Monday Mornings with Madison

10 Ways to Be a Constructive Contrarian, Part 2

Word Count: 1,975
Estimated Read Time: 8 Min.

Being a constructive contrarian is less about going against the grain just to be difficult and more about being an independent thinker who chooses to ‘do right’ and ‘do good’ irrespective of what everyone else is doing, thinking or saying.  Taking an opposing view is not the goal.  It is the means to an end.  It is about constantly evaluating each situation and allowing the decision-making process to flow without undue influence by the crowd in order to get at the best possible results.  From that standpoint, being a constructive contrarian is a quality that all businesses need and few businesses can afford to do without.

It is also a difficult skill to cultivate in people and one that few are willing to embrace for good reason.  Coworkers and colleagues often bristle the moment one opens their mouth because contrarians generally have a reputation for “playing devil’s advocate” or posing challenging questions or pointing out why the prevailing wisdom is flawed.   The contrarian is known to be the person who won’t simply go along to get along and toe the line to keep the peace.  That is a hard role to play and one that doesn’t always earn admirers.  They are seen as the naysayers, and no manager wants an opponent, or even just a debater, on their team second-guessing their every decision.  Still, the rewards of being a constructive contrarian can be tremendous for offering a fresh point of view, unique ideas, and spotting areas for innovation.  That is why it is so valuable in business.  Some of the greatest innovators were contrarians.  A constructive contrarian is a maverick, willing to butt heads with anyone — and everyone — if need be to make their point.  If they think they’re right and everyone else is wrong, they will not hesitate to say so.  Think Steve Jobs.  His contrarian personality is the reason he was fired from Apple.  But it is also why he was a genius and was eventually rehired at the company he founded.

Last week, we looked at ways to be a constructive contrarian that would benefit any organization.  These are situations where kicking conformity to the curb is exactly the right thing to do.

  1. Grace in the face of disappointment – Even when people disappoint and let you down, be a contrarian and handle the situation with grace.
  2. Socially responsible without reward – When people question if “doing good” makes good business sense, be a contrarian and do good anyway.  It pays.
  3. Vulnerability in the face of fear and weakness. Even though others will shy away from what they fear, be a contrarian and be vulnerable anyway.
  4. Calm in the storm - Even if people argue and try to get a rise out of you, be a contrarian and remain calm anyway.
  5. Helping even when rejected – Even if people push you away and make you feel unwanted, be a contrarian and help them anyway.

There are other situations in which being a constructive contrarian is highly beneficial to both the company and the individual.  Here are five more.

6. People will tell you to do what is normal, usual, typical or average. Be a contrarian.  Innovate anyway.

The only way to innovate is to reject the ‘same old, same old’.  Break out of ‘group think’ and look at problems and situations from an entirely different perspective.  It is how most innovation happens.  This advice is directly in line with some of the most creative forces in business.

Case in point.  Billionaire Peter Thiel’s rise to wealth could have been predicted.  Raised in Silicon Valley, Thiel made a name for himself at Stanford as the cofounder of the Stanford Review, whose conservative pieces often challenged campus edicts on political correctness.  Later, after trading derivatives for Credit Suisse, Thiel launched his own investing fund, in 1998, which led him to cofound an online payments system called PayPal along with a group of other innovators who grew the venture into a powerhouse and sold it to eBay for $1.5 Billion.  This group, dubbed by the media as the PayPal Mafia, is perhaps the most definitive group of constructive contrarians in the U.S.  Besides Thiel, it includes Elon Musk, Roelof Botha, Steve Chen, Reid Hoffman, Ken Howery, Chad Hurley, Jared Kopf, Dave McClure, Luke Nosek, Keith Rabois, David O. Sacks, Jack Selby, Premal Shah, Russel Simmons, Jeremy Stoppelman, and Yishan Wong.  These people have created over 50 highly successful tech startups worth billions.  None of these people did what is usual, normal, common or average.  If there’s ever been an argument for being a constructive contrarian, this group of constructive contrarians is it.

7. People will tell you to be realistic. Be a contrarian.  Dream anyway.

Walt Disney once said “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”  In that regard, Disney was probably a quintessential constructive contrarian.  He refused to be “realistic” when he was turned down by a publishing house for lacking imagination.  But, who other than Disney could have imagined that a cartoon about a mouse could become foundation for the most valuable media brand in the world?  In 2019, the Disney brand alone was valued at nearly $46 billion and the Disney Company’s market cap was at $264 billion, bringing the total portfolio of brands in at over 1/3 of a trillion dollars.  Perhaps realistic is highly over-rated?

