If there is a single characteristic that I think I admire most about some of the key people I’ve befriended around the world, it would probably be their determination not to fit in. I am not saying that I admire cultural oafs who make no attempt to assimilate with local culture. What I mean is that, contrary to the masses, these people that I find extraordinary do not let their surroundings define them. They rise above their immediate cultural and societal influences.
I was reading recently about exactly this kind of person in Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect, a book that makes a case for seeing deliberate exposure to cultural diversity as important in facilitating the best kind of innovation.
A Different Swede
Johansson tells the story of Marcus Samuelsson, who, at the time of the book’s writing was the Executive Chef of a prestigious New York-based Swedish restaurant. Samelsson is anything but typical. He is a black Swede, adopted with his sister from Ethiopia by Swedish parents and a globe-trotting geologist father who traveled with the kids a lot when they were young. Samuelsson caught the travel bug and so continued by working in culinary apprenticeships in Switzerland and Austria and then later working on a cruise line that circumvented the globe. He later ended up in New York where he was promoted to Executive Chef soon after starting at the prestigious Swedish restaurant Aquavit.
“I never saw Gothenburg as my be-all and end-all… unlike most of my friends, who all planned to stay in the area.” said Samuelsson about his growing up in this Swedish hometown.
A Brilliant Chef
This determination to look past immediate constraints and to think bigger than present surroundings demanded is clearly what fueled Samuelsson to be extraordinary. His brilliant culinary creations took his New York restaurant from serving “good” Swedish cuisine to innovating with ingenious culinary creations inspired, not only by Samuelsson’s grounding in Swedish cuisine, but by his fascination with different world cuisines. His dishes included Caramelized Lobster – Seaweed Pasta, Sea Urchin Sausage and Cauliflower Sauce (a fun Asian twist on a Swedish classic) and Chocolate Ganash – Bell Pepper and Raspberry Sorbet and Lemon Grass Yogurt (Raspberry sorbet is as Swedish as blond hair and blue eyes but lemon grass yogurt? Not so much.)
His extremely innovative dishes won his restaurant a rare three-star review by the New York Times and brought Samuelsson a mountain of publicity including being named Best Chef in New York City by the James Beard Foundation and being recognized as one of the Global Leaders of Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. I don’t know about you, but just reading about this restaurant makes me want to visit it.
But back to the point. Aquavit would not be the same restaurant nor Samuelsson the same superstar, had he not bucked convention and decided to live a truly cosmopolitan, convention-crumbling lifestyle. Being different is VITAL.
Confessions of a TCK
Some of my love of the different probably comes from personal bias since I grew up feeling different all my life. I grew up as a TCK (Third Culture Kid). A TCK is someone who grows up in a culture different from their own and ends up creating a third culture for themselves – a hybrid of the local culture and that of their national or cultural origin. I grew up as a Swede in Asia and my three best friends consisted of a Ghanian, a Singaporian and a Korean – all of us going to an Americanized “International” school just outside Manila in the Philippines. I’ve kept in touch with these guys since and although we all settled in the US, we also have all lived fairly counter-cultural lives.
The Singaporian jokes that, as opposed to recent “fresh-off-the-boat” (FOB) immigrants, he is SOB “still-on-the-boat” because he brings such a cultural hodge podge of accents to his stab at the American life. The Ghanian is a Family Practice doctor in Florida and the Korean now lives in Southern California and is studying medicine after spending years in China, learning fluent Mandarin, marrying a local and becoming a doctor of eastern medicine. These people are awesome and are some of the most interesting people I know.
In Praise of Rebels
Some more of Johansson to conclude: “The mere fact that an individual is different from most people around him promotes more open and divergent, perhaps even rebellious thinking in that person. Such a person is more prone to question traditions, rules, and boundaries – and to search for answers where others may not think to.”
So here’s my challenge for you and for me for the future: Take deliberate steps not to fit in with the status quo. It is time to experience the “other” and to be extraordinary.