What it Takes to be a Contrarian

It’s a well-known fact that in investing and startups, you get an edge if you can think against the crowd. When you take a position the market disagrees with, or when you build upon an idea that everyone says is ridiculous, it pays off tremendously (if it pays off at all). Being a contrarian has its benefits. The question is, how do you become one?

Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor, has a famous question of his own: What important truth do very few people agree with you on? He says a good answer takes the following form: most people believe in X, but the truth is the opposite of X.

When we are betting against others, we are convinced that we know better than others. We think we are contrarians, and “most people” are the consensus we are outsmarting. But who are these “most people”?

It’s not you and me for sure. No matter what we do, we can always think of a large group who disagrees with our views. Is that enough to make us contrarians?

Human beings may like to see themselves as better than the average, but they have a pathological need to be perceived as different, both to ourselves and others. In a study, when people were asked about generosity, they claimed to perform a greater number of generous acts than others. But when asked about selfishness, they claimed to perform a greater number of selfish acts as well.

If being contrarian was as simple as differing from most people in opinion, every second person you meet would be a contrarian. For example, if you prefer to set up your startup in a hill station while most people don’t, it doesn’t necessarily make you a contrarian.

You see, lots of people disagreeing with you isn’t enough because sometimes even minority ideas can become popular. Among the thousands of startups that are popping up every day, a lot of them may decide to set up office is some offbeat place. Similarly, there are countless others who invest in the very rare stocks you invest in, and harbour outlandish ideas that are similar to yours. Just being different isn’t enough, especially when there are so many like you.

Therefore, instead of contrarians, we get multiple groups of people who think they are different from the consensus. People who take immense pride in their faux-contrarian views. For example, crypto believers believe they are contrarians since they don’t believe in the traditional banking system. Similarly, Silicon Valley startups believe they are contrarians because they are against how traditional small businesses are run.

But such people talk among themselves. They form groups and share ideas. More than often it leads to groupthink. What begins as a genuine attempt at independent thinking often leads to the opposite. Being a contrarian is much harder and rarer than that.

By definition, not everyone can be a contrarian. Contrarianism, in its truest form, is painful and lonely. It hurts, and everyone thinks you’re nuts. It doesn’t happen when you buy a stock that has fallen by 25%. It happens when your clients threaten to sue you for being negligent, arrogant and stupid; when investors threaten to pull their money; when your friends don’t call you; and when your partner wishes you’d abandon this meaningless obsession.

Michael Burry was the first investor to recognise and profit from the impending subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. He saw something that no one else saw or believed in. He literally had to go against everybody—the market, his investors, and the big guns—to stay true to his prediction. When the dust settled after the crash, his payoff was huge. But it didn’t come without a price. It left him so much mentally exhausted that he subsequently liquidated his company to focus on his personal investment portfolio.

Being a contrarian isn’t easy, but the good news is that true contrarianism isn’t a necessity to win in investing or business. Plenty can be achieved by agreeing to the consensus—especially if you find your edge by being more patient than others and not going out of business too soon.

Show Comments