Disney is not alone in being a constructive contrarian and daring to dream big.   Clothing designer Ralph Lauren started initially selling ties.  He started his company by taking a loan of $50K.  His first product was a tie.  Today, the Ralph Lauren line of clothing, colognes, bags, etc. is a multi-billion dollar global company and Lauren’s estimated net worth is about $7.1 Billion.  Like Disney and Lauren, business books, magazines, blogs and podcasts are filled with stories of those who dreamed big and refused to be realistic.  The world is a much better place thanks to these dreamers.

8. People will tell me that you that dreams don’t come true. Be a contrarian.  Dream anyway.

Well, clearly dreams do come true as the business stories of Walt Disney and Ralph Lauren show.  But what we’re really saying is that hopes, desires or perhaps even daydreams can become reality.  And sometimes when people refer to a dream, they mean a vision or hallucination.  However, there are instances where dreams — actual nocturnal dreams had during sleep – provide insights on how to solve a problem that leads to an idea for a business and ultimately leads to success.  That is the literal meaning of a dream coming true.  But people who are prone to “dreaming” are often told to wake up or snap out of it because dreams don’t come true.  However, that’s not true.  It appears that when we sleep, our unconscious mind takes over. That can create strange dreams about a problem that helps develop a creative solution.

Many major breakthroughs, like our understanding of the structure of molecules and the organization of the periodic table of elements, were the result of dreams.  The idea for the singer sewing machine, which revolutionized how clothing is made, was the result of dream.  And, in 1996, Google was born from a dream.  Google founder Larry Page had an irrational fear that he was admitted into college because of an error and believed he would be kicked out of college at any moment. That anxiety fueled a dream that he was trying to download and store the Internet on individual PCs.  When he woke, he was curious to see if it was possible so he did the math. Given the amount of data, it wasn’t — but he could save it all as individual links. That gave him the idea of creating a searchable database of links to web pages and that led to the creation of Google.

Our minds are able to make connections and solve problems in our sleep.  Real nocturnal dreaming, and even lucid dreaming – which is a form of dreaming in which we are not fully asleep and are thus aware we are dreaming and able to decide what happens in the dream — serves a purpose.  It helps the mind sort, assess, and try new solutions to a problem.  In fact, it is in dreams where ideas are born and can become reality.  So when someone says “stop dreaming” as a way of mocking an idea, be a contrarian.  Keep dreaming.

9. People will tell you to stop or quit.  Be a contrarian. Keep going anyway.

Success seldom comes easily, no matter the profession or industry.  Building a career or business requires incredible dedication, hard work and especially grit.  Most start-ups struggle and most professionals endure setbacks and hardships along the way.  It is easy for those sitting on the sidelines to recommend quitting and throwing in the towel, especially if the work or business is somehow out of the ordinary.  Every successful person has at least a few tales of being urged to stop or quit.  One way to flex that contrarian muscle is to keep going anyway.  You never know when success is right around the corner.

Case in point.  In 1963, Babette Hughes wrote an article for The Saturday Review titled “Confessions of an Unpublished Writer”. She was 41 years old at the time.  She had not published anything before that.  Nine years later she became Hubert Humphrey’s Liaison to Women as he ran against George McGovern in 1972’s Democratic primary.  But she never stopped working toward her dream of being a published author.  She finally began her writing career in earnest in her eighties and penned a crime novel trilogy, another novel, a memoir and two self-help books.  Hughes’ advice to those thinking about quitting, “If you want something bad enough, don’t give up. Go get it. People fail because they stop too soon. The life and career they want could be right around the next corner. Don’t miss it!”  What better reason to become a constructive contrarian than to shush the doubters.

10. People will tell you that you’re not enough or you’re too much, and want you to change.  Be a contrarian.  Be yourself and do your best, however much that is, anyway.
People are often told they are “too ___” or “not ____”.  Criticism comes in the way of a comment about not being enough or being too much of a particular trait or quality.  For example, novelist Stephen King was rejected 30 times.  He was told his writing was not good enough.  His books were too long.  He was finally able to convince Doubleday to publish his first book, Carrie.  He has since written 63 books that have sold more than 350 million copies.  Many have been adapted into films, television series, miniseries, and comic books.  And, he has also written approximately 200 short stories.  In fact, he is the 19th best-selling author of all time.  But it is not just quantity.  Stephen King was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters as well as the National Medal of Arts from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts for his contributions to literature.  What is “too ___” or not enough ___” for someone else, might actually be a diamond in the rough that just needs a little polish.  So don’t let the Goldilocks Syndrome cause you to change.  Be a contrarian and keep being who you are and doing your best.  What is too hot or too cold for others might be just right for someone else.

Being a constructive contrarian might be just exactly what is needed in order to make a breakthrough or do something really amazing.  So don’t hesitate to buck the system and ignore the critics if there is a good reason for it.

Quote of the Week

“To look at something as though we had never seen it before requires great courage.” Henri Matisse


© 2021, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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