What’s the difference between being a contrarian and an independent thinker?
People often celebrate contrarian thinkers. After all, they’re the ones who swam against the current, resisted the pressure of the group, and were revered as visionaries because of it.
But it’s important to consider, anyone who aims to consistently be a contrarian thinker is going to be wrong most of the time.
Even Jeff Bezos says, “You have to remember that contrarians are usually wrong.”
There’s often a good reason the vast majority of people take one side when it comes to solving a problem or making a decision. It isn’t necessary, or even very helpful, to always take the opposing view.
And yet, if you think the same way as everyone else, it’s very difficult to outperform them.
So rather than always being swayed by the consensus view — or consistently being a contrarian—you should strive to be an independent thinker. Although they sometimes look the same, an independent thinker isn’t a contrarian thinker. Independent minds don’t take an opposing stance out of habit or a desire to be different.
They simply look at different perspectives, and sometimes find a unique angle. That’s thinking for themselves. Something very different.
Here’s what that looks like:
The difference between contrarian and independent thinking is perspective
Someone who thinks independently may come off as a contrarian when you first meet them. And a contrarian thinker may initially seem to be quite independent. But if you work with one or the other for long enough, the differences begin to emerge.
That’s because there’s not necessarily any value in being a purely contrarian thinker. People tend to choose this style of thinking in order to be different. They want to stand out, not to figure things out. And that can be a problem when they bring that attitude into a workplace or a productive environment. While it might be fun or interesting to take the opposite point of view all the time, doing so may not actually bring any unique conclusions to the table.
It’s better to develop an independent thought process
If you think independently, then yes, on occasion you’re going to look as though you’re opposing for the sake of opposing. But that’s only because you’ve come to a different conclusion based on a unique perspective. It’s very likely you’ll often conclude the consensus view is correct.
Independent thinking isn’t about taking the opposite stance or going with the crowd. Instead, it’s about looking at a problem in a fundamentally different way and drawing your own conclusion—whether it’s the same as everyone else’s or completely different is irrelevant.
You can develop independent thinking skills
There is reputational risk in independent thinking. When you first look at the successes of some independent thinkers, it may seem great to stand out. They’re lauded as trailblazers and geniuses.
But making the decision to take an opposing stance can be dangerous to your social standing within a group. Consciously or unconsciously, people will often make judgments about you based on how you interact with a group.
In Daniel Coyle’s book The Culture Code, he devotes part of the introduction to a story about making houses with strands of spaghetti. Interestingly, when children are pitted against adults, the children almost always win. According to Coyle, it’s not because they’re smarter, or have more aptitude for building the structure. Instead, the adults spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out their roles and navigate their social identities.
Do I look good here? Should I be in a more managerial role? Am I clashing with Sarah?
The kids don’t bother with any of that. They jump right in and start building because they find it easy to ignore social pressures. The children always beat the adults in this spaghetti contest.
When forming your own views, you have to get over the fear of how other people will think about you. That doesn’t mean not caring what others think. It just means not being afraid to be seen in a negative light if you’re convinced the consensus view is wrong.
Becoming aware of the influences around you is a key part of being an independent thinker
Your goal should be to develop a partial attachment to the situation around you. Some part of you should always be watching, noticing, thinking. This is a part of you that’s not completely living in the situation. Rather, you’re absorbing it and separating yourself from what’s happening—to the degree that is possible.
Use that detachment to identify how you’re being influenced. Are you really reacting to the facts, or are you letting the emotions of the group affect your decision?
A good way to objectively grade your decision-making process is by starting a decision journal. Every time you make a decision, write down what you decided and why. Three months later, open the journal to that page and revisit what you wrote. Not only will you see whether you were right or wrong, but you’ll also get to see whether you made a sound decision based on facts, or if you just got lucky. This is usually an eye-opener and a great starting point to understand your own thinking.
Independent thinking is about more than just taking the opposing view. It’s about constantly evaluating the situation and your decision-making process to get the best results possible. It’s a difficult skill to cultivate, but the rewards of doing so can be tremendous for forming unique ideas and your own point of view.