The Contrarian Question

The question from chapter two of Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

…is a difficult question to answer, Thiel acknowledges. He goes on to say:

This is a question that sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.

Most commonly, I hear answers like the following:

“Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.”

“America is exceptional.”

“There is no God.”

These are bad answers. The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”

When we can escape thinking of the past and present and formulate a good answer, that’s as close as we can get to seeing the future.

So, what is the future? And how can we begin to formulate a good answer?

The future is time and events that have yet to come. Most importantly, the future is a time when things in the world are different from how they are currently. When a person or place acts or behaves the same as the past, the future has not yet arrived; what is being experienced in the present is merely a similar version of the past.

Thiel advises that in order to pursue the future, we may benefit from starting with a more simple question:

It may be easier to start with a preliminary: what does everybody agree on?

Once we understand what is commonly accepted, we can begin questioning what we know about the past and present. And then we will be on our way towards making the future.

. . . 

I bring this question up because recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be contrary to accepted societal ideals. The easiest example most of us experience daily is observing people who dress “weirdly”. People who dress fashionably fall into this category of thought too. Is counter-culture a culture itself? And are fashionable people really unique?

I think it’s important to consider these questions every so often because it helps me to reexamine exactly what I believe is true. Professionally, it helps me identify opportunities:

Most people believe its great to work for x, but the truth is the opposite of x.

Most people believe the next great technology is x, but the truth is the opposite of x.

Or personally:

Most people believe its great to spend their free time doing x, but the truth is the opposite of x.

Most people believe its great to be good friends with x, but the truth is the opposite of x.

Remember, these are difficult questions because societal norms are by definition agreed upon, and an authentic answer is sharing something that is known to be unpopular. Would you have been comfortable turning down a high paying job at Google to work at the lowly startup Airbnb in 2007? Or a better consideration: What company started just recently that will become the Google of 2002 or the Uber of today?

I first attempted to answer this question in late 2010. Since then, whether I’ve found myself trying to make change at home, in the local community, recruiting TEDx speakers, or any other venue, I’ve found the contrarian question to be a useful starting point.

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John Marbach

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09 2014