Engineers: Learn How to Stand Out From the Pack

Going against the grain can help you get ahead in your career

28 November 2017

Did you ever drive by a pasture filled with cows and think it was so beautiful you had to pull over to take a photo? Maybe you did, but once you’ve seen one cow, you’ve seen them all. After that first time, you’re not likely to stop again for cows in a field unless one of them is purple.

That’s the idea behind bestselling author Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable: If we want to be successful, we must differentiate ourselves. So how does one become a purple cow and stand out among others? It’s not as hard as you might think.


Have you ever heard of the detective’s curse? That’s when all the clues you needed to solve the crime were right under your nose the entire time. Your purple cow is also right in front of you, looking back at you in the mirror. In other words, instead of searching externally for what makes you unique, look inward for clues. Here’s how:

  1. Embrace idiosyncrasies.

As Socrates once said, “Know thyself.” Einstein sure did. He never wore socks as an adult, because as a kid he discovered his big toes would make a hole in them. And he wasn’t embarrassed about it either. This example might seem silly, but it also speaks to who he was as a person: someone who asked a lot of why questions, even about something as widely accepted as wearing socks. In this case, why keep buying them if he’s just going to keep putting holes in them?

We all have our own idiosyncrasies. Don’t just be cognizant of them; understand and embrace these oddities. This is the first step to uncovering our purple cow and being confident in the things that make us different.

  1. Change your message.

If you keep sending the same message out into the world, you will keep receiving the same response. Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, tried an experiment. He met a homeless woman who had a sign that read: “Hungry and cold. Anything helps.” He asked if he could change her sign to “If you give only once a month, think of me next time.” She received US $40 in two hours, double what she typically got in one day.

Why did that work? When people see a homeless person, many feel they can’t help everyone, and they question which are really in need of help. Sinek changed the message to address the concerns of those who are giving, not of those who are asking.

This example reminds me of one of the first mistakes I made in my career. When I received my first job offer, I attempted to negotiate my salary by sending the message that I wanted more money. The company hired me but rejected my counteroffer because I didn’t have the experience to justify my request. In a few months, however, I successfully completed the first assignment they gave me, and much faster than they had anticipated. That resulted in reducing the company’s costs. Because I had proven myself, I received a bonus and a promotion with a significant salary increase. And I received the company’s Distinguished Performance Award.

So what results do you want? Think about how to change your messaging and approach to get the results you’re striving for.

  1. Go against the grain.

I once was working for a company that was going through a reorganization. It brought in new senior leadership, and employees were laid off. This volatility killed motivation in the workplace, and job insecurity ran high.

The anxious energy was contagious, but I decided to take a different approach. Because I had never experienced a reorganization before, I took it as an opportunity to learn how it worked and to try to understand how it would benefit the company. As a budding entrepreneur at the time, this experience was invaluable to me. I even took courses on reorganization as this was going on.

My curiosity and openness to the situation sent a message to senior leadership that I was curious and confident. It made me stand out. And ultimately, I got to keep my job. I think of this Mark Twain quote: “When you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.”

The key takeaway here is that it’s paramount to differentiate yourself if you want to succeed. These same tips can be applied in your personal life as well. Start with these three pieces of advice and you’ll be on your way to becoming a purple cow too.

IEEE Member Devon Ryan is founder of Lion Mobile, a mobile app development company in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @DevonRyanFit.

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