How to think for yourself

How to think for yourself

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.

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 — like writing software for a tiny computer used by a few thousand hobbyists, or starting a site to let people rent airbeds on strangers' floors.

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.