If You Want To Make A Difference
By Donald G. Smith
Condensed from The Freeman
As Printed in Readers Digest January 1992
Those who had the pleasure of watching Benny Goodman at 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.
Other Americans who have stood out from the flock include Joe DiMaggio, Clarence
Darrow, Beverly Sills, Ernest Hemingway and Jonas Salk. They, like Benny Goodman were recognized and honored for no other reason than excellence.
It is doing something better than other people that makes us unique. Yet a surprising number of people still see individuality as a surface thing. They wear garish clothes, dye their hair strange colors and decorate their skin with tattoos to make some kind of social statement. They believe that mediocrity will somehow gain new credentials from exterior cosmetics. But an ordinary guy who has dyed his hair purple or orange is nothing more than the same person with a funny-looking head.
The whole purpose of individuality is excellence. The people who comprehend the simple principle of being unique through performance make our entire political-economic system work. Those who invent, who improvise, who know more about a subject than other people do, 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. Henry Ford figured out the assembly-line technique and made it possible to mass-produce automobiles. 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, inventor of the elevator, indirectly created the city skyline. These people understood that individualism means working at the top of one's capacity.
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 into not only the citadel of freedom but a country strong enough to protect that freedom. These people prized the notions of individuality and excellence 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 spaceship, 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. That is why he was at his best, blowing his clarinet, in his blue suit and black shoes.