How to Think for Yourself

How to Think for YourselfNovember 2020

There are some kinds of work that you can’t do well without thinking
differently from your peers. To be a successful scientist, for
example, it’s not enough just to be correct. Your ideas have to be
both correct and novel. You can’t publish papers saying things other
people already know. You need to say things no one else has realized
yet.

The same is true for investors. It’s not enough for a public market
investor to predict correctly how a company will do. If a lot of
other people make the same prediction, the stock price will already
reflect it, and there’s no room to make money. The only valuable
insights are the ones most other investors don’t share.

Ditto for essayists. An essay that told people things they already
knew would be boring. You have to tell them something

new.

But this pattern isn’t universal. In fact, it doesn’t hold for most
kinds of work. In most kinds of work — to be an administrator, for
example — all you need is the first half. All you need is to be
right. It’s not essential that everyone else be wrong.

There’s room for a little novelty in most kinds of work, but in
practice there’s a fairly sharp distinction between the kinds of
work where it’s essential to be independent-minded, and the kinds
where it’s not.

I wish someone had told me about this distinction when I was a kid,
because it’s one of the most important things to think about when
you’re deciding what kind of work you want to do. Do you want to
do the kind of work where you can only win by thinking differently
from everyone else? I suspect most people’s unconscious mind will
answer that question before their conscious mind has a chance to.
I know mine does.

Independent-mindedness seems to be more a matter of nature than
nurture. Which means if you pick the wrong type of work, you’re
going to be unhappy. If you’re naturally independent-minded, you’re
going to find it frustrating to be a middle manager. And if you’re
naturally conventional-minded, you’re going to be sailing into a
headwind if you try to do original research.

One difficulty here, though, is that people are often mistaken about
where they fall on the spectrum from conventional- to independent-minded.
Conventional-minded people don’t like to think of themselves as
conventional-minded. And in any case, it genuinely feels to them
as if they make up their own minds about everything. It’s just a
coincidence that their beliefs are identical to their peers’. And
the independent-minded, meanwhile, are often unaware how different
their ideas are from conventional ones, at least till they state
them publicly.

[1]

By the time they reach adulthood, most people know roughly how smart
they are (in the narrow sense of ability to solve pre-set problems),
because they’re constantly being tested and ranked according to it.
But schools generally ignore independent-mindedness, except to the
extent they try to suppress it. So we don’t get anything like the
same kind of feedback about how independent-minded we are.

There may even be a phenomenon like Dunning-Kruger at work, where
the most conventional-minded people are confident that they’re
independent-minded, while the genuinely independent-minded worry
they might not be independent-minded enough.

___________

Can you make yourself more independent-minded? I think so. This
quality may be largely inborn, but there seem to be ways to magnify
it, or at least not to suppress it.

One of the most effective techniques is one practiced unintentionally
by most nerds: simply to be less aware what conventional beliefs
are. It’s hard to be a conformist if you don’t know what you’re
supposed to conform to. Though again, it may be that such people
already are independent-minded. A conventional-minded person would
probably feel anxious not knowing what other people thought, and
make more effort to find out.

It matters a lot who you surround yourself with. If you’re surrounded
by conventional-minded people, it will constrain which ideas you
can express, and that in turn will constrain which ideas you have.
But if you surround yourself with independent-minded people, you’ll
have the opposite experience: hearing other people say surprising
things will encourage you to, and to think of more.

Because the independent-minded find it uncomfortable to be surrounded
by conventional-minded people, they tend to self-segregate once
they have a chance to. The problem with high school is that they
haven’t yet had a chance to. Plus high school tends to be an
inward-looking little world whose inhabitants lack confidence, both
of which magnify the forces of conformism. And so high school is
often a

bad time for the
independent-minded. But there is some advantage even here: it
teaches you what to avoid. If you later find yourself in a situation
that makes you think “this is like high school,” you know you should
get out.
[2]

Another place where the independent- and conventional-minded are
thrown together is in successful startups. The founders and early
employees are almost always independent-minded; otherwise the startup
wouldn’t be successful. But conventional-minded people greatly
outnumber independent-minded ones, so as the company grows, the
original spirit of independent-mindedness is inevitably diluted.
This causes all kinds of problems besides the obvious one that the
company starts to suck. One of the strangest is that the founders
find themselves able to speak more freely with founders of other
companies than with their own employees.

