Ravi Mohan's Blog

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Importance of Having Friends Who Disagree

Paul Graham says, in one of his essays (emphasis mine) "....Why do you need other people? Can't you just think of new ideas yourself? The empirical answer is: no. Even Einstein needed people to bounce ideas off. Ideas get developed in the process of explaining them to the right kind of person. You need that resistance, just as a carver needs the resistance of the wood.

This is one reason Y Combinator has a rule against investing in startups with only one founder. Practically every successful company has at least two. And because startup founders work under great pressure, it's critical they be friends....."

In my experience, this need for "friendly resistance" extends to far more than creating startups. Every time you have a new idea, you need people you can bounce it off. To get any real benefit out of this process you need people with a complex combination of characteristics.

They should

  1. have firm (but not rigid) opinions on their own
  2. have logical reasons for those beliefs and be able to articulate them clearly
  3. are driven by ideas and not ideology
  4. not attach their egos to their opinions.
  5. be willing to concede a valid argument even if it forces them to possibly re-examine their beliefs
  6. know how to listen

Given all that, it is extremely difficult to find such "friends who disagree". I have been fortunate to have quite a few people around me, who have major disagreements with me, but are still friends (e.g see the discussion I had with KD in the comments section of my last blog entry).

Many people make the mistake of sorrounding themselves with people who think exactly like them and reinforce every idea or prejudice they have. This is a bad mistake and will often end up distorting the reality you see. One needs the corrective bucket of cold water in one's face once every so often. The only problem with surrounding yourself with bright people who think differently is that you may occasionally find that one of your ideas isn't as hot as you think it was or that one of your deeply held convictions is just plain wrong. This is dificult for some people because they make the rightness of their ideas a validation of their worth as persons. Blogging is a great way to expand this circle. But it can work both ways and one may end up with a "fan club" that just reinforces your prejudices.

So do a quick test right now. Make a list of your closest friends/acquintances/advisors. Then make a separate list of those who think totally differently from you, but are worth listening to anyway. Look at the intersection of these lists.

You may be surprised.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post!
- Sonny Lurker :)

mridul said...

Somethings I have observed,which are indirectly related to topic (well more to the topic of ideas really) are:

* Now a days, more than ever, even if you implement an idea/prototype which you do not yourself believe in much or consider low-impact; people may find it interesting and find out a new way of using than what you could not even think.
Somethings become popular just like that:(. (This is not to suggest that popularity is necessarily a measure of cool ideas)

* It is difficult generally in practice for people to reject an "new" idea which is implemented (tangible) and available to play with; than an idea presented in theory/verbally. I mean both can get rejected, but it relatively takes greater time to reject the former than latter unless someone has implemented very badly(in which case even a good idea can get rejected quickly).

* A good measure of finding a person which you mention, quickly, is how fast and right that person understands the concept of "po". After explaining "po", from the other persons reaction, you can make out how close he is to the perfect guy.
I have seen that some guys do not bothered to listen; then there are those who nodd their head and say they understood ; but the closest are those who just start building upon an idea from where you left or branch out from it or start another path. Basically, if idea has any inspiration/possibility they seek before giving it up immediately.
It means they give due consideration before judging it black or white. Most of the times I have seen that both people involved comeout with something slightly or completely different than the original.

* Some people develop "disagreement" as a coolness trait, assuming it to be a characteristic of an "independent thinker". They generally are successful in drawing a lot of attention. It is in my opinion, important to cross-check them, by looking at their cool ideas/reasons/explainations carefully and having your own opinion about it. It is sometimes easy to fall in the trap of pseudo-disagreement friends too:)

Ravi said...

Mridul,
High time you started blogging :)

Ravi

KD said...

I hope Ravi is not falling in pseudo-disagreement with me ;-)

-- KD

Ravi said...

KD,
No chance at all :-D. Prepare for debate!
Ravi

Georgi Mullassery said...

Only in very genuine friends do you find this trait of being outrightly courageous to disagree and validate clearly what they speak. Often you see outbursts of their own ego.

arun said...

I am looking for a Sergey Brin. Anyone ut there?

elzr said...

Your post reminded me of a quote from Nietzsche. After much searching, I finally found it:

"The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently."

-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dawn, Sec. 297

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm in luck: my wife disagrees with everything I say. Up till now, I thought that was a bad thing. ;-)

Anonymous said...

What is meant by the difference between "ideas" and "ideology"?

My dictionary says that ideology is "a system of ideas". So it's OK to be driven by free-floating, unconnected ideas, but not by a system of ideas?

Ravi said...

dear "anonymous",

You may want to get a better dictionary.

from http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=ideology

1. The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture.
2. A set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.

neither of these definitions is equivalent to "system of ideas".

