All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1991

How to Be an Individual

Mr. Smith is a writer living in Santa Maria, California. He has been a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the capitalistic system is the emphasis placed on individual worth. Socialism herds people into classes, a practice which is repugnant to anyone who thinks of himself as a person. One might go so far as to say that it is repugnant to anyone who puts a high value on human dignity.

Once the principle is established, however, we run into another problem: application. Most people agree that they treasure their individuality, but a surprisingly large number haven’t the foggiest notion of what to do with it. The truth is that individuality is as much in the doing as in the being.

A lot of people see individuality as a surface thing and try to establish a unique identity by buying a personality at the store. They wear garish clothes, dye their hair strange colors, wear head-lamp jewelry, and decorate their skins with tattoos to make some kind of social statement. It is a case of “Hey, look at me!” and is attempted in a way that just doesn’t get the job done. An ordinary person who has dyed his hair purple or orange is nothing more than the same nonentity with a funny-looking head. The belief is that mediocrity will somehow gain new credentials from exterior cosmetics. It is much like trying to make one’s car go faster by painting it red.

The whole purpose of individuality is excellence—being better at something than other people. Those who had the pleasure of seeing Benny Goodman at his work saw a rather ordinary looking man in rimless glasses and a conservative business suit, but they also saw a human being who could play the clarinet like no one before or since. This made Benny Goodman a unique individual.

Among other Americans who stood out from the flock, we can look at such varied examples as Joe DiMaggio, Clarence Darrow, Beverly Sills, Ernest Hemingway, and Jonas Salk. Each did something extremely well and thus became outstanding. Yet none of them felt the need to dress like a clown to be noticed. They were all recognized, and honored, for no other reason than excellence.

It is the people who comprehend this simple principle of being unique through performance who make our entire political-economic system work. Those who invent, who improvise, who know more about a subject than other people, and who take something that doesn’t work and make it work—these people are the very soul of capitalism.

Charles Kettering didn’t like the idea of cranking a car to make it start, so he invented the electric starter, making it possible to start the car from the driver’s seat. This meant that mobility was no longer the silent panner of brute strength, and as such it did more for the cause of women’s liberation than the entire feminist movement.

Henry Ford figured out the assembly-line technique and made it possible to mass produce an automobile. Lewis Waterman saw no need to go on dipping a pen into an inkwell, so he put the ink into the pen. George Westinghouse told the world how to stop a train, and Elisha Otis indirectly invented the city skyline. These people, and thousands like them, have made the system work. They understood that individualism, to have any impact at all, meant working at the top of one’s capacity. It is only a concept, a good idea, until someone does something with it.

Fortunately, enough Americans have been inspired to do something with their uniqueness that we have developed in less than three centuries from a frontier outpost to become not only the citadel of freedom but a country strong enough to protect that freedom. These have been the people who prized the individuality-excellence pairing above all things and thus kept the great machine functioning. The ones with the purple hair and the funky jewelry are just along for the ride, trying to be “different” and not knowing how to go about it.

The student who earns A’s on his report card has grasped the idea and has found the real meaning of individuality. So has the youngster who has designed his own space ship, who gives piano recitals, who paints pictures of the world around him, or who can name all the states and their capitals. Benny Goodman understood it too. This is why he was at his best in a blue suit and black shoes.

  • Mr. Smith, a frequent contributor to The Freeman, lives in Santa Maria, California.