How to think for yourself (and ‘independent vs conventional thinking’)
Mr Graham’s essay begins by drawing a distinction between professions where independent thinking is necessary vs ones where it isn’t: “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.
You see this pattern with startup founders too. You don’t want to start a startup to do something that everyone agrees is a good idea, or there will already be other companies doing it. You have to do something that sounds to most other people like a bad idea, but that you know isn’t…
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.”
Then Mr Graham says that independence of thought comes from nature, rather than nurture, and it is a ‘hard-to-identify’ character trait that people ignore at their peril: “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.”
Then the essay goes into overdrive as Mr Graham makes three points regarding the power of independent thinking and how you can amplify it further:
- “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….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.”
- “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.”
- “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.”
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. 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. 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…
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….
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….
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.”