Even better, look beyond teh dictionary meaning to how the word is actually used in discourse.

Algebra is a collection of (mathematical) ideas. It is not an ideology.

the sense in which I use "ideology" is,
"A system of beliefs or theories, ****usually political****, held by an individual or a group"

I think the sentence is fairly clear as it stands.

Having said that, thanks for the heads up. I will try to be more precise in the future.

Doug Ohlin said...

Excellent post. It reminds me of a quote by Oscar Handlin:

"Education is that process by which the exposure of one's mind to the thinking of others creates not answers, but a lifetime of questions."

Implicit in his definition is a knowledge of alternatives that comes from bouncing your ideas off of others. A tolerance for ambiguity is also part of this process. We may be better served by believing in such a process than an ideology. Ideologues do not offer alternatives. Critical thinking only confuses them. They would probably consider a tolerance for ambiguity an inability to commit.
There is a right in this country to have braces on your brains to believe in fairy tales, religious fundamentalism, neo-conservatism, etc. We just have to stop electing this misguided souls to public office.

Tha-Flash said...

I have a couple of friends like this and it is really helpful.

Arul Irudayam said...

Great Post!!

Suzanne said...

Well said. :)

Describes my favorite folks, including my boyfriend of 14 months. I've always thought it's important to share core values with one's significant other. "Critical thinking" and creativity are ours. Beyond that, our differences lead us to new ways of experiencing and viewing life. We target them to debates and teasing (which is a great form of flirting). This makes us "complementary", not opposite -- although some of our opinions/tastes may be opposites. I've often told him, I probably couldn't stand someone exactly like myself. I'm not a "bad" person; I'm just... ME. A friend of mine once said, "I don't want to have friends exactly like myself. I already KNOW myself. That's boring."

Also, reminds me of a quote on a tee-shirt that an acquaintance told me about: "All you non-conformists are alike." It's often true, sadly. eg, The definition of "geek" stretches far and wide, and yet most of those I know enjoy the SAME TV/movies as each other and can't let a get-together pass without discussing them. Why they so blatantly share their "geek" aspect instead of focusing on other aspects, and why no two people enjoy talking about a show that only ONE has seen, I don't understand...

Then again, I don't understand myself, either. But I shall understand myself better as I meet more people and find commonalities through themes/values rather than specifics, and are happy to engage in conversations/debates even if our specific experiences differ.

The notion of socializing mostly with those who share similar opinions extends itself to my workplace, too. I am a software engineer at a video game company. I find it sad that there's a sharp split in friendships: Software engineers on one side, and artists and designers on the other. Rarely do the groups intermingle. (There are a couple of exceptions.) I've initiated socializations with artists, and we've even had good banters, but the discomfort of being "different" pervades -- for me as well as them. And so our initial smiles and talks fizzle, due more to cowardice than disinterest. Ah well; we shall work on bravery.

Inter-team differences aside, there are many useful debates and compromises WITHIN the engineering team, itself -- often between individuals who hold opposite opinions. We have our pragmatists and our theorists, our "by hook or by crook" coders and our "oh-so-carefully-architected" coders. Any ONE of those opinions may be extreme and therefore bad, but the settlement is often better than either could've thought of alone.

Thanks for a cool blog! I agree with the importance of having friends who disagree. But no worries: I'm sure we can find SOMETHING to disagree on. ;)

--Suzanne (a stranger who found this blog via lifehacker.com)

Rusty Ellis said...

Great blog. Too often we want to be stroked by those that agree with us. As stated in your blog, this can be very detrimental.

This blog made me think about a committee at work that I head. I have two people that I consider annoyances, but after reading your blog, they provide a good counterpoint to my positions, though a little too often.

Again, thanks to for the blog, it will be forwarded.

Ravi said...

Suzanne,
Good points all. I am one of those fortunate people who has a wide variety of friends - geeks, models, photographers, artists, soldiers, policemen, criminals (I kid you not!), left wing extremists, right wing extremists, middle of the roaders etc etc.

Makes for a very enriching life :-)

(I didn't know this entry had been posted at lifehacker. Thanks for the heads up.)

ben said...

I think one of the keys is that if your identity or value is somehow (in a delusional way) attached to your ideas or your results, you'll have a hard time with getting opposing feedback, because you might view it as a destruction or attack on you, rather than feedback on an idea.

As for ideology, I think it can be very good to have a personal ideology, but one based on loose ideas and beliefs - such as 'I believe 'x' is destructive, and I will not support destructive things in the world', and recognizing that everyone might have their own personal ideology and that it is okay if your ideologies do not need to be identical...

It's like a recognition of other and a recognition of self combined with the realization that one (other) does not threaten the other (self).