May 17

Being A Contrarian

An article by Ian Kilbride, published on 17 May 2024.

Contrarianism is vital to progress. All great scientific, medical, engineering, cultural and humanitarian breakthroughs have been achieved by contrarians. Think of Galileo, Einstein, Marie Curie, Brunel, Da Vinci, Ghandi and Mandela. Indeed, to be contrarian is not simply being argumentative or to object to other’s positions. Rather, it often denotes a far more reasoned and considered position than being conformist and going with the flow. But to be contrarian requires some rather demanding qualities.

The first is the possession of an inquisitive, flexible, and robust mind. This in turn, presupposes an intellectual curiosity. Contrarians are by nature curious people interested in the world around them. Not content with understanding it, they want to change it. Contrarians have the ability to weigh up and process often complex issues and debates and then to formulate their own position on what are often contentious matters. Contrarians generally look for evidence rather than opinion. They are fact gatherers and synthesisers. But the real faculty possessed by all contrarians is allowing the facts to speak to them directly and change their previously held positions. In this regard, contrarians eschew prejudice in favour of evidence, no matter how uncomfortable this may be.

However, evidence gathering and synthesis is merely a reflective or academic exercise unless it is converted into a position, policy or programme of action that questions or challenges convention. This is where another defining feature of contrarians is required, that of bravery. To go against the flow, no matter how crisp the evidence, requires “the courage of your conviction”. After all, contrarians are not content with discovering new ways of looking at things, they want others to see this too. This is where the rubber hits the road as being contrarian means being able to hold your own against opponents who claim ‘conventional wisdom’. By definition, this means being able to put forward and defend your positions against the majority who often find one’s own independence threatening.

The ‘conventionally wise’ are often deeply invested in their own positions (and those of others) and sometimes financially too. Contrarians go out on risk. Personal reputations are on the line, ridicule and opprobrium are never far away and fortunes can be lost by developing, holding and defending positions that question experts, markets, voters and influencers.

Contrarians revel in competition; conventionalists fear it. Yet, the potential rewards for being right as a contrarian are massive. All financial fortunes have been built on being contrarian. This may be seeing and seizing opportunity where others see threat, or taking risk while others flee for safety and holding your nerve!

But being contrarian is far more important than just making a successful bet against the markets or currency for example. We need contrarians if we are to solve local, national and global problems. Conventional thinking and irresponsible complacency has led us sleepwalking into many of our current problems from poverty, inequality and pandemics to biodiversity loss and climate change.

Business as usual just won’t cut the mustard anymore. And here one is reminded of Einstein’s maxim that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. To progress, society needs contrarians, but my deepest concern is that we reject, exclude contrarians rather than cultivating, appreciating and valuing them. Do they leave us uncomfortable? Sure they do, but that’s the point. Contrarians should shake us from our collective social stupor and make us question our own role in society and how we can make our own personal contribution.

This personal contribution may be in business, philanthropy, teaching, community upliftment, wildlife conservation, or even politics, but one thing is clear from the example set by contrarians, each of us has the potential to make a difference and more importantly, just do good.