The films of Ruben Östlund have been nominated to the Oscars and awarded two Palme d’Or. Still they’re everything but likeable. They tend to leave the viewer with a sense of unease, but strangely also with a need to come back for more.
That’s why I found it interesting to hear Östlund say in a recent interview that all his ideas starts with him exploring some issue where there’s a broad consensus about what’s right and wrong, and where he doesn’t agree with most people.
It reminded me of a number of recruitment interviews, where I’ve asked the candidate what belief she or he held that were contrarian to how most people see the world.
I believe it’s a great question to ask, since it tends to break the predictable pattern these types of conversations otherwise often get stuck in.
I also felt, however, that it isn’t really fair to put people on the spot like that when I myself wouldn’t have known what to respond.
So I’ve been thinking long and hard about the question, and might finally have reached some measure of clarity.
I always felt that my answer would somehow touch on reading, since the way I approach it seems to differ from the mainstream. So my first take was to say that while most people feel they don’t have enough time to read as much as they’d like to, I feel like reading is the one activity that can actually buy me time.
First take on the contrarian question: Reading will *buy* you time
Here’s what I mean by that. I recently finished a thousand page novel which – since I consumed it in the form of an audio book – took me 29 hours to listen to. While that is indeed a lot of time, it’s negligible in relation to the ten years it took the author to produce the work. That’s a decades’ worth of insights that I get access to in about a day. Where else can you find cognitive leverage like that?
Then I started thinking that this – the claim that reading is a time saver in disguise – wasn’t perhaps quite as unique and contrarian as I’d like it to be. After all, Warren Buffet famously consumes 500 pages a day and Bill Gates squeezes in some fifty titles a year (which is closer to my average).
Second take on the contrarian question: Fiction beats non-fiction if you want to get somewhere
But if you look at these guys’ lists of recommended reading, you almost only find non-fiction. Which is also true of most voracious readers I know (or at least of most male voracious readers I know).
So my second iteration on the how-are-you-contrarian question, was to say that I mostly read fiction (about two thirds of all titles, is a pretty stable ratio), but also that I do so for a reason; that there’s nothing like reading fiction to allow you to stay mindful and centred.
But then I realised two things.
First of all; this view really wasn’t all that unique, either. Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor (which I’ve written about before) says she needs to read one novel a week in order to preserve her ability to be a good boss.
Second of all; while staying mindful and true to your values might be an emergent effect of reading fiction, that’s never really been the primary driver for me. So…
Third take on the contrarian question: It makes sense to spend a lot of time on something even though it’s ultimately pointless
Instead, the fact of the matter is that I’m mostly into books with no expectation that it will have any real function in my life beyond the joy inherent in reading.
And that right there is my third and perhaps final iteration: while many look at reading the way they do going to the gym – a chore that will eventually pay off – I mostly do it for fun.
And if you zoom out a bit, that might actually not be such a contrarian stance.
Because after all, people do all sorts of things just for fun. They ride downhill mountain bike, go sailing or binge watch tv. They play role playing games, learn to draw or pick up a new language. They play tennis, join a choir or go bird watching. In academic parlance, they’re showing signs of hedonic behaviour, which is to say that they’re doing what they’re doing just for the fun of it.
Now perhaps the fact that you like doing things just for fun, isn’t what a future employer likes to hear. But then again maybe it aught to be, maybe it’s a leading indicator of success. Because people who are passionate enough to pursue an interest just for the sake of it, are likely to also be the ones who end up making a dent in the universe.