[3]

Fortunately you don’t have to spend all your time with independent-minded
people. It’s enough to have one or two you can talk to regularly.
And once you find them, they’re usually as eager to talk as you
are; they need you too. Although universities no longer have the
kind of monopoly they used to have on education, good universities
are still an excellent way to meet independent-minded people. Most
students will still be conventional-minded, but you’ll at least
find clumps of independent-minded ones, rather than the near zero
you may have found in high school.

It also works to go in the other direction: as well as cultivating
a small collection of independent-minded friends, to try to meet
as many different types of people as you can. It will decrease the
influence of your immediate peers if you have several other groups
of peers. Plus if you’re part of several different worlds, you can
often import ideas from one to another.

But by different types of people, I don’t mean demographically
different. For this technique to work, they have to think differently.
So while it’s an excellent idea to go and visit other countries,
you can probably find people who think differently right around the
corner. When I meet someone who knows a lot about something unusual
(which includes practically everyone, if you dig deep enough), I
try to learn what they know that other people don’t. There are
almost always surprises here. It’s a good way to make conversation
when you meet strangers, but I don’t do it to make conversation.
I really want to know.

You can expand the source of influences in time as well as space,
by reading history. When I read history I do it not just to learn
what happened, but to try to get inside the heads of people who
lived in the past. How did things look to them? This is hard to do,
but worth the effort for the same reason it’s worth travelling far
to triangulate a point.

You can also take more explicit measures to prevent yourself from
automatically adopting conventional opinions. The most general is
to cultivate an attitude of skepticism. When you hear someone say
something, stop and ask yourself “Is that true?” Don’t say it out
loud. I’m not suggesting that you impose on everyone who talks to
you the burden of proving what they say, but rather that you take
upon yourself the burden of evaluating what they say.

Treat it as a puzzle. You know that some accepted ideas will later
turn out to be wrong. See if you can guess which. The end goal is
not to find flaws in the things you’re told, but to find the new
ideas that had been concealed by the broken ones. So this game
should be an exciting quest for novelty, not a boring protocol for
intellectual hygiene. And you’ll be surprised, when you start asking
“Is this true?”, how often the answer is not an immediate yes. If
you have any imagination, you’re more likely to have too many leads
to follow than too few.

More generally your goal should be not to let anything into your
head unexamined, and things don’t always enter your head in the
form of statements. Some of the most powerful influences are implicit.
How do you even notice these? By standing back and watching how
other people get their ideas.

When you stand back at a sufficient distance, you can see ideas
spreading through groups of people like waves. The most obvious are
in fashion: you notice a few people wearing a certain kind of shirt,
and then more and more, until half the people around you are wearing
the same shirt. You may not care much what you wear, but there are
intellectual fashions too, and you definitely don’t want to participate
in those. Not just because you want sovereignty over your own
thoughts, but because

unfashionable
ideas are disproportionately likely to lead somewhere interesting.
The best place to find undiscovered ideas is where no one else is
looking.
[4]

___________

To go beyond this general advice, we need to look at the internal
structure of independent-mindedness — at the individual muscles
we need to exercise, as it were. It seems to me that it has three
components: fastidiousness about truth, resistance to being told
what to think, and curiosity.

Fastidiousness about truth means more than just not believing things
that are false. It means being careful about degree of belief. For
most people, degree of belief rushes unexamined toward the extremes:
the unlikely becomes impossible, and the probable becomes certain.

[5]
To the independent-minded, this seems unpardonably sloppy.
They’re willing to have anything in their heads, from highly
speculative hypotheses to (apparent) tautologies, but on subjects
they care about, everything has to be labelled with a carefully
considered degree of belief.
[6]

The independent-minded thus have a horror of ideologies, which
require one to accept a whole collection of beliefs at once, and
to treat them as articles of faith. To an independent-minded person
that would seem revolting, just as it would seem to someone fastidious
about food to take a bite of a submarine sandwich filled with a
large variety of ingredients of indeterminate age and provenance.

