You Broke The Law of Jante. That's Why.

How vanilla wins.

You Broke The Law of Jante. That's Why.

There's a little town in this satirical novel by the Scandinavian writer Aksel Sandemose. It's called Jante.

Jante has laws:

You're not allowed to think you're special. You're not allowed to think you're smart. You're not allowed to think you're virtuous. You're not allowed to think you're good at anything. You're not allowed to think anyone cares about you. You're not allowed to teach anyone anything. Collectively, they're known as the Law of Jante: Pretend you're average.

It doesn't matter if you are smart, virtuous, or good at anything. It doesn't matter if anyone does care about you. If you know it, if you think it, if you even hint at it, the good people of Jante exile you.

That's your punishment.

It's hard to live in a culture that constantly tells you to promote yourself while rewarding overconfidence and incompetence. The biggest idiots end up in charge. The worst ideas become law. The lamest music tops the charts. The laziest books and movies break the box office. And now the internet bleeds with mediocre content cranked out by robots.

You know how it works.

Somehow, the Law of Jante doesn't apply to truly average people when they promote themselves. They're allowed to do it because everyone knows they're average. But when someone with actual intelligence or talent tries to do the same thing, they get trampled.

So, you're a certain kind of person...

When you win an award, it just pisses everyone off. When you earn a raise, it inspires nothing but jealousy among your friends and coworkers. When you get yourself something nice, you have to keep it a secret. When you accomplish something, nobody congratulates you.

You don't get to enjoy your success, not for very long. You certainly can't do it in public. You're constantly having to explain and apologize for it. You're constantly accused of cheating. Your achievements motivate everyone to find flaws. They go out of their way to look for mistakes. They relish pointing them out. If they can't find any, they'll just make something up.

You can't do anything kind without triggering someone. You can't set a better example for your peers. That makes you look vain. Your actions don't inspire anyone. You simply annoy them. So you wind up apologizing, for your kindness. You try not to draw attention to it.

Everyone believes you owe them. Everyone's waiting for you to mention them in your acceptance speech. Everyone's waiting for you to smile at them and make them feel special. When you fail, they take it hard.

You become their enemy.

It feels like a curse.

The Law of Jante has a few different names you might know. In politics and business, it's known as negative selection. Leaders feel threatened by qualified, intelligent individuals. Instead, they appoint incompetent morons who make them look and feel good by comparison. This can happen in social groups as well, when someone elevates the most mundane, most harmless, least offensive members while ostracizing those who threaten their dominance. This might explain why the most popular flavor of ice cream is...


In western cultures, we have a major vanilla problem. Vanilla developed an ego and started promoting itself as smart and edgy.

In Australia and New Zealand, there's a phrase called tall poppy syndrome. It refers to the jealousy and animosity that arises when someone appears too successful and not humble enough. Everyone gangs up on the person and works together to sabotage them. It can get nasty. If you're not careful, if you're caught enjoying your achievements too much...

You get the razor blade.

If you look at the history surrounding historical witch hunts, both male and female, it just happens to center around those considered too successful. There had to be some reason why they were doing so much better than everyone else. It couldn't possibly be on their own merit. So the townspeople accused them of witchcraft, drafted up laws to steal their wealth and land, and either murdered them or chased them off.

That was the Law of Jante at work.

In a healthy culture, the Law of Jante promotes genuine humility and grace. Everyone's down to earth.

In a narcissistic culture, the Law of Jante works backward. Almost everyone believes they're the smartest, most attractive, most virtuous person they know. Everyone believes they matter the most. At the same time, they've internalized decades of cliches about humility and gratitude. So you wind up with a strange amalgam called humble pride.

So if you're truly average, if you're not that smart or talented, then you can go far. You'll win everyone's universal approval because nothing you do ever threatens anyone's ego. But if you happen to possess any of the traits that everyone wants, you become the bad guy.

All of this gets awfully confusing and overwhelming for those of us who qualify as neurodivergent. Imagine trying to navigate all of these strange, unspoken, inconsistent rules if you're on the autism spectrum. You have no idea when to promote yourself and when to act humble. Everything you do just seems to make everyone around you angrier.

That's why so many give up.

Tell me if this has ever happened to you:

Something you do impresses someone. They offer to do you a favor. The minute you accept the favor, it goes away. Something you did irritated them, but you don't know what. Maybe you didn't express gratitude the right way. Maybe you didn't make them feel important enough.

You'll never know.

You have no idea how to accept a compliment or show gratitude to someone without making it weird. You can't find the frequency. So you keep it simple. You figure you'll just pay it forward.

Maybe they'll notice.

They don't.

Maybe this happens to you over and over again. You're not allowed to be good at anything. You're not allowed to be good at anything. You're not allowed to be good at anything. You're not allowed to be good at anything.

You're not allowed to be good at anything.

Isn't it exhausting?

So you try obeying the Law of Jante. You pretend to be less smart, less virtuous, less good at something than you really are.

That doesn't work either.

It makes everything worse.


You stop asking for favors. You stop expecting recognition. You work ten times harder to be treated the same as everyone else. You let everyone benefit and profit from your work. You let them take credit for it.

You abide.

The Law of Jante works kind of like the sound barrier. You can't actually fly at the speed of sound. Most commercial planes don't. If you try, you encounter too much resistance. It's enough to rip you apart. You have to fly slower than the speed of sound or faster than the speed of sound.

When you break the Law of Jante, you have to do it with so much force and ferocity it blows everyone's hair back.

Is there another way?


Smart, kind, talented people are tired of watching mediocrity run things. They're tired of working their butts off all the time for half as much. They're tired of always wondering what they did wrong.

They're especially tired of moral mediocrity, where everyone only tries to be as good as everyone else, no more or less, and nobody's willing to do the right thing if it looks weird or makes people uncomfortable.

It would be nice if we stopped living under the Law of Jante, elevating only the most harmless mediocre ideas simply because we don't want to offend the public or threaten anyone's ego. It would be nice to have the smartest people in charge, not the most universally appealing. It would be nice if we could just admit it when someone else is really, really good at something, without feeling the need to cut them down or sabotage them.

It would be nice if we could do the right thing because it's the right thing, and not the most acceptable thing.

It would be nice to stop punishing smart, kind, talented people anytime something good happens to them. It would be nice to stop wishing for bad things to happen to them, and trying to make them happen.

Wouldn't it?

If you liked this, you might enjoy this book, called Doomer. You can get the paperback here, and the hardback here.

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