"Men nearly always follow the tracks made by others and proceed in their affairs by imitation..." Machiavelli
"When popularity is sufficiently important relative to intrinsic utility...many individuals conform to a single, homogeneous standard of behavior, despite heterogeneous underlying preferences. They are willing to suppress their individuality and conform to the social norm because they recognize that even small departures from the norm will seriously impair their popularity...any departure from the norm is construed as evidence of extreme preferences...Even so, agents with sufficiently extreme preferences refuse to conform. These individualists behave in ways that differ significantly from the social norm: there are no trivial nonconformists. Within the social fringe, heterogeneous preferences do result in heterogeneous behavior; these agents express their individuality." Bernheim, A Theory of Conformity
(1) Two ASTONISHING- truly astonishing- observations can be made of contemporary social reality. First, the potential or theoretical opportunity to exercise free choice and become different from everyone else has never been greater. Generated from the creativity, work, and sacrifices of millions of people over human history, there has never been so much choice in all aspects of life, from clothing to music to cars to colors of everything one purchases to sports one follows to hairstyle to hobbies to where one can live to what one reads to what one believes to whom one dates to what one eats to what one plants in one's garden to what furniture one buys and so on. Second, there has never been a time where more people are refusing to become different and abdicating most of their life choices to the dominant social programming and conformity. Potential choice is approaching infinity; but actual choice is approaching zero. Not everyone is exactly the same; but many many people are awfully similar. What differences still exist are often trivial, and by trivial it is meant here that after a few days or even hours with this person you will see that this difference makes no real difference in the person's everyday life or consciousness. You will see this anywhere you go by simply being on the sharp lookout for persons that look REALLY different, who say REALLY different things that make you pause and reflect on what they just said to see if you even "got" what they said, who behave in ways that are ACTUALLY startling to the extent that you question whether they are actually sane (they are). How often do you meet such persons? Once a year? Once a decade? In a truly free creative society, how often would you expect to meet such persons? Several times a day, if not more? Why is this happening?
(2) Regardless of the values we profess to follow and admire, it is beyond dispute that the dominant value system actually governing actual human behavior today is money, success, popularity, and career worship: "This is the objective situation. Like every human situation it becomes reality through human action and reaction..." (Paul Tillich) These ideals have replaced previous ideals of either religious salvation, romantic engagement, rational enlightenment, or even mystical transcendence. It is believed by nearly all persons that money is good and the more of it (well) the better. Because hardly anyone sees any real problem with having more money, it becomes the "plan" of most people to figure out how to make as much money as they can: "One can observe in many...an intense desire for security, internal and external, a will to be accepted by the group at any price, an unwillingness to show individual traits, a conscious rejection of nonconformist attitudes...an acceptance of a well circumscribed happiness without serious risks." (Paul Tillich) This desire is, of course, relative to one's circumstances (one man wishing to jump from $10,000 to $30,000 salary a year while another wishing to jump from $100,000 to $200,000). Despite situational differences, this desire operates in much the same way as outlined below.
(3) Whatever field one is in, there is usually (by now) a fairly "tried and tested" path to success in that field, success being defined (of course) as making as much money as one can in the field by rising to the "highest" position one can in it. In addition to hard work and the requisite skills to perform the work successfully, there is also a certain social persona one must cultivate to maintain and (over time) elevate one's position in this field. Indeed, the cultivation of this persona is becoming as important as everything else in many fields of work. If one doesn't cultivate this persona in large part (occasional lapses are still okay, praise be) one is labeled as "kinda weird" "kinda awkward" and that is the end of the matter right there. Get that label ("weird" or "awkward" or "strange") and you (probably) won't go very far in whatever line of work you are in.
This persona has various DOs and DO nots with respect to clothing, preferred hobbies, the preferred shape of one's body, the nature of one's friends, the types of restaurants and hotels one frequents, the online personality one cultivates, where one lives, how one speaks, whether one is optimistic or pessimistic (optimistic is the raging trend du jour), one's religious beliefs and behaviors, and so on.
(4) In short order, all persons within a given field gravitate toward the DOs and fly away from the DO nots. The potential choices of all of these persons is nearly infinite; but the value system driving their choices dictates a very narrow range of choices (the DOs). Whatever natural aversion persons may feel toward the DOs and natural attraction they may feel toward the DO nots, these are of no moment because the overwhelming motivation under a regime of money/career worship is to maximize one's monetary/reputational position in the world which motivation seems sensible because, after all, nearly everyone else is aiming for the exact same thing:
It is viewed as no "big deal," no "large sacrifice" to do the DOs because one will indeed be rewarded monetarily for doing this and monetary reward is viewed as the most "real" reward of all. This belief is maintained over decades despite the lack of evidence and information to support it; in fact, the belief has been strengthening in the face of contrary evidence and information. Beyond the monetary reward, one gains the social approval gained from doing what is more popular rather than less.
(5) The observations above yield an important conclusion. The path to freedom today must (usually) involve a clear and decisive break with money, career, and success worship: "Maturity, personal as well as cultural, presupposes a suffering under problems, a necessity to decide, a possibility of saying no." (Paul Tillich)
Lacking such a break, one usually has no chance of actually exercising freedom and becoming meaningfully different from everyone else because one will be continually pressured to perform the behaviors and maintain the attitudes called for by the DOs. With such a break, one is indeed free to "look around" at the thousands of potential choices available to one in nearly any area of life and start making some actual choices that differ from those around you, which flow from inner personality, and which are not contained within the parameters of the dominant social programming and conformity: "and every excellence we choose indeed...for the sake of happiness, judging that through them we shall be happy." (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics)