the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Three Rungs of the Step Ladder

I’ve noticed quite a few of those I follow on Twitter talking about this new book by Chris Guillebeau titled “The Art of Non-Conformity.”  He is an accomplished writer who runs a very popular website dealing with personal development and life planning.

The Art of Non-Conformity (AONC) project chronicles my writing on how to change the world by achieving significant, personal goals while helping others at the same time. In the battle against conventional beliefs, we focus on three areas: Life, Work, and Travel.

The key theme that links each of these topics is nonconformity. I define non-conformity as “a lack of orthodoxy in thoughts or beliefs” or “the refusal to accept established customs, attitudes, or ideas.”

I was curious, so I checked out his blog.

Note: I have not read his book.  I only read a few of his blog posts. But something was already stirring in my head as I read my very first blog post of his, so I thought I would write about it.  It has little bearing on the actual content of this writer’s work.  If you go on Amazon, the book gets fantastic reviews.  I do intent to check it out because so many of my friends are excited by it.

What started my brain cells moving was this post, “The Decision to Be Remarkable,” specifically the opening paragraphs —

re•mark•able [adjective]: worthy of being noticed, especially as being uncommon or extraordinary


If you want to break out of the mold of average, the first thing you need to do is to make a decision to be radically different. Most remarkable people are people of action, and for a good reason: if you don’t take decisive action, nothing will ever change.

But this first step is entirely mental. It calls for a clear decision to rise above the culture of mediocrity. And then, of course, it calls for action.

Right off the bat, I was getting an insight into the mind of the writer.  He was presenting a world of two levels:  average and remarkable.  Imagine a step ladder with two rungs.  On the bottom is the average, stuck in a “culture of mediocrity.”  One step above this is the second rung — those who broke free and are now “radically different.”  These are the ones unchained from the shackles of orthodoxy.

This is not a new approach to selling an idea.  Throughout history, philosophers from Plato to Nietzsche have presented a hierarchical world of blind idiots stuck in the mud and visionaries who broke free after buying some sort of book.   I’ve always wondered why nobody gets insulted from this thesis.  In some ways, the writer/thinker is calling YOU — the potential buyer of the book — a boring, average, loser, schmuck, a monkey stuck in a suburban home with 2 kids and a dog, who can never be original until you follow someone else’s idea.  Perhaps that is what boring people need — to be told that they are mediocre — sort of a tough love to help yahoos to move out of their dull, unimaginative life.

“What the f*ck is neilochka ranting about now?” you might ask.  “This post is terrible.”

I’ll tell you.

I read that passage about conformity and being remarkable several times, and it just wasn’t speaking to me.  And it was bothering me that this popular, inspirational author was causing me to draw a blank.

And then it occurred to me.  He wasn’t writing his blog for me.  This blog was geared for those who considered themselves stuck in the middle, trying to move to another, higher rung in the world.   The vision presented in this scenario was not my own.  His was a two step world of mediocre and remarkable.   Who would want to live in such a world?  Wouldn’t all the remarkable people feel lonely living in a world where 95% of their co-inhabitants are mediocre?  Who cares about “world domination” if you rule over a bunch of morons?

My world view would be more like this — a step ladder with three rungs.

Let’s keep “Remarkable” at the top rung.  Clearly there are some who are born leaders or have a brilliance that makes them exceptional:  Beethoven, George Gershwin, Lou Gehrig, Oprah…”

I wouldn’t be so crude to badmouth the middle rung as “mediocre.”  I would call this rung “normal.”  Hard-working parents who raise happy children have accomplished a wonderful achievement.  It might not get them into People Magazine, but would you really call this “the culture of mediocrity?”  Not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur or artist, so why set up a false hierarchy just to make those who read the book feel superior?

I would place myself on the lowest rung.  I’m having trouble giving it a name, so let’s go with “Visionary/Insecure/Weird.” This category is absent in the two rung remarkable/mediocre world.

I don’t consider myself mediocre at all.  I am fascinating.  I love being with myself, even though I am a kvetch.  However, sometimes I WISH I lived a more normal, traditional life, and my mind just relaxed.  I’m a bit of an oddball.  I live in my head.  I don’t need to free my creativity.  My creativity RULES me.  It will one day bring me to my knees or cause me to a nervous breakdown.  It is this insecurity and lack of confidence that puts me in the third rung.

Now many of you will not want to join me on this bottom rung, thinking it the equivalent of living with the homeless.  But those who are in the bottom rung usually have no choice.  If you are on this third rung, you know it.  And you are not ashamed of it.  You see it as a badge of honor.   You are so creative, that reality doesn’t stop us.   You simply turn the world upside down, so the bottom rung is now at the TOP of the step ladder, and the remarkable ones are on the bottom, living silly lives, stuck in a world without whimsy.

The problem is that you are only remarkable in your own mind.  It is hard to get out there and tell the world.  You are not like those on the first rung, shouting out your own name during sex.

I don’t thrive to be remarkable.  I am already remarkable.  The main difference between me and the guy on the top rung is that I’m insecure and uncomfortable with the ways of the world.  Those on the top rung climb mountains.  Those on the bottom rung dream of the mountains, in Technicolor.  Those in the middle rung, the responsible ones, are essential to both.  They buy the books of those on the top rung and assist those on the bottom rung when they are in debt, in jail, or in rehab.

Those on the bottom rung need help refraining their creativity, molding it — so they can better survive in the real world.

What I — and others like me — need is a self-help book for those on the bottom rung.  We want to embrace our unique, bottom-rung remarkableness that is inherent to our souls, powerful, but flighty, even debilitating at times.

We need a book to be more normal, somewhat closer to the second rung, while at the same time maintaining our uniqueness.  I don’t want to “break the rules.”  I want to learn the rules of how things are done.  How do I make a decent living doing what I’m doing?  Who are the people I should be meeting? How do I juggle relationships and work?  How do I love without falling apart?

I need a little more normal.   Not to climb mountains.   I already climb mountains every day in my head.


  1. Anne Kahle

    This is my favorite post you’ve ever written. I feel exactly the same way about myself.

  2. afteriris

    Neil, I’m a middle rung living with a bottom rung. He doesn’t know the rules either. But although we both sometimes wish he did, in truth he’s done the thing he needs to do to survive. He married me. And, like you say, I pay his debts (real) and get him out of jail (metaphorical) and support him in rehab (not my story to tell).

    I don’t think there is a person on this earth that could articulate a way for David to be more “normal”. But if there was, and he bought their book, I’d be burning it faster than you can say ‘Koran’. Everything I love about him and everything he values about himself are caught up in those bottom rung characteristics, both fantastic and frustrating. They’re the two sides of the proverbial coin and valueless without each other.

  3. Twenty Four At Heart


    All the reasons I love you.
    One of your best posts – ever!

  4. Richard Heft

    You should title your book “Don’t Masturbate, It Will Just Get In My Hair.”

    • Neil

      Hasn’t that been used already?

    • Rene Foran

      this comment is the funniest thing I’ve read in ages.

  5. bookfraud

    In some ways, the writer/thinker is calling YOU — the potential buyer of the book — a boring, average, loser, schmuck, a monkey stuck in a suburban home with 2 kids and a dog, who can never be original until you follow someone else’s idea. Perhaps that is what boring people need — to be told that they are mediocre — sort of a tough love to help yahoos to move out of their dull, unimaginative life.

    well, of course he is—how the hell else will he get people to buy his book? does he think martha stewart or anthony robbins or any other uber-achiever is going to buy this drivel?

    the difference between the top and bottom rungs can be infinitesimally small: if beethoven is exceptional (and nobody doubts he was), where does that put, say, schubert, who was an incredible composer yet received bupkis fame & fortune during his lifetime? or kafka, who wrote revolutionary fiction that changed how writers look at the world, but not nary an iota of fame in his lifetime?

    and yet, there are a million hacks who achieved incredible fame in fortune in their day but nobody reads any more.

    you do climb mountains every day, your work is wonderful, neil, and the only difference is some luck and that you’re not a (total) fame whore.

    now i’m going to take my ex-lax.

