaway now that the prices had fallen and the tourists had left for warmer places.
Truth be told, most of the articles I published in 2016 came from this month of work. The sudden and noticeable drop in activity and frequency of published articles midyear happened once I ran out of them, and actually had to get my ass into gear. Although I quite enjoy the art and craft of writing, I often just as much enjoy pretending I’m going to write and watching Youtube videos instead.
Be that as it may, I have very fond memories of this month as a quasi-hermit and author. Despite the terrible weather, the fabulous scenery was still there, and there wasn’t a foreigner in sight. Hence the few remaining shops, restaurants and hostels open were extremely generous to any lost soul that happened to end up over there. Among them there was a cafe by the boardwalk called “Pelikan Cafe,” and contrary to expectations, its name delivered!
One night, I’d found myself on the pier and needing to find my bearings, I took my phone out and sat aside a drove of plastic pelicans. At least I’d thought they were plastic until one seemed to come to life and, driven by an insatiable blood lust, went straight for my jugular. Fortunately, pelicans are a lazy bunch, for it quickly lost interest in me after I dodged it and jumped away from its immediate vicinity.This is how I was first introduced to the locale, surrounded by pelicans and fearing for my safety. Naturally, the next day I decided to go there and have tea.
I’ve often had people wonder how it’s possible that I end up in gunfights, saving people’s lives, buying elephants, or being chased by criminals perhaps there’s a clue to be found here. As I went there the next day, and the day after that. Before I knew it, I was frequenting the place about as much as the eponymous feathered murderers.
After a while, I noticed that the birds only went to that one very specific cafe. No other restaurant had them, and they were clearly worthwhile for advertising as it seemed to attract both the scant tourists and locals alike. Why did they only go to this one cafe though? I wondered this for days, I mean the tea was good, but nowhere near good enough to go there every single day for years on end. Especially when you’re a large, dumb bird that is primarily lead by its stomach and doesn’t drink tea. I thus asked Hussein, the cafe owner, how it was that he had been crowned the pelican king.
He looked at me, and laughed as he allowed a pelican he was petting to try and swallow his arm whole. “I bribe them with a lot of fish. It took a couple of months, but when they learned that they could get easy food here they started coming. It’s done wonders for my business. Being different is the only way you can succeed in this place, there’s just far too many restaurants competing.” I sincerely doubt that he meant it as a grand philosophical statement about how to life one’s life, but having thought it through, I do believe he’s right.
If you try to succeed in exactly the same ways as everyone else, you will never be number one. Everyone tries to compete on the same fronts and it’s difficult to stand out if you’re always doing the same thing as the rest. By making your own rules, and game, you can reach your goals much faster than had you tried playing someone else’s game.
Every great success that I’ve had in my life has happened as a direct result of adapting the circumstances to fit my desires, rather than the other way around. For example, I didn’t have high enough grades to get into the university I got into. I’ve always loved learning, reading, writing and so on – I just detest the institution of school and resent being forced to do things. Hence I was always on the lower end of the bell curve, when it comes to academic performance. During my whole academic life, I doubt that I did 40% of the homework that was issued, but I always played it smart and did just enough to pass.
Yes, it has come to bite me in the ass, but nowhere near enough to consider stopping. Most institutions would not even look at me from an academic standpoint. As such, I quickly decided not to tell them my academic record at all. Some asked for it immediately, others didn’t. Among them, I was issued two conditional offers from good universities because of my well written personal statement (an essay that is used in British university applications to market yourself as a person, instead of just a number).
Long story short, I failed to meet their asked for conditions, as I feared I might. But my hidden ace has always been my ability to write. So I wrote a letter to the head of the economics department and doubled down on my personal statement. I stated bluntly that they had been interested in me from the start without having seen my academic record, why should now be any different when they had? The bluff worked, for I got a guaranteed place in one of the two in the end.
On paper I shouldn’t have succeeded. The rules stated bluntly that I couldn’t. Yet rarely is life so black and white. After all, don’t exceptions make the rules? By playing the game differently than other players you run a higher than average chance at being the breakaway exception. Don’t take life advice solely from me, or someone who herds pelicans for a living though.
