What we often see today is people going with the herd, falling into groupthink and never thinking for themselves. Even groups that profess to go against the mainstream (like the “goths” or hipsters for example) usually just reproduce the trappings of a mindless herd, with their own uniforms and ideology.
This type of herd mentality is due to our own evolutionary backgrounds. If you observe the way herds of animals behave in the wild, you will see how this works and why it is often beneficial for the individual not to stray away from everyone else.
There is safety and power in numbers and the lone individuals that get separated from their herd often don’t make it on their own, either falling prey to larger predators or because they are not able to get to the resources that they need to survive.
As humans in modern societies, we don’t face many of these dangers anymore. However many people still have the old herd mentality deeply ingrained in them. So how do we succeed in today’s world? Is it better to separate from the pack and strike out on your own or is it better to follow the herd?
I have been thinking about these issues for a while now. A recent post on Ludvig Sunstrom’s blog “Start Gaining Momentum” on contrarian thinking has inspired me to write down my own thoughts on the topic.
In Ludvig’s definition, a contrarian is someone who goes against the mainstream:
“Being a contrarian means doing and thinking in unconventional ways.“
I have always been a contrarian. I have never followed the herd and have always tried to act and think in a way that is independent of what the common groupthink consensus is. I have been aided in this by my unique background and my thirst for knowledge and self-improvement. This is reflected in my blog and my quest to become a Renaissance Man.
However one thing has always bothered me. Is this the correct path to success?
First off, being a contrarian does not mean being a conspiracy crackpot. Those are not contrarians. A contrarian should always follow the principles of rational thought and be aware of his biases. A contrarian is a critical thinker.
As investor Ben Graham stated:
“You are neither right nor wrong because the crowd disagrees with you. You are right because your data and reasoning are right.”
Contrarians are people who are keen observers of the world, who try to figure out how it works and often go down to first principles or lateral thinking. They are the rational innovators and bringers of progress. They are the Steve Jobs or Elon Musks of this world.
However we cannot fall to survivor bias when looking at the best strategy to adopt. Here we are talking about what path for success an individual should adopt. Should he go with the herd or go against it? Which way is more likely to bring him success?
For you see, for every Henry Ford or Bill Gates, there are countless people who did not succeed, people whose names are forgotten and will never be remembered. They too were contrarians, but their path did not lead them to success.
On the other hand, you see mindless fools rake in millions. The most popular shows are garbage like “Idol” or “Big Brother”, and the websites that have the most views are clickbait.
As someone wise once said:
“People don’t want to be educated, they want to be entertained.“
And this seems to be getting worse. As I wrote in a previous post, people are becoming more narcissistic, more distracted and have zero willpower. No wonder the selfie-stick was named by Time magazine as one of the greatest inventions of the year 2014.
A lot of people succeed by feeding the confirmation bias of people. Most people don’t want to hear other views, they don’t want to be educated, they don’t want to think. People who feed this confirmation bias, like populist politicians, entertainment producers or clickbait article authors seem to do very well.
And being a contrarian thinker is often not “in” even in the workplace.
If you are a contrarian, you might have experienced things like this: I say something should be done, because if it is not done, something else will happen. Nobody listens, but then the thing happens, everyone is surprised and no one remembers I warned against it. After that they implement what I had suggested in the first place, but no one actually remembers that I suggested it.
Some contrarians have fared even worse.
In Antiquity, Socrates was put to death after going around and challenging other people’s irrational beliefs. He is one of the most famous ancient contrarian thinkers who actively went against the herd and tried to expose it.
During the Renaissance, Giordano Bruno challenged the established religious orthodoxy about the world and he ended up burning at the stake for it.
Other contrarian thinkers did not lose their life, but never achieved success during their lifetime. Instead they were forgotten and only rediscovered later. Gregor Mendel and his exploration of genetics is one such example. During his lifetime, the work he did was rejected by the mainstream scientific community. When he died, it was forgotten, only to be rediscovered years later.
Mendel is just one story of many. His work at least gained traction after his death. There must be countless contrarians who lived their lives, never succeeded and are still forgotten today. We will probably never learn of them.
On the other hand, you see many charlatans who feed the herd mentality succeed in life. Scams seem to do good, since people are always looking for the silver bullet and don’t want to work hard. Just look at the internet today. It’s full of BS and that BS is popular.
Is there a point in doing a lot of research in order to write long, thoughtful articles, if you could just write clickbait and get a lot more views?
There is an argument to be made for the wisdom of the crowds. James Surowiecki in his book “The Wisdom of the Crowds” argues that the aggregation of information through large groups results in better decisions. Some examples of this are for example Wikipedia, which has been shown to contain around the same amount of errors as more renowned encyclopedias currated by experts.
However there is an interesting caveat inherent in Surowiecki’s work, a basic assumption that he makes that makes crowdsourcing work. He assumes that the different individuals forming the crowd are independent of each other and not affected by what others think. So the crowd itself is heteregenous.
In a homogeneous crowd, where people follow others and which results in a herd mentality, this crowdsourcing model does not work.
The world has changed. The evolutionary pressures that made the herd mentality become the most successful thinking model have disappeared. We have established that a contrarian type of mentality is beneficial on a macro-level for a society as whole. It is what moves things forward, which creates innovation and progress.
What about on the individual level? Is a contrarian mentality one that will make an individual happier and more successful than being a follower?
This depends greatly on the individual, but I would argue that being contrarian gives you a much greater chance of becoming successful, happier and changing the world, as well as doing that in a more ethical way.
By forging your own path and being OK with it, you will be happier, since many conformists are usually very unhappy on the inside. You will have made your own choices, while the people who follow the herd just did what others told them or what was “in” or “cool”. You can be satisfied that you tried, while they can’t.
“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.” Michael Jordan
How do you survive in a conformist world and how do you succeed in it?
First you have to accept the reality of the world. Unfortunately, most people are close-minded, selfish and unreliable. That is how it is and you cannot change it.
Adopting a Stoic mindset in this matter is key. Work on changing what you can change, and don’t worry about the rest. You will face opposition, you will face stupidity, you will face jealousy. Prepare yourself for it.
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.” Marcus Aurelius
Being contrarian however makes it harder to relate to other people and you often end up getting dissapointed in others, since most people are usually selfish and unreliable.
It will be easy to accept this and understand how other people act and why they act the way they do is if you study NLP meta-programs. People act the way they do, because they have different meta-programs. When I learned about this, it made it easier for me to understand the behavior of people and to accept the way the world is.
These are the first steps. The next steps should involve looking inside and changing your emotional and social intelligence skills. Karl Albrecht, author of “Social Intelligence: The New Science Of Success”, states that what contrarians are often lacking are inter-personal skills:
“There is an art to being a contrarian in a conventional-thinking world. Counter-intuitive thinkers often stumble over inter-personal relationships. Often they haven’t acquired the tactical skills of developing their ideas.“
This is often what separates the successful contrarians from the unsuccessful ones. Successful contrarians have people skills. They need to convince other people to their own point of view. Just think of people like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. They both have a certain charisma and people skills, which is key to their success.
Yes, you do need a bunch of luck (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), but if you want luck to happen, you need to create the conditions for it in the first place.
Being contrarian is about taking risks. If you look at the beginnings of people who became successful due to their contrarian ideas, they usually did so in an uncertain situation. They took a risk and then another risk, oftentimes succeeding after several failures.
Stepping into the unknown is the beginning of the journey towards success. Without this, you are sentenced to be forever stuck in mediocriocity.
You cannot be afraid of the hostility of the crowd. It will be there. You will step out on your path and there will be silence. You will step out on your path and there will be derision. You will step out on your path and there will be hatred and jealousy.
You cannot let that phase you. You need to continue on your path and trust in the process you have enacted.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something–your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Steve Jobs
Being a contrarian often means that you will have to take the long-term approach. Success doesn’t come overnight.
You have to look at things from the long-term perspective. This is what John Huber on his blog “Base Hit Investing” calls thinking like a business owner. You need to think long-term, not short-term.
I can see that from some of my friends who are business owners. The successful ones have a long-term vision. They know that the first few years they will have to invest a lot of capital, work hard and see several years of losses. Only after a few years will they start seeing profits, if things work out.
It’s the same way with being a contrarian thinker. You will have to invest a few years and work hard, at first no one will be interested in your ideas. However after a few years of hard work, you might start seeing some benefits.
A lot of success in today’s world depends on who you know and not what you know. One of the main keys to success is to have other contrarians or people who see potential in your ideas, promote your cause.
Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Tipping Point” describes three groups of people: mavens, connectors, and salesmen.
As a contrarian, you are usually the maven. You are the guy with the ideas. However now you need to spread your message.
That’s where the connectors come in. You need people who have a wide network and influence to help spread your message and get it out to a wide audience. Without this, your ideas, even if they are world-changing, will never get off the ground.
Once you have spread your message across, you will need to have salesmen sell that message. It is a battle of ideas out there and you will need to craft a good story to get to the masses. It is at this point that you can even get herd behavior to help you out. Once something has reached a tipping point and starts spreading like wildfire, herd behavior works in your favor!
As Karl Albrecht noted above, many contrarians lack the skills to convince people about their ideas. That is often my problem as well. Remember most people are not very open-minded or rational, so you have to put these ideas to them in a way that they can understand.
A lot of contrarians also forget another thing, to connect with other people (especially the introverted ones have trouble with this) and thereby spread their ideas. They think that the strength of their idea will shine through. Unfortunately due to the way people and societies are, oftentimes a bad idea that has the influencers on its side triumphs over a good idea that doesn’t.
Scott Dinsmore on his blog “Live Your Legend” has a post where he divides up the daily work of a personal project into three things: consuming, connecting, creating. This he calls the 3 C’s.
Many contrarians do a lot of consuming and creating, but what they don’t do is connect with others. That is often my problem as well. You need to find people to bounce ideas off of, to discuss important issues and eventually also to help you spread your message. This is the main difference between an unsuccessful contrarian and a successful one.
You need to spend a lot of your time connecting.
You can enhance your chance of being a successful contrarian thinker, if you become a Renaissance Man. That way, you will have wide variety of mental models at your disposal in the back of your head. That is something that many of the top contrarians, such as Charlie Munger suggest.
A contrarian then uses these mental models to see the world as it is. He goes against the current. He tries to avoid the biases and lazy thinking of the rest of the people.
A contrarian can, but doesn’t have to be original. You can build the next big thing, or maybe you can build something smaller.
“Every moment in business happens only once. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.” Peter Thiel
You can go for the big hit, or you can go for a series of smaller hits. It’s all up to you.
Successful contrarians learn from others, people who are smarter, more knowledgeable or experienced than them. As the author of “Steal Like An Artist”, Austin Kleon notes:
“If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.”
To further quote Kleon, they also build upon the ideas and work of others:
“Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.”
As a contrarian you cannot be set in your ways. You also have to be able to change when a better opportunity arises and open minded enough when arguments and evidence negate your stance.
So how do we answer the question when to be a contrarian thinker and when not to be?
The answer is between short-term success and long-term success. People who follow the herd can have short-term success, but contrarians are the ones who will have long-term success.
If you want short-term success and quick pleasures, go ahead, follow the herd. If you want long-term success and to create something that means something, start thinking on your own.
Well, this post has once again ran up to being long. Most common internet wisdom states that effective posts should be short, since people have a short attention span, especially on the internet. I am being contrarian on this and hope that there is a critical mass of people (even if a minority) who do enjoy reading long-posts and who are serious about changing themselves and becoming successful and that they will find this blog. 🙂
In the meanwhile, I continue on working hard! Hope this has inspired you to work hard too on your ideas, no matter what other people might think about them.
“What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.” Albert Einstein