Are You a Contrarian?

“Not” …

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them…”

No doubt those words brought to mind Apple’s Think Different campaign. While many people believe that Steve Jobs was the mastermind behind one of the most memorable commercials of our time, Rob Siltanen says otherwise. Siltanen was the creative director who worked on the Apple pitch alongside CEO and Chief Creative Officer Lee Clow. According to him, “Jobs was blatantly harsh on the commercial that would eventually play a pivotal role in helping Apple achieve one of the greatest corporate turnarounds in business history.” Jobs initially called the script “shit.” You can read what Siltanen calls revisionist history about Jobs’ role in the creation of the spot here.

But, one of the reasons that commercial is so powerful is that it juxtaposes the rebels, misfits, and troublemakers with people who change with the world. The contrarians who are ultimately hailed as genius. In fact, the very premise that underpins contrarian thinking has served as a catalyst for the evolution of our society.

There’s a wide spectrum of contrarian thinkers, ranging from the nonconformist who’s irritated by consensus, to the maverick who thinks rules are made to be broken, and the genius who has the unique ability to think differently from everyone else.

Being a contrarian thinker doesn’t necessarily mean being argumentative. Many times, it’s a gift that provides a completely different perspective. Often, a different perspective is just what we need.

One research study applied the construct of contrarian thinking to the impact of gratitude. The researchers hypothesized that thinking of the absence of a positive event from one’s life would have a greater influence on one’s mental state than thinking about the presence of a positive event. For example, instead of reflecting on how grateful you are to have ice cold water on a hot day, imagine what life would be like if you did not have access to clean drinking water at all.

The results were striking. People who compared themselves to the “life could always be worse”  version of their current-self reported more positive states. It turns out that the subtraction of positive events counteracts our tendency to take them for granted. Researchers have coined this psychological dynamic the George Bailey effect, in homage to the classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life.

So, my gratitude challenge for you: Be a contrarian thinker with gratitude. Instead of counting your blessings, reflect on what life would be like without them.

Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.


  1. Melissa — I love the “George Bailey effect”! It’s a great strategy to help pull yourself out of the doldrums. On the idea of the contrarian, I don’t consider myself one, but I occasionally muse what the opposite of “X” might reveal. It’s actually a pretty good way to slow one’s thinking down, broaden one’s perspective and avoid getting locked into one position.

  2. I love this article so very much, Melissa! As a quiet contrarian most of my life-choosing to full time parent when my peers returned quickly to paying jobs after giving birth, having a home birth with my second child, and now-whatever it is I’m doing/being with Cherish Your World-holistic transformation-which might have people wondering what the heck “holistic transformation” is anyway.. Yes! Having gratitude, Living in Gratitude continues be my practice, my joy and I suppose being a quiet contrarian critically thinking, feeling deeply, caring passionately about the quality of people’s lives.

    • If I may, Laura… you are without question a contrarian of the most exquisite kind. You have this amazing ability to see the world differently than many and then share that kind and loving perspective with the rest of us. Your joy becomes our treasure!

  3. I don’t know that I qualify as a contrarian thinker, Melissa; although, I’m often called a contrarian in less-than-complimentary ways. 😉 Here’s what I do know:

    1. My first question is always, “Why?” Why should I believe that? Why should I [fill in the blank]? Why should I do [fill in the blank] this way? Why should I do it at all? Why shouldn’t I do it? Why do we accept [fill in the blank] as true or real? You get the idea. In 2004, I got the second client for my brand-management business because the person who called me said, “We need a press release?” And I asked, “Why do you need a press release?” It turned out the company didn’t need a press release. It needed a brand-management program. (The program was successful enough that the company was acquired three years later.)

    2. I’m not a religious person. But I always say a quick, silent prayer when I’m grateful (which is often). I don’t pray when I need something, when I’m in trouble, when I’m hurt, or when I’m sad. I guess I’m just expressing gratitude for my gifts.

    What I do know is that I’m happy. That makes leaving the labels to other folks all the easier.

    Thank you for this nugget.

    P.S. I love your videos.

    • Mark, I can totally related to being the “why child.” I’ve been like that my whole life and I’m pretty sure when it’s time to go I’ll be asking why then, too. So often in business, people completely overlook the “why.” And sadly, there are far too many times when the answer is “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” I think I read somewhere that those are the most expensive words in business.