Instead, take life advice from Eratosthenes, a man who was arguably among one of the most accomplished and knowledgeable men of his age. His name may not be commonplace today, but make no mistake, he changed the world by not playing by the rules. His successes are far reaching, but suffice it to say that he was the man who discovered that the Earth was round almost 2300 years ago. He did so with a mixture of science, maths, history, geography and geometry. I’ll leave the eminent, and much beloved, astronomer Carl Sagan explain how he did it in more detail (or check out this video, if you’re more of a visual learner) :
“[…]He was also the director of the great library of Alexandria, where one day he read in a papyrus book that in the southern frontier outpost of Syene, near the first cataract of the Nile, at noon on June 21 vertical sticks cast no shadows. On the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, as the hours crept toward midday, the shadows of temple columns grew shorter. At noon, they were gone. A reflection of the Sun could then be seen in the water at the bottom of a deep well. The Sun was directly overhead. It was an observation that someone else might easily have ignored. Sticks, shadows, reflections in wells, the position of the Sun – of what possible importance could such simple everyday matters be? But Eratosthenes was a scientist, and his musings on these commonplaces changed the world; in a way, they made the world. Eratosthenes had the presence of mind to do an experiment, actually to observe whether in Alexandria vertical sticks cast shadows near noon on June 21. And, he discovered, sticks do. Eratosthenes asked himself how, at the same moment, a stick in Syene could cast no shadow and a stick in Alexandria, far to the north, could cast a pronounced shadow. Consider a map of ancient Egypt with two vertical sticks of equal length, one stuck in Alexandria, the other in Syene. Suppose that, at a certain moment, each stick casts no shadow at all. This is perfectly easy to understand – provided the Earth is flat. The Sun would then be directly overhead. If the two sticks cast shadows of equal length, that also would make sense on a flat Earth: the Sun’s rays would then be inclined at the same angle to the two sticks. But how could it be that at the same instant there was no shadow at Syene and a substantial shadow at Alexandria? The only possible answer, he saw, was that the surface of the Earth is curved. Not only that: the greater the curvature, the greater the difference in the shadow lengths. The Sun is so far away that its rays are parallel when they reach the Earth. Sticks placed at different angles to the Sun’s rays cast shadows of different lengths. For the observed difference in the shadow lengths, the distance between Alexandria and Syene had to be about seven degrees along the surface of the Earth; that is, if you imagine the sticks extending down to the center of the Earth, they would there intersect at an angle of seven degrees. Seven degrees is something like one-fiftieth of three hundred and sixty degrees, the full circumference of the Earth. Eratosthenes knew that the distance between Alexandria and Syene was approximately 800 kilometers, because he hired a man to pace it out. Eight hundred kilometers times 50 is 40,000 kilometers: so that must be the circumference of the Earth” – Cosmos, Carl Sagan
Had he not had extensive knowledge in either of these completely disparate areas, he would’ve never been able to connect the seemingly unrelated dots. His unorthodox approach to learning vastly different life areas proved to be his strength. He followed his own path, rather than the one laid out by others, and it took him to places never seen before. In the meantime his critics disparaged him, called him “beta” as he never quite seemed to make it to being the best at anything. At most, he was always second best. Yet he took it as a badge of honour. The time it takes to safeguarding your position as number one on the social totem pole, and mastering any skill is substantial. Eratosthenes voluntarily stood aside and allowed others to pass him by, wisely using the time to become proficient in something else.
Hence, at the end of the day he was knowledgeable in virtually any area of culture the world had to offer back then. This allowed him to see reality in a very different light, and do with it things nobody else could’ve done. Trying to blend in and focusing on one single area would’ve lead him to obscurity. The well trodden path is likely to take you to mediocrity, as you have most of humanity to compete with. Fortune favours the bold and new. Learn from the pelican king and all who follow in his webbed footsteps. Take the risk, be wise but different, it may well work out in the end!