Individualism is the characteristic of a person who demonstrates independence of thought, self-reliance, and resistance to collaboration. This sort of person does not always conform to social expectations because they show a high amount of immunity to groupthink.
In the West, and particularly the United States, individualism is a celebrated identity trait. Individualism has many benefits – individualistic people might take personal responsibility of their own decisions, they might maintain critical thinking when the people around them are being brainwashed, and they are often excellent businesspeople.
However, an individualistic person might also be also accused of focused on pursuing their own fulfillment rather than the collective interest of society. They might have an ego problem because they think about themselves more than society.
Nevertheless, healthy individualism should not be confused with selfishness or egoism. Rather, it is a behavior where one simply demonstrates independent thought and respect for individual liberty.
Below are some of the best examples of individualism – but keep in mind, it’s extremely hard to categorize an individualistic person’s views because (by definition!) they do things their own way! So, take the following stereotypes with a big (big!) pinch of salt.
1. You choose your own fashion style
When a person embraces a fashion that is contrary to the prevailing norm, they may be lauded as an individualist. They are a person who doesn’t follow the norm and has no regard for what the fad is—they will dress according to their personal taste, what suits them best, or what makes them comfortable.
As an individualist, what matters to you is that you feel comfortable under your own skin.
A good example here is Steve Jobs, who wore the iconic black turtleneck and jeans when he was a CEO. He did not conform to social expectations of what a CEO should wear—a suit and a pair of formal shoes. This individualism became a key facet of both Jobs’ and Apple’s brand.
2. You listen to the music or choose the art you want
Most youths conform to the music, art, and literature that is popular at the time. For example, Twilight and Harry Potter were once the craze in the world of literature.
As an individualist, you would not read these novels just to be part of a community of fans. It doesn’t mean you won’t necessarily like them. It just means that you’d make your own mind up about whether they’re good rather than just going with the crowd.
The same thing goes with music—generally, there is a “Top 40” of music that is popular at any one time. However, an individualist does not just follow the current trend. The individualist might love 1950s jazz, even though it’s not popular amongst their friends.
3. You don’t follow the leader
Another great virtue of individualistic people is that they aren’t followers – they make up their own minds. And this means they’re unlikely to just blindly follow the leader.
Take, for example, Robert Frost’s poem about the road less travelled:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
In this poem, Frost writes about a person who chose not to follow the path that had been beaten down by tavelers and was easier to walk. Instead, he took the path that was different, and to him, that was what made his life better.
4. You are not afraid to experiment
Individualists are not afraid to try new things, even if people say that what they do is uncool. This is the sort of person who has a hobby that’s completely different to the mainstream hobbies you might see on television.
As an individualist, you can look within yourself and find things that you know will be thoroughly fulfilling to you – not just what is the easiest or most popular option.
People who have an individualist mindset have a tendency to explore new things and push frontiers, even if they risk their lives for it. This is why we see examples of individualistic people in the world record books: from Edmund Hillary climbing Everest to Ghandi fighting for freedom in India.
5. You live your life for your fulfillment
Individualists often value the pursuit of personal goals, rather than the goals of society. While this may sound selfish, it doesn’t necessarily have to be if your personal ambitions don’t clash with society’s wellbeing.
For example, you may want to spend money to tour other countries, or you want to eat good food. You will not stop yourself from getting this fulfillment just because there are others who are not fortunate enough to do the same.
You can justify this by saying travelling can help stimulate other countries’ economies and gives people jobs.
This, of course, should not be confused with not caring at all. The key here is finding a balance between fulfilling your desires and helping other people in need.
6. You may not believe that destiny is not a real thing
As an individualist, you may believe that you are in control of your life, and that whatever happens is a result of your choices. Individualists believe, after all, in individual responsibility.
Thus, you may believe strongly in personal agency and refuse to believe that an invisible hand of fate is responsible for your situation.
Of course, there is also such a thing called luck. But then you know that luck is you can put yourself in a situation to maximise your chances of being lucky—luck finds people who search for it!
In essence, you deal with your problems instead of blaming your plight on what is supposedly your destiny.
7. You follow an alternative career path
You will find individualistic people often following their own career path instead of following the mantra of their parents and teachers to “get a good education and a good job!”
Instead, you choose not to be swayed by society. You will get the job you want. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, then find, you’ll do it.
But you won’t do it because you were told to.
Instead, you might choose to become an entrepreneur or live a life as a surfer by the day and a bartender at night. You’re not afraid to be different from society.
8. You don’t let your parents tell you how to live your life
Many people in this world are very concerned with what their parents think of them. They make big life decisions to please their parents.
But individualistic people will make up their own minds, and not listen to their parents. They might buck the family trend of running a family business if they don’t want to do it. They will go traveling instead of heading to university, or they might just develop their own political ideology and worldview that contradicts that of their family.
