What sets us apart?

There are a lot of people in the world. 6 or 7 billion. If you can’t wrap your head around that number, you’re not alone. To give you an idea — at a second per count, it would take over 190 years to count to 6 billion. So, in what is effectively an endless sea of people, how do you set yourself apart? What makes you special? If you are one in six billion, what is the probability that you could be the best at what you do? How can you compete against those odds?

My answer: giving that little extra. I have never been one to do the bare minimum. I need to push myself, I thrive on challenges, and I rarely hear myself say, “That’s good enough.” Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I do what I do better than anyone else. I would describe myself as competent, but there are many people, whether through experience or raw skill, who do my job better than I do, who are better than me at the games I like to play, or who know little tricks of the trade that give them that competitive edge.

So, I ask again, how can I compete? I know, for instance, that what I bring to the table is a willingness to challenge myself, and to work hard every day. I am also constantly reassessing what I do, trying to figure out ways to do it better. But what it your little extra? What skill or quality do you possess that determines how you do what you do? What do you do differently that lets you say, not just ‘I did it’, but ‘I did it well’?

I may not be the one to answer that question. But there is a reason I asked it. Take a look at my last post (which happened to be my first). A pretty standard introductory blog post — I said who I am, what I do, and why I do it. Lots of people have done that before, so nothing new there. But I took some extra time and went through the post, picked out what I thought might be interesting things to learn a little bit more about, and set up links for them. Some I directed to Wikipedia entries. Some I linked to organization websites. I asked myself, “Why would someone want to read my blog?” And then I asked myself, “What is going to make that person want to read my blog again?”

Nothing incredible, sure, but it was something extra. And that, I think, is what people want to see. In friends, in products, in service, in romantic relationships… they want to be able to see clearly what makes that person, that thing, that place, stand out. So relax, you don’t need to be the best at what you do. You just need to strive to be unique. Be the best you that you can be. And I suppose life is about figuring out who you want ‘you’ to be. And for me, that involves soaking up as much information as I can, every day.

That’s part of what drew me to books. And for that reason, I plan to feature one book with each post I make to this blog. Not just any book, but a book that I think is worth mentioning, because it presents a new idea, gives us a new way of looking at the world, or otherwise contributes to improving our lives, either by providing intellectual stimulation, or a much-needed dose of entertainment.

Today’s book:

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point

This celebrated New York Times bestseller… is a book that is changing the way North Americans think about selling products and disseminating ideas. Gladwell’s new afterword to this edition describes how readers can constructively apply the tipping point principle in their own lives and work. Widely hailed as an important work that offers not only a road map to business success but also a profoundly encouraging approach to solving social problems.

My first blog

This is my first foray into the world of blogging. I decided to start this blog as a way to organize my thoughts, share who I am and what I do, and provide myself with something to do when I need a quick break from work or life in general.

Before I dive into all that, though, I suppose it would be helpful if I introduced myself. My name is Jonathan Smalter. I’m 27, and I live and work in Webster, New York, which is just outside of Rochester on Lake Ontario (about midway between Buffalo and the Thousand Islands). I grew up here, went to college here (Nazareth College of Rochester, majored in philosophy), and I currently run my own business here. It’s called Yesterday’s Muse Books. We sell used and new books, both online and in a new storefront that just opened up in December of last year. I know what you’re thinking — how is he making that work, given the current economy? Well, that will probably be a blog entry unto itself. For now, I will just give a rough outline of what led up to it.

Way back when I was 17 (I can’t believe how long ago that was now…), I got a job at a local bookstore. I had been working at the Chinese food department of our local grocery store, washing dishes. A step up, I would say — books don’t leave one smelling like grease and soy sauce. Well, I ended up loving it. Seeing all the interesting titles come in, seeing people excited to buy them, learning what sold and what didn’t, and why… it was all fascinating to me. I had always loved books, something for which I owe my grandmother great thanks. Stay tuned for a separate blog tribute to her, as well — she was an amazing woman, and unfortunately passed away in 2007.

Fast forward a few years — I’m attending college at Nazareth. Originally I studied communications, with an intent to pursue a career as an editor, or perhaps a journalist. The draw of the complex ideas of philosophy, though, pulled me in, largely due to the efforts of a particularly skilled professor. Again, a blog for another time. In any event, the more I studied philosophy, the more I discovered about myself, and the more I realized that occupying a rung on someone else’s ladder wasn’t for me. I needed to build one of my own. Luckily, my years at the bookstore had already prepared me to do what I believe I was made to do. What was better, my degree in philosophy shaped my view of life in such a way that I knew exactly how I wanted to do it — I didn’t want to just sell books, I wanted to share ideas, and inspire new ones. At the risk of sounding repetitive… a blog for another time.

So, I started selling books online, literally out of my closet. I bought books at garage sales, estate sales, ongoing library sales… anywhere I could find them cheap. I bought a few supplies. I kept everything in the closet of my apartment, a pretty crummy one that I shared with three friends who also attended Nazareth. I was so wrapped up with the work, though, that I barely noticed. Since then, I have slowly grown my inventory, slowly improved the quality of books I sell, and slowly honed the way I sold them. In December of 2008, after almost 7 years of selling online, I opened a store in my hometown, right on Main Street in the heart of the village.

The front entrance of our store, decorated for Christmas.

The front entrance of our store, decorated for Christmas.

It’s been a crazy ride so far, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Along the way there have been ups and downs to say the least, and you’ll likely be able to read about most of them. I can’t find the quotation at the moment, but I vaguely remember reading somewhere that a man can’t truly write his autobiography until he is dead… probably Mark Twain or someone with a similar flair for the absurdity of life. Writing this, though, I have to say that while there is truth to that, I have also realized that writing about one’s life can play a great role in how it is lived, and how much it is appreciated.

I hope this hasn’t been too long-winded for the blog format. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time. All the best until next time.

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