How to Find Clarity by Thinking the Opposite

by Tommy Leung on April 11th, 2018

One of my favorite books of all time is short and irregular-sized with more pictures than words.

It is not a children’s book.

The book is Whatever You Think Think The Opposite by Paul Arden.

Doing things differently than what was common always came naturally to me. One of the first things I try when I need to be creative is to think the opposite.

I buy a lot of food from Costco at a time. It is for cost and time efficiency. I really don’t want to do food shopping every week if I can avoid it.

My Costco purchases are usually hundreds of dollars and tens of pounds of meat. All of which is portioned, vacuum sealed, and then put into a freezer.

One of the tricks I’ve used to store more in the freezer is the counterintuitive strategy of putting boxes into the freezer. The first response to making room is to take things out; not put things in.

But putting boxes into the freezer allows you to organize food in more space-efficient configurations.

Invert the obvious solution to see if there’s a better way.

"If everybody is doing it one way, there's a good chance you can find your niche by going exactly in the opposite direction."

- Sam Walton

Becoming familiar with thinking and seeing the opposite has more benefits than just creative problem solving.

I decided to start my own business in 2017. A lot of people who start businesses just jump in without much planning.

There are advantages to that but I’m not that type of person.

I plan, research, and play out various scenarios in my mind to come up with solutions to an assortment of "what-ifs".

Usually these are negative scenarios. How would I resolve this horrible situation if it happened?

This is a practice that can be traced back to the Stoics.

I don’t know where I picked it up but I’ve used this technique since I was a child. Long before I ever heard the word ‘stoic’.

But all plans fall apart upon first contact with reality. The benefits of planning is in the exercise itself and not necessarily in having a step-by-step roadmap to follow.

It helps to flesh out your vision, desires, pitfalls, and assess just how serious you are about what you plan to do.

Having thought it through helps you stay the course when fires are burning all around. There will be hurdles, struggles, and hardships no matter how much you plan. That’s just a fact of life.

But what about the opposite of hurdles, struggles, and hardships?

Almost everything you read about entrepreneurship is on how to deal with problems. How to avoid common missteps that lead to failure.

The opposite of a problem is an opportunity. Problems have a negative connotation and opportunities have a positive one. But we know that sometimes problems are actually blessings in disguise and teach us something that we would otherwise not learn.

Using the technique of opposite thinking we can also see that some opportunities can be a curse in disguise. It can lead you in a direction you never intended that sets you further from the destination you were aiming for.

Is it still a positive then?

"It's so simple to be wise. Just think of something stupid to say and say the opposite."

- Sam Levenson

I recently had to struggle with a decision that seemed like an opportunity.

This opportunity had its benefits. I seriously thought about it. Imagined scenarios of what it would mean. How it would work.

But the drawback was that I would have to put my business on hold in hopes that this opportunity would help me with my business in the future.

I had difficulty with this decisions because my usual heuristic with big decisions is to choose the more challenging one. Starting a business is hard but this opportunity was also hard. One was not necessarily harder than the other.

I needed a different way to get clarity.

There is a technique I used in High School to make decisions. Teenagers have to make a surprising number of life-altering decisions so that’s probably how I came upon it.

The technique is to flip a coin. Heads means decision A. Tails means decision B. Let a random coin flip decide.

But not really.

What it really did was force me into making a decision and then see how I felt about it.

So I played this out in my mind. I don’t have a coin anywhere.

The feeling of regret that came upon me when the coin landed on putting my business on hold told me everything I needed to know. The other result led to a feeling of indifference.

I had clarity.

It was a day later when it dawned on me that this opportunity was no different than any other roadblock in the journey to a desired goal. Instead of being a negative that sets me back it would have been a positive.

The overarching result is the same but perhaps it is more insidious. Nothing bad happened so you don't realize you are off track.

"Everything has its opposite within it. Love can be very destructive if you mishandle it. Pain can help you find ways to grow and change. Fear can eventually lead you to a path of hope."

- Jay Woodman