Here, Frost is praising individualism: it’s the individual who makes change and achieves greatness.
9. You’re Unique
This trait is one that really needs to be considered because it can undermine all the other stereotypes in this list. Individuals are different to everyone else – so they’re hard to define. They’re just unique.
So, a person we might describe as being “individual” might have very few of the characteristics listed in this article. They may have their own very quirky characteristics – and that’s the point.
All individuals are different.
So, while we might be able to characterize individualism by some key mindsets like “not following the leader” and “having unique sense of fashion”, the truth is, an individual can’t be defined, because they’re them – a perfectly unique person.
Individualism and Political Values
Below are some common characteristic political values of individualists. This is not supposed to be a catch-all summary, as people have complex political values. However, this list does represent some “classical liberal” values of individualist philosophers and political scientsits.
10. You are self-reliant
Self-reliance means you can (or think you can!) survive without society. You are willing to work for everything you have. Self-reliance is a key principle of political individualism.
For example, you might see self-reliant people growing their own food or having a survivalist mentality with all the resources required to withstand a natural disaster.
Another example of self-reliance is that you do not wait for the decision of others. You can make decisions on your own and be accountable for them. Your default mindset is to get something done, not to wait for people to help you.
Collectivism, on the other hand, allows many people to benefit from the work of others. To some degree, there are people who expect society to give them something without them making a contribution. This behavior is called self-entitlement.
11. You believe in rights and freedom
An individualist values inalienable rights and freedom over society. While this is a topic for hot debate, an individualist is one person who believes that personal freedom is important, provided that this freedom does not step on someone else’s rights.
An example of this freedom is the right to choose what to do to one’s body, career, etc. Individualism is one of the principles by which feminism stands—women are individuals with rights and the freedom to choose.
Autonomy means freedom to act according to one’s free will, without being dictated upon what to do. Of course, this also means that the freedom to act is in accordance with the law.
Autonomy is the right to govern oneself. It is a basic psychological thing—even babies who learn to walk would eventually push out the hands of a parent.
Being an individualist, you do not want to be bound by what society dictates. For example, society expects you to be a basketball player if you are a tall black guy. Society wants you to be a doctor, software engineer, or mathematician if you are Asian. An autonomous individual breaks away from these stereotypes.
13. You refuse to be ruled
One example of individualism is the refusal to be ruled. This does not mean anarchy in the sense that you want to destroy authority. As an individualist, you detest dictatorship, authoritarian leadership, fascism, and any kind of governance where you are left with no choice.
Refusal to be ruled does not mean you do want to follow leaders. What it means is you do not want to be dictated upon. As an individual, you support the idea that everybody must have active participation in the goings-on of society, and society must be governed.
14. You support the idea that success should be based on merit
An individualistic attitude entails that you want to succeed based on what you can do, not because of who you are or who you know.
It is why there is democracy in so many parts of the world—the leaders must be elected and get to a position of power by vote or by merit, not because the person is the son or daughter of a monarch.
When we have a society where people get where they are out of merit, we call it a meritocracy – but that’s extremely hard to achieve. Many people think that the idea of individuals achieving things out of merit is far too idealistic. Social forces like poverty, oppression, and cultural bias mean success may be linked as much to ascribed status as it is to actual intrinsic meric.
People who are individualistic may be strongly against an authoritative figure. This is because authoritatians like people to conform to social norms, which individuals may not like!
For example, an individualistic student might find it very frustrating if their school tells them to wear a school uniform. The school is restricting their ability to express their individualism!
Similarly, an individualistic person might want to build a unique, quirky house, that their neighbors and local council won’t let them build. Again, they’re going to be hitting up against an authority figure who is trying to coerce or out of doing something that’s against the norm.
|Positive Individualism||Negative Individualism|
|1. Originalism||1. Selfishness|
|2. Uniqueness||2. Greediness|
|3. Inventivenes||3. Sense of entitlement|
|4. Trendsetter||4. Anarchistic|
|5. Entreprenurialism||5. Self-Absorbed|
|6. Countercultural||6. Hedonistic|
|7. Independent thinker||7. Egotistical|
|8. Resistant to propaganda||8. Disconnected from society|
|9. Self-assured||9. Anomie (cultureless)|
|10. Healthy scepticism||10. Contrarian|
Individualism certainly has two sides, and it is often misunderstood. At the core, individualism can sound contrarian to what many people support because it is about being true to yourself, and not worrying about society’s influence.
But people with an individualistic mindset can carve new paths, help society by inventing new things, and start up whole new fashion trends. Some of our heroes were highly individualistic people.
The important aspect to consider is not whether individualism is right or wrong but how to find a balance between being true to thesmelves and how you can be responsible in helping other people.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.