Without this fastidiousness about truth, you can’t be truly
independent-minded. It’s not enough just to have resistance to being
told what to think. Those kind of people reject conventional ideas
only to replace them with the most random conspiracy theories. And
since these conspiracy theories have often been manufactured to
capture them, they end up being less independent-minded than ordinary
people, because they’re subject to a much more exacting master than
mere convention.

[7]

Can you increase your fastidiousness about truth? I would think so.
In my experience, merely thinking about something you’re fastidious
about causes that fastidiousness to grow. If so, this is one of
those rare virtues we can have more of merely by wanting it. And
if it’s like other forms of fastidiousness, it should also be
possible to encourage in children. I certainly got a strong dose
of it from my father.

[8]

The second component of independent-mindedness, resistance to being
told what to think, is the most visible of the three. But even this
is often misunderstood. The big mistake people make about it is to
think of it as a merely negative quality. The language we use
reinforces that idea. You’re unconventional. You don’t care
what other people think. But it’s not just a kind of immunity. In
the most independent-minded people, the desire not to be told what
to think is a positive force. It’s not mere skepticism, but an
active

delight in ideas that subvert
the conventional wisdom, the more counterintuitive the better.

Some of the most novel ideas seemed at the time almost like practical
jokes. Think how often your reaction to a novel idea is to laugh.
I don’t think it’s because novel ideas are funny per se, but because
novelty and humor share a certain kind of surprisingness. But while
not identical, the two are close enough that there is a definite
correlation between having a sense of humor and being independent-minded
— just as there is between being humorless and being conventional-minded.

[9]

I don’t think we can significantly increase our resistance to being
told what to think. It seems the most innate of the three components
of independent-mindedness; people who have this quality as adults
usually showed all too visible signs of it as children. But if we
can’t increase our resistance to being told what to think, we can
at least shore it up, by surrounding ourselves with other
independent-minded people.

The third component of independent-mindedness, curiosity, may be
the most interesting. To the extent that we can give a brief answer
to the question of where novel ideas come from, it’s curiosity. That’s
what people are usually feeling before having them.

In my experience, independent-mindedness and curiosity predict one
another perfectly. Everyone I know who’s independent-minded is
deeply curious, and everyone I know who’s conventional-minded isn’t.
Except, curiously, children. All small children are curious. Perhaps
the reason is that even the conventional-minded have to be curious
in the beginning, in order to learn what the conventions are. Whereas
the independent-minded are the gluttons of curiosity, who keep
eating even after they’re full.

[10]

The three components of independent-mindedness work in concert:
fastidiousness about truth and resistance to being told what to
think leave space in your brain, and curiosity finds new ideas to
fill it.

Interestingly, the three components can substitute for one another
in much the same way muscles can. If you’re sufficiently fastidious
about truth, you don’t need to be as resistant to being told what
to think, because fastidiousness alone will create sufficient gaps
in your knowledge. And either one can compensate for curiosity,
because if you create enough space in your brain, your discomfort
at the resulting vacuum will add force to your curiosity. Or curiosity
can compensate for them: if you’re sufficiently curious, you don’t
need to clear space in your brain, because the new ideas you discover
will push out the conventional ones you acquired by default.

Because the components of independent-mindedness are so interchangeable,
you can have them to varying degrees and still get the same result.
So there is not just a single model of independent-mindedness. Some
independent-minded people are openly subversive, and others are
quietly curious. They all know the secret handshake though.

Is there a way to cultivate curiosity? To start with, you want to
avoid situations that suppress it. How much does the work you’re
currently doing engage your curiosity? If the answer is “not much,”
maybe you should change something.

The most important active step you can take to cultivate your
curiosity is probably to seek out the topics that engage it. Few
adults are equally curious about everything, and it doesn’t seem
as if you can choose which topics interest you. So it’s up to you
to

find them. Or invent them, if
necessary.