    • Neil

      I think I just read online that The Metamorphosis sold ten copies originally, and nine were bought by Kafka himself.

      • Jack

        I have always wondered who would buy a story about waking up as a giant cockroach. Ok, I bought it, but it was an assignment.

  6. Claire

    No one will ever make money on a book telling someone to be normal and happy with their life.

    The Bible was the first self-improvement and it basically said humanity was pond scum in need of redemption.

    Everyone and his brother has been trying to redeem us ever since.

    • Neil

      Actually, the heroes of the Old Testament tended to be unaware that they were special until God pushed them into it. Even Moses was a stutterer who just wanted to hang out with his friends. He was not out there, pushing to become remarkable. He hated it.

  7. V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios

    I don’t think Chris Guillebeau is a real writer because he’s never commented on your blog or mine.

    I’m only taking advice from your commenters, who share their wisdom in a few brief lines for free.

    So what does headbang8 have to say about all this?

    • Neil

      Waiting for headband! Actually, you should check out the art of nonconformity site. The writer has a very impressive resume and I think you might like his work. You’re more normal than me. And you DO live in the suburbs with two kids and a dog. And a cat.

      • V-Grrrl

        I have TWO cats, Neil. Further proof that I am extraordinary. And I live in the city, even if it’s so small, Santa Claus can’t find it on the map. ; )

        And Chris Guillebeau follows me on Twitter. I had no idea who he was. I don’t know whether to be insulted or honored that he chose to follow me. My Tweets must set off the mundane and ordinary and in need of saving meters.

  8. Shirl Grrrl

    Great post, Neil. So glad that V shared it on fb. Hope you are well!

  9. heather

    I want my 3rd rung tee-shirt. I don’t get the nonconformity stuff. I shrug off remarkable in favor of staying sane and able to relate to my audience. You know…the 6 and under crowd. I do so love your writing.

  10. Juli Ryan

    Chris Guillebeau should read Revolutionary Road, which is an account how mediocre people really are, even when they try to be remarkable.

    I want to escape from the step ladder and go to a place where nobody has terrible problems. Can we just listen to Beethoven or Gershwin for a while? Who’s on Oprah?

  11. alejna

    “You are not like those on the first rung, shouting out your own name during sex.”

    This made me laugh. Out loud. Several times. I may even have snorted. (But I’ll never admit to it.)

    I loved this post, too. I have an aversion to being told to be a non-conformist. I don’t want to be a non-conformist just like everybody else. (Also, I’m reminded of this scene from Life of Brian: “You’re all different!” (on YouTube))

  12. Rene Foran

    I need a self help book on getting over my fear of ladders and small inclines.

  13. GrandeMocha

    I’m a B student & proud of it!!! Why try harder?

  14. Di

    Brilliant, just brilliant. I felt I could really relate to that bottom rung. Thank you for rescuing me from my unconscious confusion about what that book was offering. I had seen it, was tempted but really suspected that it wouldn’t help me. Then I read you and saw the light. Gert is the guy who saves me … I’m pondering one whether he should read your post of not. I think he’s unconsciously confused about me too … I might leave it like that.

  15. laurenne

    I love this.

    Can’t the ladder have millions of rungs? There really can’t only be 3 types of people.
    But if there are, I don’t want to be on the same rung as Oprah, so I’ll meet you on the third one.

  16. headbang8

    Fuck Ladders. Fuck Seven Habits of Highly Successful Assholes. Fuck Moving Cheeses. Fuck Pursuing Excellence. Fuck Executive Seminars on Being Organised, Maintaining Leadership, and Projecting Fucking Sunbeams from Your Dick. Fuck Jonathan Livingston Fucking Seagull.

    This post presses a hot button.

    After spending several centuries in shallow business pursuits (which I only do for the money, I hasten to add) I have had it up to the goddamn eyeballs with with this sort of stale spunk.

