The Power Of Being Different

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May 26, 2014 by Liberty

Everyone today seems to have a cellphone. A few years ago I gave my phone up. I was never much of a fan of carrying the phone around. I always felt like I had a minibrick that I was supposed to carry with me everywhere I went. I also preferred to ship my money off to the stock market than to spend it on that brick. I was repeatedly told that was a stupid idea because I needed it for “emergencies.” Since the day I’ve given up that phone, I’ve had (at my absolute most generous definition) 1 emergency. That emergency was easily handled without a phone.

Every time my lack-of-phone comes up in conversation, the first objection is predictable: “Everyone has a phone.” Notice, of course, that is not actually an objection. It’s just said like it’s supposed to be an objection. They look at me with suspicion as they say it. I respond with, “Exactly…”

The funny thing about this phone example is that they’re attempt to object to my decision to not carry a phone reassures me that I made the right decision about it. If everyone carries a phone around then that’s more reason that I don’t need to carry a phone around. If I’m ever in an emergency situation with other people around, I’m virtually guaranteed the chance to borrow a cell phone. If no one carried a phone then I’d have good reason to own a cell phone because I’d have no other option. (By the way, I’m not a doctor or a superhero. Notifying me in someone else’s emergency won’t make much of a difference. Being a doctor or superhero is a wonderful reason to carry a phone.)

People often perceive differences in decision making like not carrying a phone as a problem. When two different people do two different things, one is often assumed to be wrong. Most people carry a phone around with them. I do not carry a phone around. They have a reasonable argument about why a phone is required. I have a reasonable argument that it’s not. When I tell people this, people assume that someone in this situation is wrong while this is fundamentally about preference.

The Contrarian Advantage

The label contrarian is clouded with a major negative connotation. It’s often meant to describe someone that’s contrary for the sake of being contrary. That… of course, is idiotic but choosing the contrary side will often offer major advantages that exist only because the crowds disagree.

The phone story is a good example of this. If no one carried a phone, I’d probably be more interested in carrying a phone. The fact that everyone carries a phone means I don’t really have to. (Is this a freeloader? Perhaps but I’ll go into that later.)

Being different can be thought of from an “evolutionary perspective.” People change their behavior based on what works most effectively (or the new people learn the better behavior and the rest die off.) This benefits the future of the species. That, however, doesn’t necessarily benefit everyone in the here and now.

Think about the horse and buggy professionals after the popular usage of the car. While the car makes it easier for everyone in the future, it certainly doesn’t benefit the guy selling the alternative in the short term. When the car came into the semi-mainstream, suddenly the cost of running a horse and buggy collapsed because no one wanted them. If you happen to be the stubborn non-car owner, you’d get deals of a lifetime. Everyone may look at you like a bumpkin but that’s just the price you pay.

Value Of The Crowd

Always picking the contrary solution is definitely not an advantage in itself. There are times when following the crowd is the more intelligent thing to do.

The crowd, in general, knows what it’s doing. Fortunately, we are not a society of lemmings. People don’t intentionally follow the crowd right off a cliff (Perhaps metaphorically at times but not literally.) Owning a cell phone has an advantage for most of the people, most of the time. (I have a unique lifestyle.) If you don’t spend any time thinking about whether or not you should own a phone, then statistically speaking, it’s probably best that you follow the crowd and own one.

The crowd is usually a good default action. The more people you see doing something, the more likely you should assume it’s good for you. We can’t spend everyday properly evaluating every decision that we make. There are way too many decisions to do that. Doing what everyone else does is a natural shortcut.

I’m not writing this article to convince anyone to stop following the crowd most of the time. The point is to make it clear that they’re are often distinct advantages to choosing an alternative.

The Freeloader Problem?

The cellphone story is also a great example of the freeloader problem. Since everyone owns a cell phone, if I’m ever in an emergency situation, I can just ask to borrow a cell phone and get most of the benefits of owning one myself. Does that make me a freeloader?

Hell yea…

Okay… bear in mind, I’ve had only one time in the past few years that I’ve borrowed a cell phone for 60 seconds. (I owned a throwaway phone for a month to get a job too.) That means, instead of spending 20-30 bucks a month, carrying a bulky little brick in my pocket for years while constantly getting disturbed by other people, I freeloaded from a stanger for 60 seconds.

I could go into my charity rant. You know, charity benefits both people. I thanked the person I borrowed a phone from profusely. I gave them a rush of feel-good hormones. But seriously… it’s 60 seconds.

Worrying about this reminds me of the old shack in the woods story. If someone is starving and lost in the woods and they break into a shack to take food, are they stealing? The answer, “NO ONE CARES.” Of course the person would take the food. The staunchest of property rights activists would do it. It’s just silly to worry about.

Everyone freeloads a little in their life. It’s part of being alive. I freeload off the invention of cars, stoves, (okay really microwaves), lights, and a billion other things. People freeload off my decisions too. It’s cool though because that’s part of being this species.

Freeloading is not a problem in free markets because the markets compensate for it. If most people gave up their cell phones and started freeloading, people would take note. The market would evolve and when people ask, “Can I borrow a phone?” People would respond, “$5 a minute.” (Hell… with the cost of a phone and the rarity of my need for a phone… I’d pay it.)

There are distinct advantages to choosing the opposite of the crowd at times. There are also times when following the crowd is more of an advantage. The key is to know the opportunities that are valuable to me.

As you can probably imagine, I’m not much of a people person. (By the way, sorry to the readers that I occasionally screw out of a good response. I really try but my social capacity is really about one real conversation a day. I kinda like it but please don’t take bad responses/no responses personally.) That makes not owning a phone pretty damn advantageous for me. Right now, I have a seasonal job 40 miles from home. It would be silly for me to be contrarian by saying I don’t need a car. While I could pull it off, it definitely wouldn’t be much of an advantage.

Keep your eyes open for opportunities to benefit from being a little different and when you see someone that’s different, try to look for the advantages they’re getting.


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