Another way to increase your curiosity is to indulge it, by
investigating things you’re interested in. Curiosity is unlike
most other appetites in this respect: indulging it tends to increase
rather than to sate it. Questions lead to more questions.

Curiosity seems to be more individual than fastidiousness about
truth or resistance to being told what to think. To the degree
people have the latter two, they’re usually pretty general, whereas
different people can be curious about very different things. So
perhaps curiosity is the compass here. Perhaps, if your goal is to
discover novel ideas, your motto should not be “do what you love”
so much as “do what you’re curious about.”

Notes

[

1]
One convenient consequence of the fact that no one identifies
as conventional-minded is that you can say what you like about
conventional-minded people without getting in too much trouble.
When I wrote “The Four Quadrants of
Conformism”
I expected a firestorm of rage from the
aggressively conventional-minded, but in fact it was quite muted.
They sensed that there was something about the essay that they
disliked intensely, but they had a hard time finding a specific
passage to pin it on.

[

2]
When I ask myself what in my life is like high school, the
answer is Twitter. It’s not just full of conventional-minded people,
as anything its size will inevitably be, but subject to violent
storms of conventional-mindedness that remind me of descriptions
of Jupiter. But while it probably is a net loss to spend time there,
it has at least made me think more about the distinction between
independent- and conventional-mindedness, which I probably wouldn’t
have done otherwise.

[

3]
The decrease in independent-mindedness in growing startups is
still an open problem, but there may be solutions.

Founders can delay the problem by making a conscious effort only
to hire independent-minded people. Which of course also has the
ancillary benefit that they have better ideas.

Another possible solution is to create policies that somehow disrupt
the force of conformism, much as control rods slow chain reactions,
so that the conventional-minded aren’t as dangerous. The physical
separation of Lockheed’s Skunk Works may have had this as a side
benefit. Recent examples suggest employee forums like Slack may not
be an unmitigated good.

The most radical solution would be to grow revenues without growing
the company. You think hiring that junior PR person will be cheap,
compared to a programmer, but what will be the effect on the average
level of independent-mindedness in your company? (The growth in
staff relative to faculty seems to have had a similar effect on
universities.) Perhaps the rule about outsourcing work that’s not
your “core competency” should be augmented by one about outsourcing
work done by people who’d ruin your culture as employees.

Some investment firms already seem to be able to grow revenues
without growing the number of employees. Automation plus the ever
increasing articulation of the “tech stack” suggest this may one
day be possible for product companies.

[

4]
There are intellectual fashions in every field, but their
influence varies. One of the reasons politics, for example, tends
to be boring is that it’s so extremely subject to them. The threshold
for having opinions about politics is much lower than the one for having
opinions about set theory. So while there are some ideas in politics,
in practice they tend to be swamped by waves of intellectual fashion.

[

5]
The conventional-minded are often fooled by the strength of
their opinions into believing that they’re independent-minded. But
strong convictions are not a sign of independent-mindedness. Rather
the opposite.

[

6]
Fastidiousness about truth doesn’t imply that an independent-minded
person won’t be dishonest, but that he won’t be deluded. It’s sort
of like the definition of a gentleman as someone who is never
unintentionally rude.

[

7]
You see this especially among political extremists. They think
themselves nonconformists, but actually they’re niche conformists.
Their opinions may be different from the average person’s, but they
are often more influenced by their peers’ opinions than the average
person’s are.

[

8]
If we broaden the concept of fastidiousness about truth so that
it excludes pandering, bogusness, and pomposity as well as falsehood
in the strict sense, our model of independent-mindedness can expand
further into the arts.

[

9]
This correlation is far from perfect, though. Gödel and Dirac
don’t seem to have been very strong in the humor department. But
someone who is both “neurotypical” and humorless is very likely to
be conventional-minded.

[

10]
Exception: gossip. Almost everyone is curious about gossip.

Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Paul Buchheit, Patrick Collison, Jessica
Livingston, Robert Morris, Harj Taggar, and Peter Thiel for reading
drafts of this.

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