Herding Instincts – why we fear sticking out (or up) and how to get over ourselves (and why we really should)

If I paint by numbers I am assured of a certain picture

The outline is the same as the image on the box and all I have to do is simply choose colours one by one

Mechanically completing a version that someone else created

And I can say I painted

Well done!

Faithfully following the directions set down by another

Of course

I am allowed certain artistic deviations from the instructions

If I choose red instead of blue

Nothing really matters

The sky looks a little rosier

The grass is purple

The outline remains the same

A sheep in a paddock beneath a vast sky

But if I draw wings

Then the sheep can fly

And that changes things except

Sheep don’t fly

And paintings aren’t real

*If only life was simple, cookie cut, we were born with directions – fate sewn up neatly with a needle and thread – lives mapped out, signposts clearly marked and coaches yelling “not that we you idiot, this one” whenever we indecisively wandered off the path.

Instead of this infernal tip toe process over stepping stones that keep rolling over and doing our ankles in. Sinking into unchartered waters – the constant decisions that have to be made and an endless array of choices.

God gave us free will and with that he sat back and laughed and rubbed his hands together “let the entertainment begin”.

Or that’s how it feels sometimes.

Last night as we were going to sleep, Steves Ipad is glowing and I asked him what he was reading. Poetry.

He begins to read aloud a portion of the poem. It’s about a woman who is experiencing anguish due to the disgrace her son has caused. It’s a sad poem but I have no empathy for her, only for her son.

There are apparently a few great common fears that afflict every human being – the fear of death, the fear of poverty, some others that I can’t recall and then there is the fear of what others will think of us.

Which is quite irrational when you break it down

If we think people are commentating on a one sided version of us that they have made up in their own heads – why would we give credence to their opinion? In fact, most people aren’t thinking about us, they are probably more concerned with the waistband of their pants or whether they have brocolli in their teeth.

And it’s neurotic to believe otherwise and probably a little vain and selfish too. Who the hell are you that people should spend time thinking about you? Yet none of these fairly sensible revelations are what fixed my hang ups in this regard

My blog did.


Because my blog allowed me to grow and explore and start figuring out who I am. The fact that I probably know less about who I am now then I did when I began doesn’t matter. What matters is – if I don’t know who I am then why would I care if someone thinks that they do? That’s insane – they couldn’t possibly.

At first writing on this blog was deeply uncomfortable and in the early days I probably deleted posts just as often as I wrote them. Now I churn out seven or eight heartfelt, authentic and personal posts a week and don’t even think of deleting them.

I’m not arrogant in that. If anything I am humble. The more I figure out, the more I am aware that there is a vast pool of things that I know absolutely nothing about and that includes myself. Human beings are infinitely teachable as long as we remain open and curious, so that’s all I can try to do.

I read, watch, observe, research and learn because I have many questions and problems that I want to solve and an interest in digging deeper. Writing opens us to the world, it is a dialogue that we have with ourselves and others. This is why having a blog and writing every day is so valuable. We are constantly forcing ourselves to learn and grow as a way of explaining concepts.

Seth Godwin publishes a blog post every single day and has done for years even though he is famous and wealthy and certainly doesn’t make any money for what he shares for free. He does it because he is constantly learning, and having a commitment to writing a blog post every day means that he has to think up something to write a blog post about. To write a blog post a day means he has to have a conversation with himself, find a problem, find a solution and that is all writing is. Problem solving.

I was watching a UTube interview with Jordon Peterson about creativity last night – it was excellent by the way and full of common sense, which is why I enjoy his theories.

He told a story that really does explain this innate fear that humans have of being different and sticking out. Jordan explains it this way

Zebras are camouflaged. It’s not obvious when you look at a single animal because you see bold black and white which seems at first the opposite of camouflage. A lion – now that’s camouflaged- it blends with the grass, but a zebra? No, not so much.

The zebra is not designed to blend with the landscape. The zebra is designed to disappear into the crowd. The zebra is camouflaged against the herd. Lions can’t hunt them unless they find an individual that sticks out due to an infirmity or difference. Lions discuss their target before they hunt as a pack. If they don’t know who their target is, then the pack can’t hunt.

Researchers found zebras impossible to track individually because they would look down to their notes and when they looked back up – poof! They had no idea which beast they had been studying.

So they got a bucket of red paint and they painted whichever one they singled out with a spot. Great, now the zebra is trackable! Guess what happened? The zebras that stood out got eaten by lions.

True story.

We humans innately understand this. We used to be part of this hunter/hunted landscape. It’s probably still an ancient impulse in our lizard brains.

So we aren’t just fighting a conscious desire to blend and avoid awkward social situations, we are also fighting biological impulses like ostracisation which would lead to being dangerously set aside from the tribe or standing out as a possible target, which makes us easier to hunt.

Yet the creative person also realises that in order to have their work stand out and be of value, it has to be different, so creatives have to get over all these hurdles of doubt, discomfort and anxiety and fulfil their artistic impulses.

For what? To be famous, noted, quoted, make lots of money? Ha! No. Those things can all happen of course and as many famous entrepreneurs and writers are part of the creative strain of the human race – it sometimes does. But there are millions of books on Amazon and millions of talented and creative people who will never be well known. Creatives don’t create for glory, they create because it is their personal story. That rhymed. I’ve been writing a lot of poetry, my head has begun singing. It’s nice.

