The value of being commonly unique
The song “Commonly Unique” by The Real Group, a five-member Swedish a cappella group, was an international hit in 2000. These days, it sets the tone for my morning as I’m getting ready for work. While I’m listening to the cheerful rhythms and perfect harmonies, I find myself dancing. The song begins: “Early morning having breakfast/ Taking a shower, washing dishes” and the refrain is “We are commonly unique.” It is a sort of oxymoron, juxtaposing two contradicting ideas to emphasize the message. We live as a community and pursue harmony but still live independent lives. That’s in line with Confucius’ teaching about “harmonious difference.” The lyrics reflect the social atmosphere of Northern Europe, where coexistence and individuality are stressed at the same time.
The small-yet-rich countries in Northern Europe have a competitive edge, the source of which is education. The underlying philosophy can be summed up as “commonly unique.” Through the public education there, cooperation is taken seriously and the academic gap between individuals is minimized. At the same time, the educational system helps each individual to discover and develop his or her talents and potential. There is a special emphasis on independent thinking. They value group activities but teach that everyone is an independent being.
If every member of society does the same work, profit will decrease as the economy falls into a cycle of excessive competition. It will not only hurt individuals but also affect the distribution of resources, making it difficult for everyone to thrive. Korea is the only country where 80 percent of high school graduates go to college and then seek jobs in the government, public corporations or conglomerates. But when the road is crowded with too many people, it is hardly a blue ocean for success. It may as well be a red ocean of mutual destruction. It may be lonely and difficult to take the small path, but opportunities are down the road not taken.
I am the same age as Jim Yong Kim, a Korean-American who has been nominated as the president of the World Bank by U.S. President Barack Obama. If he had been raised and educated here, he may have ended up as an average doctor or professor. He did become a successful medical school professor. But instead of resting on his laurels, he chose a “commonly unique” path and decided to serve underprivileged people in the third world. His choice is what has given him an even greater chance to shine.
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok