FfT #5: Being a Contrarian

What does it mean to be a contrarian?

Peter Thiel has pinned the phrase, ‘What do you believe that few or no others believe?’

Obviously, you probably don’t want to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist, or a religious zealot, but there’s value in thinking against the populist wave.

Most things in our culture nowadays are considered feckless if they don’t result in more power or wealth. But I think real renegades, non-conformists, leaders, and visionaries exploit a bubble in common thought. It doesn’t mean they’re special people, or are stricken with angelic brilliance, but it does mean that their experiences have led them to see the world a bit differently.

Asking ’what do you believe that few or no others believe?’ is a really interesting way to define a unique and fresh perspective. When I see something that captivates me in a way that I haven’t been before, I often wonder how that thing came to be. I dig deep into the backgrounds of the people who made a piece of art, or machinery for example. I try to dissect it, break it down, and figure out how their creation evolved along the way.

Most of the time, if you ask the artist or engineer about their work, they’ll see all of its flaws, or they might say, ‘I only abandoned it, or it had to be finished.’ But you can’t deny the awesome impact of their convictions.

One of my idols, Brad Bird, likens the filmmaking process to forging metal. In other words, you have to put these projects through immense pressure and heat before they can truly be something beautiful. Or, by putting your ideas through fire, you find out if there’s anything really special in there.

Another one of my idols, Jon Stewart, describes his process on ‘The Daily Show,’ as a pursuit of excellence; a series of rough drafts with revisions. The body of work, in this case, is far more impressive than any individual episode.

The neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithis, in his book When Breath Becomes Air defines the difference between a successful surgery and brain damage in millimeters. He described what he did for a living as a calling rather than a job.

I’ve also been thinking about a couple conversations I had with co-workers recently. On two separate occasions, different people described the world being mostly good, with some bad. I think the world is mostly good as well. However, I also think it would be irresponsible to paint the world in such polar opposite ways. At a microscopic level, you’ll find irregularities and contradictions in everything. However, I think you’ll find there are still too many people willing to bet on the world being a bad place with little or no redeeming qualities. This is not what it means to be a contrarian. Wanting to watch the world burn is not a quality of contrarians, it’s a quality of one of those things I mentioned earlier.

Watching the conversation around the elections this year, it was a year defined by contrarians, in both parties. And it’s interesting to watch a collective group of people seemingly contradict themselves so drastically. If you understand the nature of the American political system, you understand it’s a system designed for contrarians and underminers. By understanding the system, you can truly overhaul a political party. A little luck can do that as well.

However, I don’t think there is any value in being a contrarian if you can’t provide positive value to someone else. I think contrarians are a slight modification of DNA rather than a rogue organism. Contrarians affect change. In some ways, they’re catalysts for change rather than the finished product.

If there’s anything wrong with Peter Thiel’s question ‘What do you believe that few or no others believe?’ it would probably be that it’s a far too individualistic way of perceiving change and innovation. At a personal level, I think it’s a fair question to ask. At a broader, entrepreneurial, leadership level, I think it’s far too simplistic. Or maybe I’m just missing the whole point of his question.

At a broader level, I think there might be another way of thinking about change or being a contrarian. All change is inevitable. Maybe being a contrarian is all about timing. If you understand that, then you can probably cultivate an environment for something great to happen.

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” -Isaac Newton

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