    This is not self-help, nor self-improvement. This is self-aggrandisement.

    Life has no other purpose than simply to be. A life lived with dignity and warmth and generosity is an achievement–and a worthwhile one. Anything else is a bonus. And funnily enough, pursuing the bonus for its own sake makes it all the more elusive.

    Normal, “Remarkable”, and (for want of a better word) Eccentric are not rungs on a ladder. They are a choice among equals. Choose what you want. You’re not a loser if you choose to march to the beat of a different drum.

    The whole self-help industry (worth 11 billion in publishing alone, I understand) smacks of blame-the-victim. Read Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided”–a masterful dissection of all this bullshit.

    • Neil

      Yay! Was waiting for you!

      • V-Grrrl


        • sweetsalty kate

          I’ve heard Ehrenreich’s book is fascinating.

          • Poor Fish Girl

            headbang8, you are my hero.

            Neil, amazing post/writing.

  17. Finn

    Anyone who has to work to be remarkable, isn’t. And for the record, all those geniuses, especially the creative geniuses, were downright weird. They didn’t know the rules either, because if they did they’d never have accomplished anything.

    Being who you are and striving to be your best is what makes you special. Mediocore is being who you think you should be, following some formula.

  18. Kateanon

    I am right on that rung with you. This post really got to me and I can’t thank you enough for it today.

  19. mamie

    i love you, neil. i just love you.

    your rung sings of total awesome-ness and mastery of what you do…. and you do it well. without making anyone feel like shit.

  20. ballerinatoes

    I’m honored to share the bottom rung with you. Love this post.

  21. Adrienne

    Four rungs based on two qualities: creativity and functionality.

    Rung 1: creative AND functional
    Rung 2: functional, NOT creative
    Rung 3: creative, NOT functional
    Rung 4: neither creative nor functional (I don’t know any of these people; I assume they never come out of their mothers’ basements or some such.)

  22. TinfoilMagnolia

    I really, really love this post. I just this morning put the following quote on my page:
    “Every individual has a place to fill in the world, and is important, in some respect, whether he chooses to be so or not.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne
    I love it when I find something that ties in unexpectedly. Lots to think about here.


  23. Jane Gassner

    Love. This. Post.
    Am. Envious. Of. This. Post.
    Let me know when you made a Bottom Runger badge so I can put it proudly on my blog (my goodness, that was a lot of bbbbbbs).

  24. sweetsalty kate

    You pointed me to this and I’ve had it open three or four times since then, trying to think of something to say in response other than OMG or TOTALLY or LUV U or GR8ST EVR. I can’t. I’m stoned. I’m actually writing this from on the back of a purple dragon, flying through the sky. It’s windy up here.

    • Neil

      I would accept GR8ST EVR.

  25. Emma

    It’s books like that that make me hate people. Total misanthrope. Then I go on twitter. See people I actually like. Full of snark and sarcasm and mediocrity. Then the world is okay again.

  26. Karen Maezen Miller

    Neil, I never read your blog so I’m afraid I don’t qualify as your chosen “audience” or culturally diverse “friend,” but now I can call myself your rungmate.

  27. Leslie

    Hi, I just started reading your blog and it’s fabulous. Reading this post made me think of the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball:

    It’s about being creative in a corporate environment, and how you have to be outside of the “hairball” to do that. You could say that your third rung mostly applies to creative people, or even creative rebels. Those people who refuse to play by the rules, but not without knowing what those rules are. And rather than sell it as a self help book, I found the author instead simply telling his own story and then challenging the reader to do the same in their own lives. Truly inspirational people do not tell others, step-by-step, how to do things, they just live by example. And if you really want to change, you can’t copy the steps that others have made. You have to study and learn about where it is that you want to go and then make your own choices. Ummm – I feel like I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent, but maybe I want to say that it’s ok to not be a part of the hairball, you don’t have to be more normal, all you have to do is redefine what normal means for you.

  28. Anne

    Ahh I got goosebumps. This is one of the best things I read this year.

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