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Oxymorons of the Day: Common Uniqueness, Similar Differences, and Different Similarities

autodesk university
December 8, 2009

David Bohm, Author and Physicist NOTE:  This post is partly inspired by and is in memory of one of the world’s greatest physicists and one of my all time favorite thinkers, David Bohm, who passed away 17 years ago on Oct. 27 1992. 

I’ve been ranting and raving that “All categorization must die” and working, in vain (so far) to bring an end to the trend of segmenting people into generations such as X, Y, Boomer, etc. Here is my latest rant and rave, plus a request.

Let me start by clarifying that I am not saying there are no differences between people of different ages, nor am I saying that age is irrelevant. However, it is also nothing more than one of probably millions of characteristics that define any person. For the most part and in my experience, there is a very low correlation between people’s behaviors and habits and their chronological age. Equally, my real world experiences seem to almost always be at odds with what many of the pundits, experts, and popular conference speakers and book writers are saying when it comes to classifying people and their behaviors based on their age or generation. 

I came across some good examples that I think support my observations and the source is rather unusual: the Pew Research Center report on “Home Broadband Adoption 2009”, which is part of their larger work on the Pew Internet & American Life Project. It provides some excellent data to show just how diverse and different broadband adoption is and I strongly recommend reading it.  For those who want even more detail, read the full “Home Broadband Adoption 2009” report.

My interest in this Pew report is not on its specific focus, which is broadband adoption in the USA. And it is not lost on me that citing this Pew report, which is based on segmenting groups by age, seems counter to my argument. But when you read their surprising findings and trends, I believe that in the net their data shows just how diverse and counterintuitive the patterns and people are, and how most of these fly against the prevailing wisdom or presumed common knowledge.

This report is also limited, since it only covers the American population. However, after having lived much of my life (including the past two years) in places other than in North America, I must point out that I keep seeing more exceptions to these so-called norms and to such an extent that I think that there are no norms! 

I do understand, at least in part, that what drives us to want to categorize and group things is that we have historically used this method to make sense of the universe. We think it helps us establish some order amid the chaos. However I think this is working less and less well, and in fact it is leading us to less understanding and (worse perhaps) even misunderstanding in a majority of cases. One of my all-time favorite thinkers and mentors is David Bohm who is author of such greats as On Creativity, Science Order and Creativity, and Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Bohm’s thinking on order, creativity, and uniqueness was absolutely brilliant regarding what constitutes a genuinely unique new idea. I’ve long been fascinated by his notion on how our brains notice “similar differences and different similarities” in different situations and how there is such a difference between occasional perceptive insight, and genuinely creative paradigm shifts.  But that is best left to another and much longer post that I’ll try to get to soon. 

My primary point in this post, indeed my plea, is that we recognize our uniqueness and work much harder to stop the common practice of profiling people based on their age, and worse yet, into generations with the presumption that there would be any accuracy at all in such gross oversimplifications and presumptions. 

The reality is that each of us is deeply unique and our behaviors are similarly influenced by the uniqueness of the:

  • Context of each day
  • Others we are interacting with
  • Situations we find ourselves in 

The net result is that we should presume to know very little about individuals or groups based on any one of the myriad of characteristics that define each of us, such as age. Instead let’s celebrate our differences and uniqueness and focus on designing, serving, working, learning, playing with, and loving others as the unique “snowflakes” we all are. 

What we do have in common is our differences. We are all snowflakes—completely unique, and in that regard only, just like every other snowflake!


autodesk university