And if they don’t live according to their story? They will began to atrophy inside. Which is what happens to me when I can’t write. I never suffer from writers block – quite the opposite, but I do get in my own way sometimes and say “that’s enough” as I did last month.

May I repeat – for those that need to hear this – worse decision ever! If you’re driving mechanism, your very life force is designed to create – then that is what you should do or you will suffer the consequences. And not everyone is like that – we all have different personalities, propensities, underpinning forces, but if you are lucky enough to figure out even that much – what drives you, what interests you and what pulls you magnetically forward -then you’re just lying to yourself if you don’t follow it. And lying to yourself is corrosive.

We all share a common outline as a species – but within that outline are vastly different individuals. We get to choose the colours with which we paint. Not only that, we should choose the colours. These choices determine how much responsibility we are willing to take in life – for our lives. If we want to live a meaningful life then we should take on as much responsibility for our colours as possible. We get to draw on extra bits if we want. We choose to fight like hell to evolve and grow, or we choose to remain dormant and atrophy. I used to have so much sympathy for the anxious, after all I’ve lived there too but in the end sympathy didn’t do a lot for me.

We don’t get to choose a life that is easy. Life is extraordinarily difficult. But we do get to choose our hard. It’s hard to overcome my innate desire to disappear into the herd of zebras and simply be invisible, but a life without creativity and growth is putting a sword to my soul. A month off really reinforced that for me this time.

So I picked up my pen and drew myself into a lion. Creatives can change the plot like that 🦓 🦓 🦁 😉💕

A large part of this blog post was inspired by the Jordan Peterson UTube video I watched. He is, as always, far more eloquent then me. I’ve added it below.


Header photo thanks to Etienne Stiencamp Unsplash

15 thoughts on “Herding Instincts – why we fear sticking out (or up) and how to get over ourselves (and why we really should)

    • I think they resonate with most creative people Rosaliene, I had to find a way to justify to myself why I spend so much energy and time on something that has no monetary reward, or very little. Creating probes to me that money is a truly man made invention that shouldn’t have any place in an argument that is being waged at a soul level.

  1. “Creatives don’t create for glory, they create because it is their personal story.”
    Yes! I’ve been trying hard to articulate that very thing. Thank you. Wonderful post.

    • Thanks Bridgette – I’ve been trying to work out why I’m driven to do what I do so passionately for diddlysquat too – it makes no sense to my logical business brain but means everything to my energy and happiness. I’m glad it made sense to you too 😊

  2. love your thoughts Kate and this so true ” if I don’t know who I am then why would I care if someone thinks that they do? That’s insane – they couldn’t possibly.”

  3. Timely post for me to read, having started a blog a month ago and then just got all unnecessary with it (and me) and deleted it all to start again!
    Just a note, I tried following you by your WordPress button, but it seems to link to the WordPress.com news site rather than your blog here? I can do an email follow of course, but just thought I’d mention it.

    • Oh Thankyou Pen for the heads up regarding WordPress follow – I’m having some technical issues on the blog layout – will sort that first thing this morning – I’m glad you liked the post and found it helpful – don’t delete your blog! I’ve blown up two of them in the past (a long time ago) don’t judge yourself so harshly and allow yourself to grow – keep writing and posting and you will gradually unravel.

  4. This brings to mind the quote (apparently wrongfully attributed to Churchill): “When you’re 20, you care what everyone thinks. When you’re 40, you stop caring what everyone thinks. When you’re 60, you realize no one was ever thinking about you in the first place.”

    The herd mentality – the fear of sticking out – is probably exacerbated in an age where what we say or do can be accessible to almost every person on the planet, given the reach of the Internet. And the constant *connection* – the HYPER-connectedness – of today’s world means that we’re just so flooded with input – other people’s thoughts and opinions (never mind the agendas pushed by the media puppet masters), that we have to work pretty hard just to break away and have natural mental breathing space again.

    But these are things we have to learn by experience, and we have to have the courage to go against the grain for no reason other than it’s what we truly need.

    Great post and insightful as always 🙂

    • Hi Yacoob, thoughtful response, thank you. We have become hyper connected, thankfully that’s a choice that we can step to the side of and control. The trouble is that it sometimes takes a great deal of awareness to do that. When you have the science behind all social media manipulating us to stay in their web for as long as possible. We do learn with age and we do gain courage thankfully. 😊

  5. I recently listened to one of his podcasts about his journey to God. Very inspiring– as everything he writes. I’m a major fan. I of course, am withering away because I no longer create or write every day. Makes me miserable. But I can’t seem to come up with what was my infamous self-discipline — Dad in and out of the hospital. So I decided to paint the laundry-room — as I always knew if I could first do projects like that and even more importantly, control my diet and exercise, the rest of my self-discipline seemed to fall into place. So maybe I am making headway. Jordan, BTW, has a spot on his zebra suit these days — yet taking that risk has made him who he is: creative people take risks and are authentic, whether sometimes they blend in or sometimes they have an x marked on their chests. I am no longer afraid to stand out if I have to, but I do struggle with emotional wherewithal. (And reinventing that bullseye–fine tuning my aim–now that my goalposts have been moved for me.) I wonder if my age factors in with creativity and energy but then I try to tell myself I can’t separate that out from the chronic stress I’m under. Nice post, Kate.

    • Thanks Lynn – JP is inspiring. Keep trying to write, I know your circumstances are crushing but perhaps the weight would be alleviated a little if you could get that creative energy flowing. As you say, even if it isn’t writing and is painting instead or something it still delivers a measure of creative satisfaction.

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