And while I will have some fun highlighting some of the truly wackjob eccentrics of all time I will end up making a point about non conformity … and the fact that people exhibiting eccentric behavior are happier, less likely to succumb to vices <drinking & drugs> and live longer than ‘normal’ people <research not opinion>.
Here we go. The word ‘eccentric’ has a really broad spectrum … from wacky “makes me feel uncomfortable” to “quirky interesting.” Regardless of where you are on the spectrum we all have a point when a charming eccentric becomes a creepy weirdo <note: it’s usually around the time they start talking to their imaginary friend beside them while talking to you>.
I will admit … from my own little world … a surprisingly large group of the most delightful insightful people are a little quirky and eccentric.
And, no, those delightful ones are the unpretentious eccentric who I don’t think they mean to be so (unlike people who like to be weird just for weird sake) but rather their particular brilliance or their particular contribution/attitude to the world is tinged with some eccentricity.
It makes them charming without diminishing the oddly insightful perspective they seem to bring to bear.
I guess those people are just eccentric but have not attained “wackjob” status.
Before I get to the insightfully thoughtful part … let me discuss the wackjobs.
I almost have to begin with the Brits because for some reason they seem to have a full museum of the highest grade wackjobs we would call true eccentrics.
Here are some of the wackjob highlights:
- Francis Henry Egerton the 8th Earl of Bridgewater who organized banquets for dogs
- John Mytton an English squire who would ride a bear
- Lord Rokeby who wanted to be amphibious
- William John Cavendish Bentinck-Scott the 5th Duke of Portland, who liked to live underground, and preferred not to be seen … oh … and actually built an entire underground mansion, painted it pink, and filled it with brown wigs packed carefully in cardboard boxes <oh boy>.
But I won’t let America off the hook.
Emperor Norton I. His “Reign” was unofficially from 1859-1880.
In the 19th century, the United States was unofficially “ruled” by Emperor Norton I, a San Francisco native who declared himself “Emperor of the United States” and “Protector of Mexico.” Emperor Norton’s real name was Joshua Abraham Norton. Apparently he had some financial troubles which supposedly lead to him developing a number of eccentricities and delusions of grandeur, and in 1859 he officially declared himself the ruler of America.
Thankfully local newspapers originally published Norton’s claim as a joke.
Here is where I begin easing into eccentricity and the occasional glimpses of brilliance.
Despite the seeming mental issues Norton often demonstrated remarkable foresight.
He proposed that a “League of Nations” be formed years before the U.S. government considered it.
He also decreed that a bridge be built linking Oakland and San Francisco, which also eventually became a reality.
Then there are the truly quirky semi-brilliant eccentrics. These are the eccentrics who get lost in their own little world in which they see shit we don’t see … and we benefit from it.
Some of the really wackjob people I am listing were also part genius.
I found a list of 4 brilliant examples who <I loved what someone else wrote so I used it> … seemingly over-revved the neurological engine, who watched as the gearbox and chassis of their brains flew off onto the roadside…and kept on accelerating.
Example 1 – Pythagoras The Genius:
This is the guy who came up with the Pythagorean theorem we all learned in school (“The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides”).
Apart from this pillar of trigonometry, Pythagoras was the first high-profile academic to insist that natural phenomena could be explained mathematically (paving the way for the study of Physics) and was even a major inspiration for Plato’s theories of democracy.
Basically that means we can thank him for maybe half of the good meaningful things ever invented.
Oh. But Pythagoras the nutjob:
Pythagoras founded his own religion. Pythagoras’ religion had two primary tenets: souls are reincarnated, and beans are evil. Not metaphorical beans, or metaphysical beans, but just plain, edible beans. Awesome.
Widely considered second only to Shakespeare in English poetry, Lord Byron published his first poetic work at 14 <the age when my most profound thought was that girls might possibly be more awesome than the new aerosmith record>. He was renowned for his wit and writing/thinking versatility. In fact, Byron’s Don Juan remains one of the few poems most guys can name when trying to seduce girls in a bar.
Oh. Byron the nutjob:
It began when Byron arrived at Cambridge, where he was ordered to send his dog back home as keeping one was against school rules. Desperate for a pet, Byron scoured college policies for an animal not expressly forbidden. He found no reference to bears.
The bear stayed with Byron in his dorm room. Being a responsible pet owner, Byron took it on regular leashed walks through the university, terrifying fellow students and lecturers. When asked by administration what purpose the bear served on campus, the poet tried in vain to get his beast a fellowship. And where most people mellow out after they leave school, Byron decided to take his crazy to a whole new level. We’ll let this quote from one of his friends tell the story:
“Lord B’s establishment consists, besides servants, of ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon; and all of these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were the masters of it.”
“…I find that my enumeration of the animals in this Circean Palace was defective, and that in a material point. I have just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian Crane” – Percy Shelley (poet and husband of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley).
Example 3 – Tesla The Genius:
Nikola Tesla offered an astonishing number of contributions to science. Labeled by Robert Lomas as “the man who invented the 20th century”, Nikola Tesla played a major part in the discovery of:
This guy was truly brilliant. And an innovative brilliant guy.
