When I was around 15, me and a pal went to see the movie Collateral, starring Tom Cruise. In it Cruise played a colder-than-ice assassin on the streets of a neo-noir Los Angeles.
Sufficed to say we were pretty impressed. So much so in fact that my friend briefly experimented with modelling his personal style on the character.
Now on paper this seems pretty rational. Cruise was undeniably pretty cool in the movie, and therefore, logically, becoming more like him would make my friend cooler too, no? Sadly things don’t quite work that way. What fits for a 40 year old movie star in a fictionalised LA doesn’t necessarily fit for a schoolboy in Ipswich – and so perversely the short lived imitation had the unintended consequence of lowering my friend’s cool, not enhancing it.
This anecdote reveals a principle which I think has massive applicability in all sorts of fields; a principle I would summarise something like this:
It doesn’t matter what you are. What matters is *how much* you are what you are.
This applies to people. It applies to novels. It applies to cars. It applies to architecture. And, of course, it applies to businesses.
To put the same idea another way, just so it’s easy to get your head around: it’s better to embody an undesirable ideal 100%, than a desirable one 50%. The issue for my friend wasn’t that he was trying to mimic something not worth mimicking. It’s that he was aspiring to an image that it was impossible for someone in his position to ever embody completely – thus resulting in an incongruent final “product” which comes across as disingenuous and try-hard.
Extremely uncool, in other words.
This is probably why teenagers – for the most part – are regularly so awkward. They are at a point in their life where they are experimenting with different images, trying on different faces, and thus are unlikely to ever be fully themselves; to be a “coherent whole”.
As you grow up you start to see the truth – that “coolness” is not defined by a particular style, but by fully embodying any style. Jonny Knoxville, Steven Hawking, and Mother Theresa represent wildly differing archetypes, but they are all aspirational figures. Why? Not because their archetypes are necessarily desirable, but because they are them completely. They know what they are, and they lean into it – thus becoming charismatic and, in their own ways, irresistible.
This is what people mean when they say there’s nothing more attractive than “being yourself” – it’s just that very few people have the courage to ever be themselves so completely as to realise this potential. We mostly allow our personas to be polluted by aspirations that don’t truly suit us.
Think of yourself, perhaps. You, like anyone, have a natural tendency towards a particular persona – and if you committed to it you’d be awesome. But also, like anyone, you are probably seduced by certain other personas (probably embodied by public figures you admire) which you allow to pull you in other directions, thus “hedging” your true self.
This is all completely normal of course. Almost impossible to resist, even. But it’s the gap between us mere mortals and those considered to be icons.
Naturally this identical process happens in business.
Great companies are those with the courage to lean into their unconventional or supposedly “unappealing” natural archetypes.
Ryanair, for example, completely embodies its archetype of “low fares at all costs”. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and is fully prepared to embrace both the good and that bad of that position. This is why when supposedly “negative” headlines about them arise (such as charging people to use the bathroom in-flight), they result in positive business results. They serve to deepen their embodiment of their archetype, and thus strengthen their position – just as how a headline about Jonny Knoxville being arrested for lewd behaviour would strengthen his (but wouldn’t have strengthened Steven Hawking’s).
Ironically the closest thing that Ryanair could get to genuinely negative press would be something suggesting they plan to make their service more pleasant and premium. That supposedly “positive” headline would be incongruent with their image, and thus produce a net negative.
Sadly Ryanair are an extremely unusual case, in being comfortable with owning an unconventional position.
Just like with people, most companies would rather be a shit version of something they admire, than brilliant version of what they are.
How many pseudo-Apples, pseudo-Nikes, pseudo-Patagonias, pseudo-Googles are there out there? Every copycat of these businesses makes a fundamental analysis error: they believe that the thing that makes these companies successful is what they represent; when the truth is that it’s the completeness of their representation that counts.
Those brands are great because they are ruthlessly congruent. It’s not that they are “X”, but that they are “100% X”. When you copy them, you don’t claim their glory; you simply come across like my friend channeling Cruise, or Knoxville channeling Hawking. Incomplete.
When you understand this principle you quickly figure out that there is almost no position, no image, no archetype, which is undesirable. It’s just that most haven’t been fully embodied yet. We don’t have “an Apple of X position”, we only have “an Apple of Y position”, and that’s why Y position appears so attractive. But it’s an illusion. Any position would be attractive if only there were someone with the courage to make it their own.
So heed the words of your mother, and then go one step further. Don’t just be yourself. Own it. Embrace both its positives and its negatives. Because whatever “it” is doesn’t matter. Only the extent of your commitment, and its fit with your natural self.