On the contrary: How thinking outside the box can help your life & business

I went to see The Big Short over the holidays with my old man. It was some classic father-son bonding in the Martin family; fuming about the idiots that triggered the 2008 financial crisis. The movie is fascinating, and I highly recommend it. Beyond the obvious economic and social implications of the actions in the film, it highlighted a school of thinking that all of the main characters possessed in one form or another: contrarianism.

Be a contrarian

In its basic definition, a contrarian is someone who takes up a contrary position, especially a position that is opposed to that of the majority, regardless of how unpopular it may be. That definition does not lend kindly to the image of a contrarian. It paints the picture of a stubborn, out of touch zealot who latches on to an idea no matter what.

Instead of embracing the entirety of the definition, one should pick a component from it that is useful to one’s own self (a good habit in general). In this case, it is the concept of doing the opposite of conventional thought.

The words or saying When Everyone Zigs You Zag on yellow sticky notes to illustrate being unique, special, innovative and different to stand out from the crowd

In The Big Short, the main characters, experts in their respective economic fields, analyzed market trends and noticed discrepancies. (I am not doing this explanation enough justice, but just roll with me. I got a B- in macroeconomics.) They noticed everyone snapping up mortgages and loans off of shaky-at-best credit lines. Instead of going with conventional thought, which was to bet with the housing market, a historical rock of stability, they shorted, or bet against it, essentially predicting its collapse (or burst bubble).

What does this have to do with communication, PR, starting your own business, or anything remotely relevant besides a movie review? None of us are economic geniuses, but applying a contrarian approach to our lives and businesses can yield excellent results. Below I’ll outline some examples I’ve seen either in the news, or real life.


Do something out of the norm

Think back to your last New Year’s Eve (NYE) experience I know NYE has come and gone, but this goes for weekends as well. What do the majority of people do on NYE? They go out and celebrate, usually at a packed bar with a fixed cover. It’s a time that even the most introverted often venture out. This makes everything oversaturated with people who are not socially accustomed to a night out. The result is usually not a fun time. Instead, apply the contrarian concept to NYE: STAY IN. You have a side business you’re trying to launch? Work into the wee hours of New Years Day on it. Want to outline your year ahead? Take the night and map everything out in detail. Get a solid workout in, cook a recipe you’ve wanted to try, read a book that’s been sitting on your shelf gathering dust, anything except going out. Your wallet will thank you, and your mind will thank you when you wake up Jan. 1 hangover-free and ready to take on the New Year.

This should be applied to most weekends. Sure, blowing off steam is nice, and if there is an occasion worth celebrating, by all means, go out and have a good time. However, I found that often, on the nights that I said “I’ll pass,” to my friends as they headed to a pregame, I became energized by the thought of working at 11:00pm, knowing that most everyone else was slacking off. I’m sure this feeling will resonate with others if they give it a shot. That is the core concept behind this contrarian model: to be working when others aren’t, to think about what others overlook, and to do what most don’t.


That got cheesy there, back to the post.


Rethink your goals

I touched upon it briefly a few paragraphs ago, but let me expound upon goals. For as long as I could remember, I always sat upstairs in my room at home on Dec. 31, writing out intricate goals for the next year. I remember I had a “10 for 2010,” or “11 for 2011” theme going on. Sure, I hit a few of them, but most were forgotten by March. I’m sure I’m not the only one. For 2015, I had had enough. Instead of the popular New Years Resolution, I simply wrote down a few ideals and mindsets with which to approach day-to-day life. It worked. I accomplished more in 2015 than I did in any other year (toot toot!).

Examples of ‘doing the opposite’ are abounding in the daily fabric of our lives. They can be as simple as waking up an hour earlier than normal to get projects done, avoiding coffee and sticking with water and healthier options, doing wind sprints instead of cardio, hand-writing thank you letters, follow up e-mails, the list can go on. While some of these things may not fit with the right definition of ‘contrarian,’ they are habits that are not popularized.



Adjust according to context

There is no concrete formula to ‘doing the opposite.’ In fact, if you blindly follow this rule, you will probably create more problems for yourself. That is why it is so important to remember context when applying this concept to your life.

Don’t just take my rambling word for it, science agrees with me! You go, science.

The short form of Konnikova’s article is this: our body will go to great lengths to avoid the stress of uncertainty. Doing the opposite involves lots of uncertainty. It takes an incredible amount of reprograming to get over this homeostasis, but once you do, I think you’ll find that your critical thinking will skyrocket.



Putting it all together

A lot of this is easier said than done. No one changes over night, but taking the first step is the most important part in the process of achieving anything. In this case, the first step to maximizing your work and life performance is discovering your own mind, even if it breaks tradition.

And if you want some advice from someone a little more “sagely” than me, look no further than George Costanza.



~Patrick Martin, UCommunicate Consultant