Even When Contrarians Win, They Lose

Imagine two people at a fork in the road of ideas, choosing between a standard and a contrarian view on some subject.  One takes a standard view, and gains a bit more favor with the "powers that be."  This helps him gain the right sort of contacts and opportunities to move up in the world.  Eventually he has somewhat more prestigious publications, affiliations, contacts, experience, and so on.   

At the fork in the road, the other person embraces a contrarian view.  This makes him a bit more suspect, and all else equal this costs him somewhat in terms of getting good contacts and opportunities.  Of course all else need not be equal.  He may still do well if he is very capable.  And his contrarian views may cost him little if he has few of them, if they are not important to his specialty, if he devotes little attention to them, or if he only acquires them late in his career.  (Also, if his contrarian view has long had a following, there may be contrarian "powers that be" to help him.) 

Imagine someone who ignores these low cost options, and starts early in his career to devote a lot of energy to a contrarian view, even without much support, thinking this will give him the best chance to still be around when the the world sees the light.  What if he wins this bet, and in fact the world does move toward his view, after a decade or three? 

As this once-contrarian view starts to become acceptable to "powers that be", the cautious person, who took the standard fork in the road, may consider jumping into this newly acceptable area.  He may start to write papers and apply for resources, such as jobs, funding, publications, and students.  And some ambitious "powers that be" who give out resources may also decide to try get into this new area, in part to gain the prestige that comes from being the first to support a new trend. 

At this point such ambitious "powers that be" may have to choose between these two people, who once chose differing forks in the road.  The contrarian will have established some priority with these once-contrarian ideas, such as being the first to publish on or actively pursue related ideas.  And he will be somewhat more familiar with those ideas, having spent years on them.   

But the cautious person will be more familiar with standard topics and methods, and so be in a better position to communicate this new area to a standard audience, and to integrate it in with other standard areas.  More important to the "powers that be" hoping to establish this new area, this standard person will bring more prestige and resources to this new area. 

If the standard guy wins the first few such contests, his advantage can quickly snowball into an overwhelming one.  People will prefer to cite his publications as they will be in more prestigious journals, even if they were not quite as creative.  Reporters will prefer to quote him, students will prefer to study under him, firms will prefer to hire him as a consultant, and journals will prefer to publish him, as he will be affiliated with more prestigious institutions.  And of course the contrarian may have a worse reputation as a "team player." 

Imagine there are different tools or methods one can use to approach this area, and there are different topics within this area on which one could choose to focus.  If the cautious person chooses different methods and topics from those the contrarian chose, those will be seen as the more important methods and topics.  And this difference will make it easier to paint this conservative as the real innovator – after all it was he who pioneered the important methods and topics.  Maybe the other guy just got lucky; broken clocks are right twice a day and all that. 

This is not just a plausible story – I have personally known people where similar stories have played out, and have read about others.  It has happened to varying degrees with Ted Nelson, Eric Drexler, Douglas Engelbart, Doug Lenat, David Deutsch, Alfred Russel Wallace, Hugh Everett, and, yes, me. 

If it is so hard to succeed as a contrarian, why do we hear so many stories of successful contrarians?  Well celebrated contrarians are usually not the real contrarians.  Perhaps their coalition was a bit on the outside and won a battle over the then-ruling coalition.  But they had to be pretty powerful to do this.  Such winners like to paint themselves as initially weak, to make their triumph seem all the more impressive.   I’ll admit I wouldn’t have the "contrarian" recognition I do if most of my career hadn’t been pretty standard.

The lessons to draw here depends on whether you want credit or influence.  If you want credit as an innovator then you should actually be pretty conservative.  Become prestigious in a conservative way, until late in your career.  Reject non-standard views but not explicitly; just ignore them so your quotes won’t bite you later.  When the time is right, look around for ripe once-contrarian ideas and take one.  Change the name and vary the methods and topics, grab the first few high profile resources, and trash the original contrarians as weirdos. 

If you instead want influence, then go ahead and be contrarian early in your career.  You are still well advised to be radical in a conservative way, but know that influence is easier than it seems, even if credit is harder that it seems.  Most important, know that the fact that few support your contrarian view says less than it might seem about how reasonable is your view.  Most people prefer credit to influence, and credit-seekers are better off rejecting a non-standard view now and grabbing it later, should it succeed. 

Of course if we could change incentives in our world of ideas to better reward contrarians who turned out to be right, then the fact that few others wanted to take up your contrarian view would be a much more damning criticism of your view.

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