      I am not a religious person either but I try to be a grateful one, so your second point here really resonates. I’m going to borrow your strategy of saying a little prayer of gratitude – starting today since it’s been a very trying week. I’ll try it on for awhile to see how it fits. Thank you for sharing it and your kind words.

      P.S. You have no idea how good it feels to hear you love my videos on a good day. You just made today a good day.

      • “I’m pretty sure when it’s time to go I’ll be asking why then, too.” 🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣

        No wonder I love you, Melissa. That’s just a great line.

        I’m sorry you’re having a tough week. Even spirits as generous as you get exhausted sometimes. Given the number of people you lift up — including yours truly — there’s a bunch of us out here ready and willing to lift you up, too.

        Thank you for being you.

  4. Melissa, your Neuro Nuggets are like a graduate course in brain study. I’m glad that there are no quizzes, but I will always be thankful for the insights that you share so generously. Besides being a fan of Clifton’s Strengthfinders, which encourages people to focus their energies on using and honing the stuff that they are good at, and collaborate in areas where we aren’t as strong, I have recently been exposed to the wonders of the Enneagram personality type. That was a long way to say that this post is talking to me.

    I am an Enneagram Type 4, which is described as “authentic, creative, expressive, deep and tempermental…” The official label for a Type 4, if you must, is “Romantic Individualist.” I’ll take it, though I’m not a huge fan of being tempermental, but it fits. I have always been someone, when confronted with a trend or fad, can usually be found headed in the other direction. When people discuss “Star Wars” or “Rocky” or some such, I have to shrug and say “Ain’t seen ’em…” I am not sure that I am a true contrarian, but I definitely do see things, relatively often, through the prism of life could be a lot worse. I have flexibility as one of my Clifton’s strengths, which means that I get an adrenaline buzz when life goes off script and I get to use strategies that wouldn’t be in play if life went on as it was planned.

    In my effort to listen to people more closely, I do like to take what people say and turn it on its head, to view it from the perspective of how the circumstance that they are describing happened in the inverse of what they are saying, or if the negative incident were amplified with more dire consequences. It lets people see how things could be much worse, and how maybe a less than perfect occurrence could’ve been way, way worse. I love that its called the George Bailey effect, as that really gives a vivid picture of what things could be like if we merely extract one person from life’s equation (plus, I once played the part of Clarence, George’s guardian angel, in a stage play of “It’s a Wonderful Life”). Excellent presentation of a topic not often dealt with, and I thank you for your bringing it to our attention.

    • Wow… I am not familiar with Enneagram Personality types, Tom, but now I’m totally intrigued! I’m adding that to my list of things to learn ASAP. I think that you and Sarah Elkins and I could fill an evening of amazing conversation with this starter!
      Your ability to “take what people say and turn it on its head, to view it from the perspective of how the circumstance that they are describing happened in the inverse of what they are saying, or if the negative incident were amplified with more dire consequences” is a gift! If you could bottle that and sell it, you’d be a bazillionaire! We are usually too close to “the problem” to have the ability to step back and view it from a different perspective. I’m trying… but a work in progress for sure!

      Finally, I have to say that picturing you as Clarence is not hard to do! You’re always adding such valuable insights, encouraging words, and provocative questions – in addition to your own brilliant work. Thank you for sharing yourself so generously with this community!

  5. You make some good points, Melissa. Nothing brings an appreciation of what we have faster than not having it. And, nothing brings it home faster and with more reality that a natural disaster such as a blizzard, hurricane, tornado, or flood. No safe drinking water is suddenly an “in your face” condition. Of course, it goes beyond just water. Add flush toilets, electricity, food, heat, and even shelter. If you have ever been through one or more of those situations you will never take for granted what you have.

    If looking at situations or problems from a different angle, then perhaps I too am a contrarian. I don’t mind being so labeled. Labels are not all bad. If our forefathers hadn’t named/labeled everything they saw we wouldn’t know an elephant from a turtle. Of course, labeling can also be hurtful if wrongly used.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Ken. Your point about labeling is a good one. It can definitely be harmful. But I really love the examples you share here about natural disasters. Now that I live in hurricane territory, I realize how much I took things for granted. And I realize how easy it is to shake your head and say “those poor people” in one breath while complaining that the weather wrecked your picnic in the next.



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