Numlock Sunday: Olga Khazan on Weird
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition. Each week, I'll sit down with an author or a writer behind one of the stories covered in a previous weekday edition for a casual conversation about what they wrote.
This week, I spoke to Olga Khazan, an outstanding writer at The Atlantic whose book, Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World comes out this week.
Olga appears pretty regularly in Numlock — you can see all her work here — and I’m a huge fan of her writing.
We spoke about what advantages people who are weird have, why having a few offbeat folks in an organization can help the group make better decisions, and what “idiosyncrasy credits” are and how they helped make The Beatles happen.
This interview ranges from the middle of nowhere in Texas to Jonestown to Liverpool and more. The book’s great, and is out this Tuesday. It can be found or preordered wherever books are sold — from your local bookstore through Bookshop.org, on Kindle, Barnes & Noble is still delivering, wherever.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Why did you write a book about weird?
I wrote this because I had kind of an unusual childhood. I grew up Russian in West Texas. There were no other Russians in my town, and I honestly always felt a little out of place. I never really fit in as a kid or as a teenager. Our childhood experiences affect us, and it was a feeling that I had even later into adulthood — even though there are obviously Russians in DC and I am not that weird here — but I was just interested whether other people who are different from everyone else around them have the same feeling, or if there's any advantages that confers.
I was just interested in other people who were outsiders of all kinds, and had no friends, no natural community, no natural sense of belonging. What does that do to a person? So I started reaching out to other people like that, and that's sort of how the book progressed.
One thing that was really fun in this was that you kind of went into the "weird advantage." You broke it down into creativity and truth. Do you want to go into some of those?
The truth one is kind of an omnibus category. It basically means staying true to your principles. Something that's in the research is that people who don't fit in at all, who know that they're going to stand out for whatever reason, know that their opinion is going to be different from everyone else or their viewpoint is not going to fit in with what everyone else thinks? They tend to have a really strong moral compass. One of the people I use to illustrate this as a woman who actually escaped from Jonestown, the cult where they "drank the Koolaid." She was sort of this outsider in the cult. She never felt she fit into the cult, and she always felt, "Oh, why am I a bad member of this cult?"
Then it ended up actually paying off for her, when everyone else said, "let's drink this Koolaid," she was like, wait, this is messed up and I'm going to run away from here. I mean, obviously a lot of things came together to help her out: there was an escape thing organized and she was able to become part of that. The fact that she was always questioning was a big part of why she was able to do that. They've done these studies that show this. In one — this was before gay marriage was legalized, a 2003 study — researchers found that among students who felt that gay couples should be recognized under the law, those who felt that their view was the morally correct one were willing to stick by it even when other people said, "Hey, that's not a popular view." Some people are just willing to commit to their beliefs and be steadfast even though other people tell them that's weird. I thought that was pretty cool.
I love that chapter, and one of my favorite parts of it was that you go into this study from 1951, this experiment by this Solomon Asch about conformity and how the presence of having one weird person (so to speak) can have a really significant effect.
This was in a different element of it, which is about the importance of being a pathbreaking person and how it can actually help you make better decisions. For people who are not familiar with all the psychology that I read, it's this study with three lines, one's obviously shorter, one's obviously the same size, one’s obviously longer.
He would show these lines to people, and about a third of people would pick the wrong option just because other people in the group — people who were working with Asch and were just trying to mess up the perception of everyone — gave the wrong answer. People didn't want to seem strange. They actually said they were worried about being seen as peculiar, so they gave the wrong answer in this clearly obvious experiment just because they didn't want to come off as weird.
But Solomon Asch did variations of this, and when he added in people who broke with that majority, with the conformist opinion, he actually was able to reduce the conformity among the people that the experiment was being done on by something like 80 percent. Even just having someone who's a nonconformist, who's like, "wait a minute, this is really dumb, we shouldn't be doing this," was able to actually improve the decision making of the entire group, and make them less blindly follow the leader on this clearly wrong answer. I thought that was kind of cool.
I really love that part. There was another technique that you called idiosyncrasy credits. Could you talk about those? I kind of realized that they're a very potent idea that I may have accidentally used once or twice.
Idiosyncrasy credits are a really interesting thing. They're another concept from the old days of psychology and have been around for a long time, since 1950. It's this idea that if you are someone who has a new, really interesting, different, weird idea, you have to kind of conform at first in order to get everyone to believe that you can be normal and just like everyone else. And then you can introduce your weird idea.
