Conformism ↔ Independent-mindedness

From an insightful essay by Paul Graham:

There are some kinds of work that you can’t do well without thinking differently from your peers. To be a successful scientist, for example, it’s not enough just to be correct. Your ideas have to be both correct and novel. You can’t publish papers saying things other people already know. You need to say things no one else has realized yet.


There’s room for a little novelty in most kinds of work, but in practice there’s a fairly sharp distinction between the kinds of work where it’s essential to be independent-minded, and the kinds where it’s not.

The essay delineates the distinctions between conformism and independent-mindedness and spells out some things you can do to develop independent thinking. (Mr. Graham is a fine thinker and writer; his essays are well worth your attention.)

The distinction between conformism and independent-mindedness has been on my mind a lot over the last year. On the one hand, I see our increasingly noxious political environment driving otherwise intelligent people to adopt highly ideological (and therefore, conformist) positions. (Of course, it could also work the other way ’round: ideological conformism — especially among people who work in media — can contribute significantly to creating a more noxious political environment.) I’ve long decried the move away from pragmatic, evidence-based governance and towards ideologically oriented “solutions.” (For more on my thinking on this matter, see my 2016 essay Of Molders and Dancers.)

On the other hand, while many challenges (e.g., technical innovation, problem-solving, essay-writing, etc.) benefit from a diversity of responses, others call for a more unified approach. We’re individuals and members of society; sometimes, the well-being of the community calls for sacrificing some of our individual initiative. For example, it’s increasingly evident that a successful response to the pandemic calls for some degree of conformance with social strictures. Our ability to contain to the virus is hampered if only some of our neighbors conform to group behaviors such as wearing masks in public.

Which is right? It’s tempting to lapse into extreme, one-size-fits-all positions. Nuanced, considered responses are hard. The following paragraph from Emerson’s Self-reliance hits close to the mark:

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

Following Emerson’s advice, I strive for a considered independent-mindedness. Living in the midst of the crowd sometimes calls for conformance. Some people — in the case of the pandemic, doctors and epidemiologists — do know my duty better than I; I grant them the privilege to influence my behaviors because I trust their perspective on these issues. I believe their understanding of the subject — which is informed by deep expertise and experience — is much more effective than mine at predicting outcomes in this particular area.

The privilege to sway my actions isn’t one I allow mindlessly. But as with other aspects of life, I find extreme positions suspect. The deeper challenge lies in being an independent-minded contributor to the commonweal.