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In the view of the dictionary definition, the idiom "March to the beat of one's own drum, is more or less something negative which has a connotation of being inattentive, inconsiderate or reckless and even regarding someone who doesn't observe the societal norms.

  • Example: Look, I respect the fact that you like to march to your own drum, but do you have to make a point of doing everything in a counter-cultural way?

But despite this definition, I have faced some occasions in which people tend to use this idiom in a positive way too.

Please kindly let me know about it.

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    The link you've cited there doesn't suggest connotations as negative as "inattentive, inconsiderate or reckless." Did you get that idea from a different definition? Something else you may not be aware of: countercultural doesn't just mean "not observing societal norms" but also has a strong association (at least in the US) with political/social movements of the 1960s and 70s. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counterculture_of_the_1960s – Katy Sep 30 at 5:03
  • Hi @Katy. Interesting point. Thank you for letting me know about it. Just in order to elaborate why I thought so, this is a link which confirms my words: usingenglish.com/reference/idioms/… – A-friend Sep 30 at 5:12
  • The example you cited is essentially saying that the subject is doing a good thing in a bad way. – Valkor Oct 1 at 2:46
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As with "go your own way," march to the beat of your own drum has positive and negative connotations simultaneously. The connotations of each phrase are different, though. No simple, abstract description can fully convey the connotations of either phrase. To understand them, you must follow some of the cultural landmarks that echo in people's minds when they hear each phrase.

Thoreau

First, here is the passage from Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, which is usually considered the origin of the expression:

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak.

The phrase refers to people marching in formation, their steps synchronized by a drummer whom they all hear. Now imagine that one man is out of step with the rest of the formation—he isn't "keeping pace".

The "formation" that Thoreau is referring to is the common, conventional practice of seeking money, physical comforts, and the respect of most people—which is how most people live. But some people don't care very much about conventional success. Some people feel called to unusual pursuits that most people don't respect and that don't pay much money, like joining the circus or the life of a hobo. These people are "marching to the beat of a different drum" than the "drum" that guides ordinary people.

Weirdness, Quirkiness

So, saying that someone marches to the beat of a different drum suggests that they are weird, maybe somewhat goofy, certainly idiosyncratic. It suggests that they probably will not "succeed" by conventional criteria of wealth and public respect (though in rare cases they might become extremely wealthy).

Just as with "Go Your Own Way" (1977), there is a well-known pop song called "Different Drum" (1967)—and the words are, again, those of a person rejecting a boyfriend/girlfriend because they think their lives need to follow different paths. In "Different Drum", the girl mainly needs to maintain her freedom and independence, which would be lost if she stayed with a boyfriend who adores her too much. The rejection in "Go Your Own Way" has a more conventional reason: "You don't care about me enough. So, you will have to do without me, i.e. go your own way."

A description, not a prescription

Another difference between the two phrases is that it makes more sense to say that a person marches to the beat of a different drum, than to tell a person to march to the beat of a different drum. Quirky, unconventional people are not that way by choice. The phrase explains their odd behavior: they march differently because they hear a different drum than the one that most people hear. It doesn't make sense to tell an ordinary person to march to the beat of a different drum. Ordinary people hear the same drum that most people hear. They don't hear the "far away" drum that quirky people hear.

"Go your own way" suggests self-reliance more than it suggests quirkiness. The Frank Sinatra song "I Did It My Way" suggests that even though he chose the hard, individualist path, he still succeeded by the usual standards of wealth and respect—more than most people, perhaps. "Go your own way" makes more sense as advice—and it can even serve as a contemptuous dismissal.

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There are Different Attitudes

The idiom "March to the beat of one's own drum" or the very similar "March to the beat of a different drummer" means someone who is unconventional, nonconformist, does things in his or her own way. Whether this is a positive or negative characteristic depends on what things those are, and perhaps even more on the attitude of the person making the comment.

Some people value conformity highly, and tend to see those who violate norms as selfish or antisocial. Other people think of the ability to make one's own choices to indicate bravery or praiseworthy resistance to the pressure of the majority.

Idioms Online (linked above) suggests that the phrase may have derived from a passage in Walden (1854) by Henry David Thoreau, which runs:

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.

phrases.com also refers to Thoreau as the source of the idiom, as does this bookbrowse.com page. Thoreau seems to have regarded this as a good thing, but not everyone did then nor does everyone now.

For example, this personal essay seems to regard "marching to a different drummer" in a very positive light, while this essay by a psychologist associates it with possible "determined and oppositional nonconformity", "an excuse for not fulfilling school expectations." and being "rebellious". This difference of attitude toward the idiom is, at base, a difference of attitude toward nonconformity, and also what kind of nonconformity the speaker or writer has in mind.

See also:

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