It’s actually pretty easy to be contrarian. It’s hard to be contrarian and right. Reid Hoffman.
The Great Debate
On June 30, 1860, seven months following the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a debate took place at the Oxford University Museum in Oxford, England. Referred to since as The Great Debate, it was an animated discussion between Thomas Huxley, a biologist and a close associate of Darwin, and Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford and arguably one of the country’s most influential public speakers. Darwin himself was too sick to attend the debate.
The underlying subject of the debate was Darwin’s proposed theory of evolution by natural selection. By all accounts, it was one of the most contentious debates of the times, generating a lot of attention and uproar.
Wilberforce, with this theologian roots, strongly refuted Darwin’s theory asking if Huxley descended from apes on his mother’s or father’s side? Huxley, in turn, retorted that he would rather be the descendant of an ape than be associated with someone like Wilberforce misusing their faculties to ridicule scientific truths.
The debate was tumultuous. Lady Brewster, who was in attendance at the debate, fainted. Angry men shouted at the clergy. Through his ideas on the transmutation of species, Darwin had completely threatened the existing religious and social order.
Contrary opinions mean controversy
Charles Darwin’s work on the theory of evolution by natural selection can be seen as a significant act of non-conformity in the scientific and religious beliefs of his time. It challenged religious dogmas and confronted deeply held beliefs, and prompted passionate debates about the compatibility of science and religion, a discussion that continues to this day.
According to Darwin, even men of science, such as John Herschel, an English polymath who was renowned as a mathematician, astronomer and chemist, described evolution as “the law of higgledy-piggledy”. Darwin is supposed to have said, “What this exactly means I do not know, but it is evidently very contemptuous—if true this is great blow & discouragement.”
But Darwin persisted. His contrarian thinking laid the foundation for modern biology and evolutionary science. His ideas have withstood the test of time and have been substantiated by subsequent scientific research.
A paradigm shift
Today, the theory of evolution by natural selection is a fundamental concept in biology. Darwin’s willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom of his time with empirical evidence and his commitment to scientific inquiry exemplify contrarian thinking. His work reshaped the way we understand the natural world and continues to inspire scientists to question established beliefs and seek evidence-based explanations for the mysteries of life.
Most biologists and philosophers of biology accept that there will be no post-Darwinian biological theories, which, in itself, is an exceptional achievement, one for which there is little precedence, and one with extraordinarily wide-ranging philosophical implications.
Sacrificing social approval
In a world that often values conformity and consensus, it may seem counterintuitive to advocate for contrarian thinking. After all, being a contrarian implies going against the grain, challenging established norms, and risking unpopularity with your opinions. Darwin, for instance, kept his theory of evolution to himself for a long while, and when he told those closest to him, he remarked it felt “like confessing a murder.”
However, there are compelling reasons for us to be contrarians sometimes. Contrarian thinking can lead to innovation, better decision-making, and a more balanced society. And, at an individual level, ditching the herd mentality may be the only sure way to personal growth.
Steve Jobs, under whose guidance Apple’s hugely successful ad-slogan “Think Different” was launched, believed in challenging the status-quo. In a 1994 interview with the Santa Clara Valley Historical Association, Jobs said:
When you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your job is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.
That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is - everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.
So, what does it mean to be a contrarian?
Being a contrarian
According to investor and entrepreneur Naval Ravikant, most of what we do is to “fit in with the other monkeys. You’re fitting in to get along with the herd. That’s not where the returns are in life. The returns in life are being out of the herd.” He uses reading as an example.
Most of us read what everyone thinks we should be reading. But, as Ravikant says, it takes guts and awareness and a level of contrarianism to say, “Nope. I’m just going to do my own thing. Regardless of the social outcome, I will learn anything I think is interesting.”
To be a contrarian means you’re okay with upsetting the apple cart and are ready to color outside the lines, knowing fully well that you risk social disapproval. As Eric Baker says in his 2017 book, Barking up the wrong tree,
Following the rules doesn’t create success; it just eliminates extremes—both good and bad.
But to disagree for the sake of disagreeing is pointless.
Some rebellious-natured folks get a lot of pleasure in being contrarians just to disrupt proceedings. But that’s not what it really means to not follow the herd. Actual progress occurs not when you engage in debates, but when you can change the subject of the debate.
A contrarian isn’t one who always objects — that’s a conformist of a different sort. A contrarian reasons independently, from the ground up, and resists pressure to conform.” Naval Ravikant.
What contrarianism is not
8-year-old James Phipps became the first person to be vaccinated against smallpox when Dr. Edward Jenner inoculated him with matter from a cowpox sore. Many were skeptical of Dr. Jenner, some even suggesting that the process could turn people into cows. But over time, the benefits of vaccination have been proven.
Smallpox, one of the deadliest diseases known to humankind, remains the only disease to be eradicated, thanks to vaccination. That a few people may encounter unforeseen reactions to vaccines, even when a vast majority benefit from the process, does not take away from the fact that vaccination benefits the population.
Being a contrarian does not mean finding one counter example to belittle an otherwise good idea.
We are right to be suspicious about new ideas and claims, especially because they are mostly unrealistic. But to never challenge our own assumptions, or always surrounding ourselves with like-minded people and opinions, can keep us in our bubbles and steeped in our limiting beliefs.
The VC industry adopted the term narrative violation—a way to express an idea that goes against conventional wisdom—as a buzzword. According to NY Times columnist Erin Griffith,
Narrative violation is a friend of “well, actually,” and a distant cousin to the “devil’s advocate.”
The belief among the VCs being, anyone who violates the current narrative, i.e., who dares to defy current trends by creating their own, will be tomorrow’s trend-setters. The underlying philosophy is true not just for entrepreneurs, but to all of us at some level.
It is okay to listen to an obscure band, or entertain ideas that may seem delusional to others. It is okay to feel free to be contrarians and march to our own beat even if it means being the subject of ridicule. Because growth requires change.
We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise, why else even be here? Steve Jobs.