Contrarian Mindset: The Courage to Be Wrong

do you have the courage to be wrong? A couple of months ago I republished a list of all the ways Misfits (innovators) are misunderstood in the workplace and what they want from their boss to be able to get along with them. It got a great deal of attention immediately after I published it, many Misfits empathized with the list; non-misfits probably didn’t.

So for all of you non-misfits, today I’m going to elaborate on a key attitude of a Misfit: being a contrarian.

What it means to be a Contrarian

What does it mean to be a contrarian? It means to oppose popular opinion. Another way to look at it is: Being a contrarian means doing and thinking in unconventional ways.

With that said, I’m a contrarian. Not for the sake of rebelling but because I believe there is always a better way. And you figure out those “better” ways by challenging beliefs, ways of thinking and acting. It’s all part of having an exponential mindset, as we don’t just take easy answers and run with them; we question them in an attempt to find better alternatives.

So that’s the first thing you have to understand about contrarians: we have a never-ending thirst for better.

The second thing to understand about us is that we reject consensus in the pursuit for better alternatives. And this is what non-Misfits must understand about contrarians: you don’t achieve great performance in anything by following the herd.

The courage to be wrong runs deep in misfits. And for contrarians the challenge is you have to be right. If you’re not, you’ll look like a bozo and have to be ok with that; most of us are. And while it’s fun for us to be this way, many people get ticked off by it because we don’t follow consensus that aims to maintain the status quo; we oppose it.

Consensus is the enemy of innovation, and you don’t achieve it by thinking and acting the same was as everyone else. Remember, where all think alike nobody thinks very much.

The Necessary Condition for Great Performance

There are many examples of contrarian mindset in all domains. One close to my heart is in basketball, where the 76ers have deliberately chosen to lose on purpose for three years to turn themselves into winners. This strategy was lead by Sam Hinkie, the former President of Basketball Operations. Before resigning, Hinkie wrote a 13-page resignation letter to the 76ers board. The resignation letter served as a defense of his decision-making, as well as a kind of philosophical treatise that includes references to Elon Musk, cognitive science, the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, and Jeff Bezos’s 10,000 year clock. The letter cemented Hinkie’s reputation as a mad genius or a fool—all depending on your point of view.

The resignation letter is a thesis on thinking about thinking that could very well been written by an innovative CEO. I encourage you to read it, below I highlight the part on contrarian mindset:

This one is tricky, and getting more so in a league as healthy and popular as the NBA that is covered by beat writers, columnists, bloggers, commentators, and fans minute-to-minute. If you want to have real success you have to very often be willing to do something different from the herd.

A few examples might help. Step away from basketball and imagine for a moment this is investment management, and your job is to take your client’s money and make it grow. It’s January 1, 2015 and the S&P 500 is $171.60, exactly the same price it has been since January 1, 1985. No fluctuation up or down. Flat every single day. And your job for every day of the past 30 years is to make money for your clients by investing. What would you do?

In the NBA, that’s wins. The same 82 games are up for grabs every year for every team. Just like in 1985 (or before). To get more wins, you’re going to have to take them from someone else. Wins are a zero growth industry (how many of you regularly choose to invest in those?), and the only way up is to steal share from your competitors. You will have to do something different. You will have to be contrarian.

Howard Marks describes this as a necessary condition of great performance: you have to be non-consensus and right. Both. That means you have to find some way to have a differentiated viewpoint from the masses. And it needs to be right. Anything less won’t work.

But this is difficult, emotionally and intellectually. Seth Klarman talks about the comfort of consensus. It’s much more comfortable to have people generally agreeing with you. By definition, those opportunities in a constrained environment winnow away with each person that agrees with you, though. It reminds me of when we first moved to Palo Alto. Within about a week of living there a voice kept telling me, “This is great. Great weather, 30 minutes to the ocean, 3 hours to ski, a vibrant city 30 miles away, and one of the world’s best research universities within walking distance. People should really move here.” Then 5 I looked at real estate prices. I was right, yes, but this view was decidedly not a non-consensus view. My viewpoint as a Silicon Valley real estate dilettante, which took a whole week to form, had been priced in. Shocker.

To develop truly contrarian views will require a never-ending thirst for better, more diverse inputs. What player do you think is most undervalued? Get him for your team. What basketball axiom is most likely to be untrue? Take it on and do the opposite. What is the biggest, least valuable time sink for the organization? Stop doing it. Otherwise, it’s a big game of pitty pat, and you’re stuck just hoping for good things to happen, rather than developing a strategy for how to make them happen.

There has to be a willingness to tolerate counterarguments, hopefully in such a way that you can truly understand and summarize the other side’s arguments at least as well as they can. And then, after all that, still have the conviction to separate yourself from the herd.

There you have it. True innovators are contrarians, non-consensus driven. Again, this is the most misunderstood and hardest part of being an innovator: you have to be willing to be wrong and break away from the herd.

For people and organizations it’s easier to side with consensus, and this is the reason most people and organizations only pay lip service to it. Innovation is really hard. It’s risky, and it takes balls. So, do you have the courage to be wrong?

Innovation is as much about attitude and perspective as it is about process. With that said, contrarians shift their perspective by pushing against the conventional wisdom; understanding that perception separates the innovator from the imitator.

Also published on Medium.