On my way to work Tuesday I chomped on a bag of trail mix, slurped a Wawa Cuban coffee and peeled a banana all with one hand. This is a skill I have honed over the decades through thousands of commuter miles. As I juggled a few peanuts, I pondered those who have found success outside the parameters of conventional thought or trends.
On my radio sportscasters were all abuzz about a freshman who toppled Alabama 44-16 in college football’s National Championship game. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, a guy who looks like an odd combination of Kylo Ren and a dude you might find at a surf shop, passed for 347 yards and three touchdowns against a talented Alabama defense.
Fellow freshman Justyn Ross was less strange visually, but equally impressive athletically. He made big plays against Notre Dame and Alabama’s secondary with speed and savvy. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, also an unconventional guy, contrasts well with Alabama’s head coach Nick Saban’s more regimented coaching style.
The unconventional approach carries risk—but it tends to topple the less flexible norms in many fields including warfare, music, writing and politics. As the late Robert Frost wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
There has always been plenty of truth in those words---at least for the ones that took the right road.
On the battlefield, history’s most successful military leaders won with unconventional tactics. For example, Alexander the Great, Henry V, Shaka (King of the Zulus), General “Stonewall” Jackson, General George S. Patton and General Norman Schwarzkopf all used unconventional approaches to defeat enemies who were far too conventional. The lesson is to never stop innovating, it can be fatal in war. Just ask the ghosts of French knights shot full of arrows laying on the field of Agincourt or the unbeatable British Army at Yorktown.
Every empire must evolve and adapt---because there is always an innovator waiting.
In the Oscar-winning film Patton, the famous general spoke about returning Roman Legions on parade. He said, a slave would stand behind the victorious general and whisper a warning into his ear during the parade.
“All glory is fleeting.”
In music the unconventional approach often leads the way, but not easily. Where would music be without American jazz, rock-n-roll, Jamaican reggae, American hip-hop or Appalachian country music? These forms of music were all condemned or maligned by social critics of the time.
The majority opinions about Andy Warhol or the Beatles were largely negative, yet four lads from Liverpool and an oddball artist from Pittsburgh changed music and art respectively. One could argue that Warhol’s style has morphed into the art that defines the computer age with its use of patterns, colorful ads and repetition.
Who can argue the universal appeal of Bob Marley’s music? It can be heard in nearly every corner of the globe. Yet, his music was largely ignored by African-Americans in the 1970s—an audience Marley wanted greatly to win over. The march of time brings greater appreciation to innovators in music, often years after they’ve left us.
Among my favorites in the world of writers are an unconventional crew of characters. They are predominantly unconventional minds with unconventional yet successful styles. They all seem to be in a constant state of rebellion against some static rule of society.
I can sympathize with Jim Harrison’s dislike for calendars and the domestication of spirit. I hate Excel, so I can see his point. I always enjoy Hunter S. Thompson, as he storms into a scene like Allstate’s Mr. Mayhem and leaves us all thinking how liberating it would feel to confront the world with a slightly unhinged yet colorful approach.
I think of Edward Abbey’s will to “stand up for what you stand on” and never apologize for it. He wrote of nature’s beauty, its cruelty and the greed of man with equal gusto.
In Ernest Hemingway, I found a writer constantly defining and redefining the many faces of bravery. His old fisherman hooked me in the heart just like the marlin he was battling.
As for politics, my least favorite obsession, I will leave you with the unconventional appeal of our last two Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Love or hate them, both emerged from outside the mainstream and earned their offices with lofty ambitions to change a cancerous political landscape.
The problem is cancer (political or medical) is relentless and it attacks the whole body. Both presidents were quickly confronted with polarized political parties, an increasingly daunting debt and adversaries around the world who evolve with the wind.
This week, as our leaders’ bicker and hold paychecks for ransom we continue our lives.
Always remember that time, tides, mosquitos, enemies, new ideas and economies never quit moving.
Let’s consider the unconventional approach.