The example that I give is The Beatles. There was a sociologist who studied The Beatles' entire catalog, and he basically found that as The Beatles were up and coming, they had this very clean cut image because they wanted to fit in with all the other pop stars in England. All the pop stars were very clean cut, combed hair and suits. So that's what The Beatles did too. That wasn't their natural look. Their manager told them to do that. They were very clean cut, looking good, nice boys. All their songs were very predictable, "Love me Do," "I Wanna Hold your Hand," all very sweet and innocent.
But then what did The Beatles do as soon as they got famous? They got really weird.
If you listen to the White Album, there's a song called “Revolution 9”. And the only words on that song are "number nine." Like they started putting out some really weird stuff, because they thought, "Hey we're so famous now we don't have to be clean cut people who fit in with everyone else, we can be totally weird, and do our own thing and people will still like us, because we've already proven that we can do the clean-cut normal thing." Which I thought was kind of interesting, and I think could work even if you're not, you know, The Beatles.
It makes so much sense. You see directors do that, musicians obviously do that, I did that in my relationship for the good first year or so-
I think we all do that in our relationships, right? First it's like, "no, whatever *you* want to do" and then one year in, it's like, no, we're only eating queso and watching Quentin Tarantino movies.
The book is really wonderful. You get at this idea that social norms are often good, and they have purposes at times, but also it's really, really healthy to have people within society who are actively striving to challenge them. Is that a decent takeaway?
Social norms are kind of a double edged sword. Social norms tell us what to do on a day to day basis, it's the reason you come in to work every day at 9 or 9:30 because that's the norm, right? Your boss doesn't tell you the day before, "Hey, come in at 9:30 tomorrow." You kind of get a sense of what you're supposed to be doing, and it keeps society in order. And there's different levels of norms, right?
In psychology there's this concept of tightness and looseness.
Tightness is when you have a lot of rules. There's a lot of norms in the society, think like the Amish. You're supposed to dress a certain way, you're supposed to act a certain way, you're supposed to pray a certain way, you're supposed to do everything one way because it's a very tight society.
If you think about a loose society, that's almost like tech startups where you don't have an HR department and everyone's wearing whatever and they're coming in at whatever hours and they're eating food and, you know, high fiving each other. It's just all over the place.
The Vatican versus Burning Man.
Right. The Vatican versus Burning Man, perfect example. Between those is the sweet spot, right? You don't want to be Burning Man all the time and you don't want to be the Vatican, probably. So you want a middle ground. Sometimes it can help to have people around who break the norms because they kind of show you what other possibilities can be. They show you the limits of your thinking and what the options are. If you think about it, the first people who got married as gay people were norm violators. It's good to have people who are kind of pushing our sense of what's normal because normal is not progress. Yeah, it's a simple concept, but yeah, it's an important reminder.
I love how the book is really grounded in lots of personal stories and about individual people who kind of have uniqueness. Were any really particularly affecting for you?
There's tons of different kinds of people in the book. There are people who are different because they're not like anyone else in their job, or they're not like anyone else in their town, or not like anyone else in their hobby, or whatever else. The one that really stood out to me was another Russian woman who lives in a small Texas town. I met her and spent a lot of time with her. She came over as a teenager, and she actually was the daughter of a mail order bride. The way that she came over to Texas was her step-father ordered her mom. Basically, he went to Russia picked out her mom as a bride, and brought her to Texas and brought the whole family, and that's how she ended up in Texas as a teenager in this tiny, tiny, tiny, one-horse, no Walmart, no anything town as a teen from Russia.
I was just so in awe of her, she is definitely still unique: she still lives in Texas, she became a psychologist, and she really achieved a lot and really made it. She totally became someone and grappled with that totally insane experience. She was so resilient and so amazing. We had a ton in common, obviously, a lot of similarities, and it was cool for me just to meet another Russian who grew up in nowhere Texas. It was a moment of kinship for me. Other people will probably find other people to relate to that are not their exact same ethnicity.
What's your one-line pitch for the book, where they can find it and where they can find you?
The book is called Weird. It's about the the science of fitting in and the virtue of standing out. You can find it at Amazon, you can find it at your local bookstore if it's still open, or online at your local bookstore if they are doing online orders. You can find it at Barnes and Noble, wherever books are sold on April 7! My website is OlgaKhazan.com and I also write for The Atlantic. I'm also on Twitter @OlgaKhazan.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.