Oh. But. Tesla the nutjob:
Tesla suffered from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. So, for instance, where Michelangelo’s personal hygiene was appallingly bad, Tesla’s was appallingly good–cripplingly so. Tesla was a severe germophobe and refused to touch anything bearing the slightest hint of dirt.
Oh. In addition.
Tesla also refused to touch anything round, which makes some quite obvious hurdles for an engineer. Apart from dodging germs and round objects, Tesla’s OCD manifested itself in threes. Before entering a building, he would walk three times around the block. When staying in hotels, he insisted on a room number divisible by three. At each meal, he would use 18 napkins: three stacks of six.
Example 4 – Empedocles The Genius:
Empedocles may have been among the most renowned geniuses in history if not for the fact that his stunning contributions to science are offset by his even more stunning contributions to eccentric absurdity.
Some 450 years before year one <sometimes called ‘the B.C. years> Empedocles discovered:
-That light travels at a speed
-That Earth is a sphere
-That air is a substance, not an absence of substance.
-An (admittedly very crude) theory of evolution
-The Italian school of medicine
The dude was clearly ahead of his time mentally. Brilliant thinker.
Oh. Empedocles the nutjob:
Empedocles believed he was a god.
Ok. Not in a guitar rock band sense or the guy who can achieve some insane level of Doom in mere minutes sense, but in the literal thunderbolts-from-the-sky and immortality sense. To prove his immortality to his understandably skeptical peers, Empedocles announced that he would jump into a volcano <Mt Etna if you care> and pop back out unscathed.
Note: at least he wasn’t nutty enough to actually do it.
Some genius. Some crazy. All eccentric.
Moving on <although it is fun to write about the wacky stuff>.
Let’s get to the quirkiness and the value some eccentricity offers us (and society).
While I often joke about the fact there have been studies on some relatively absurd topics … there has been astonishingly little research on eccentrics and eccentricity.
I could find the only person to have looked into eccentricity … David Weeks, an Edinburgh psychiatrist and co-author of the 1995 book Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness.
What he discovered during a ten-year study of 1,000 peculiar people < including a Chippewa Indian who walked everywhere backwards and two Californians who hypnotized frogs … no … I did not make that up> might surprise you.
While I believe popular wisdom suggests more extreme eccentricity is not far from mental disorder. But, in fact, Weeks’s subjects suffered less from mental illnesses such as depression than the majority of the population. Results information:
Fewer than 30 had ever been drug or alcohol abusers.
He also found that eccentrics visit the doctor 20 times less often than most of us and, on average, live slightly longer.
The study conclusion?
People benefited from non-conformity.
Simply put, those who don’t repress their inner nature in the struggle to conform suffer less stress. Consequently, they are happier and their immune systems work more efficiently.
Overall, Weeks found that eccentrics tend to be optimistic people with a highly developed, mischievous sense of humor, childlike curiosity and a drive to make the world a better place.
Kind of maybe makes you start thinking about envying eccentric people rather than laughing about them, huh?
Beyond happiness I tend to believe most of us think of eccentrics as also being highly creative.
I already brought up Tesla (an innovative creative) and Oscar Wilde … but how about Prince, who has been known to conduct interviews with a bag on his head, or the delectable fruitcakeyness of Kate Bush.
But I don’t believe eccentricity doesn’t have shit to do with smartness or creativity.
Because while history is chock full of insane geniuses it is more about people who mentally put the pedal to the metal <albeit sometimes through the floor>.
I believe eccentrics are the people who tend to see problems <and life> from new and unexpected angles. Their slightly odd, off kilter, perspective allows them to conjure up innovative solutions.
They are the visionaries, even within smaller individual life moments, who make giant imaginative leaps.
Weeks, in his study write up, suggested maybe that like the occasional mutations that drive evolution, eccentrics may provide the unusual, untried ideas that allow human societies to progress.
Awesome thought for all those folk who are very often dismissed as cranks and crazies and nutjobs.
The bad news is that only about one person in every 5-10,000 is a “classic, full-time eccentric” and most are marked out at an early age as ‘off.’
But. All that fun stuff said.
Here is what I worry about in today’s business world.
Most large companies have abolished any type of eccentricity <or individuality>.
HR policies, which tend to dictate behaviors, and job expectations/competencies are designed to promote the rise of the ‘accepted’ corporate employee.
Think about that.
One can be fairly sure that you won’t find too many Teslas surfacing in the next few years as they are weeded out early by the application of standardized policies designed to produce standardized human beings.
When I was younger it seemed like businesses had their share of quirky slightly nutjob people … and they added color to the office. They added a dimension to the work, and workplace, which sometimes made a tough day better and a tough assignment less challenging. Not always but at minimum it made the experience more interesting by far.
I worry because it is a terrible time to want to have fun in the office.
And it is always tough, in the office and outside the office, to be ‘different’.
Look. I am not suggesting more people be eccentric … but maybe possibly less people find conforming as important as they do. That’s it. If for no other reason than a research study suggests you may be happier.