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#78: Beware of Being the Cool Kid

#78: Beware of Being the Cool Kid

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1. Just Because You’re Contrarian Doesn’t Mean You’re Smart – Many years ago, when I was a newbie blogger, I discovered something fascinating—the more I trashed on conventional self-help advice and showed how it was full of shit, the more my work got shared on social media and the more traffic I got. 

Once I discovered this button, I kept pushing it. In 2013 and 2014, almost everything I wrote was designed to murder some sacred cow or another. It was during this period that I published such gems as Being Special Isn’t So Special, Stop Trying to Be Happy, and Why Some Dreams Should Not Be Pursued

On the one hand, this time was quite formative for me in developing my own personal philosophy. It was only by rejecting conventional wisdom that I was forced to develop my own.

But on the other hand, occasionally I became a bit of a troll—someone talking shit for the sake of a few more clicks. I wrote some dumb stuff that was unnecessarily incendiary. Most of it has since been removed from the site. 

Looking back, I think I discovered earlier than most that being contrarian wins on social media. But, at the time, I didn’t realize this. I just thought I was being really smart. After all, if I was right about something so many others were wrong about, how could that make me anything other than a genius? 

But this is the danger of contrarianism. Going against the grain and much of what “normal people” believe gives you a sense of superiority. It makes you feel like a cool kid. The more conventional the wisdom you reject, the more it implies you must be a genius, a maverick, a free mind, the coolest fucking kid in school. 

There’s an imaginary high you get with contrarian beliefs. And it’s easy to get addicted to these highs. You want more. The old contrarian beliefs begin to feel mainstream, and so you look for something even more unconventional, more controversial, more unexpected to get that same “I’m a fucking genius” hit. 

This isn’t to say all contrarian takes are wrong. Many contrarian takes are definitely right. 

It just means we have to be careful believing them. 

As the years have gone by, I’ve become increasingly concerned about our information ecosystems and the fact that they seem to be optimized for contrarianism. People appear to relish disagreeing with the conventional wisdom, even if the conventional wisdom is right—especially if the conventional wisdom is right. 

But just because something is contrarian doesn’t mean it’s clever or brave or smart. You have to know how to follow the rules in order to know when to break them. Similarly, you have to understand the conventional wisdom to correctly spot the unconventional wisdom. Otherwise, you’re just being an asshole. 

2. The Conundrum of Social Trust – For months, I’ve written newsletters talking about social trust, how it’s deteriorating in many parts of the world, and how that’s Bad News Bears for most of us because pretty much all civil societies require some degree of trust among the population to function.

Each time I write about this, I inevitably get several emails saying something like, “Well, of course we don’t trust anything, Mark. Have you seen how fucked up the government is? Have you seen how awful big banks and corporations are? Have you seen all of the stupid, horrible people out there? How can you trust anything?” 

This appears to be a conundrum: blindly believe authorities and get screwed over? Or distrust everything and live a life of insecurity, paranoia, and fear? 

But I don’t believe these two things are mutually exclusive. You should both trust social institutions and remain skeptical of authority at the same time. 

How the hell do you do that, you ask? Well… 

I think the real problem is our expectations. Even the most honest people occasionally lie. Even the most efficient organizations occasionally fuck up. Even the most benevolent governments have some shady cigar-room dealings. 

The fact that these things happen and exist does not mean that the overall organization isn’t still efficient and useful. Imagine a company that magically cures kids with cancer for $1. Now imagine that there is one person within that company that is skimming a bit of money off the top and pocketing the extra cash. That person gets found out. Does that mean that we should get rid of the Company That Magically Cures Kids With Cancer For $1? 

Of course not. 

That’s a ridiculous example, but the point is important. Groups of people can have terrible, dishonest actors, yet still be good on the whole. Organizations can have pockets of corruption, yet still be a net positive. Authorities can be wrong occasionally, yet still useful to listen to. 

This is why the claim that we should distrust all authority all the time is just as childish and naive as the claim that we should trust all authority all the time. 

You should trust authority some or most of the time, depending on where you are and who it is, and be smart about picking and choosing when to distrust them. Because even though you don’t immediately recognize it, that distrust has a social cost.

3. Behind the Scenes of My New Documentary – I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was in New Zealand filming a documentary version of my book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. I received tons of questions about the film, the process, how it happened, why it happened, what my favorite color was, who did my hair, etc.

(Note: Nobody actually asked about my hair.) 

So I decided to write up a blog post on the whole experience. Check it out: 

Read: Behind the Scenes – The Subtle Art Documentary 

Until next week,