Life of a Contrarian

There are not a lot of people out there who are willing to take risks. They are sitting quietly in their backoffice and are waiting for the cool opportunity to stop by. They are waiting to be noticed and change to happen to them.

I myself believed for the longest time that doing a good job and being intelligent enought to master skills is all you need to succeed. But like many things in this world success is not easily defined and often the perception on what success is depends on the person seeking it.

I for myself have definitions of success that vary depending on the job.

  1. There is the success that happens when you actually finish a project. The feeling of pride when you go from concept to finished product is amazing. You spend hours on it, developing ideas, removing roadblocks, concquering plans and timelines, and finally after a lot of reconcilation, alignment and presentation, the product is launched. And it works…
  2. There is the other success that happens when people recognize what you have done. Either the appreciative nod “Good Job!” or monetary incentive or even a promotion. This is a success that can be easily valued as the value comes with the reward.
  3. And then the third one: finding success when you actually changed something. A behavior, a perception, a means of operation. I love this success the most as it is the hardest to come by. True change comes from being able to take risks, to be courageous, and to be candid. It requires you to temporarily sacrifice popularity in order to change something for the better long term.

I used to rely heavily on the first two success areas. Being able to demonstrate my intelligence through successful product development and being recognized for that was all I truly cared about. Over the last two years this has changed drastically. I noticed that my duty is not so much in going with the flow and doing a good job in what I was assigned to do. But to make a difference and initiate change that will lead to a more sustainable and improved environment. Be it at work or at home. What is inefficient or unfair here? Why is it this way? Who said it cannot change?

Often we are trapped in our own self created myths and perceptions of what is truth. Personal or societal dogmas that noone challenges. Why does noone challenge these? Generally, the answer is not easy. There might be the fact that challenging the perceived norm leads to punishment as it is so often the case with opposing religious view points. Or there is the idea that the dogma is indeed a rule that must be followed as it is based on the undeniable fact that this has always been done this way. Or we just have heard the theme so much that we actually do not question it or even reconsider the time and context of when the rule was created.  Unknowingly ignoring the fact that time and context indeed might have changed making this rule void and unimportant.

Examples are so easy to find. I am just thinking of the fact that in school I was taught that distilled water if drunk would kill you. Or I was taught that Pluto is a planet. Facts that are no longer valid. There are also other myths that have long been revoked: We know the Earth is not flat. We know that women can be good leaders. And we might know that high cholesterol is not causing heart disease. I by now know that the historical context of marriage has not been about love. All facts that have changed due to new scientific or historical evidence.

Success to me these days means to be able to spot these dogmas and work towards solving them. Making sure that an organization learns from past mistakes, learns to adapt to a new context, generally remains flexible to demands, and ensures that business practices are leading to a sustained business success.

Often this requires me to speak out and point out corporate myths. Many times I have to take a deep breath in meetings and carefully ask the why question: why do you think we need to do the same thing  we have always done? What would be needed to change? What are the key enablers?

My own personal pet peeve is when people tell my why “this or that” cannot work. And I always have to pause, refocus, and say: “I understand, but could you tell me what would make it work?”

Here is the one thing I learned during my time of being a contrarian. It is about putting a posivite spin on negative remarks. Approaching all desired projects and topics with a “Can do!” and “What does it take?” instead of trying to argue the reasons and issues why it cannot.

Arguing negative feedback leads to nothing. It is a perception, a feeling, and often based on historical experience and evidence. Arguing against evidence will only lead to failure. In order to change you have to accept those as given, and need to spin the opponents point of view from negative to opportunistic. Here is what the change will do for you and it will be great !

And then you have initiated yourself as a leader someone that can manage change by creating opportunities for yourself and partnering with others. While you can point out dogmas by yourself, you need others to succeed in eliminating those.


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