The Transformative Power of Doing the Opposite
“The wise have always said the same things, and fools, who are the majority, have always done just the opposite.” — Arthur Schopenhauer
“If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.” — Jerry Seinfeld
There is a classic episode of Seinfeld, in which George — in despair over the never-ending series of failures that constitutes his existence — tells Jerry and Elaine that since everything he does is invariably the wrong thing to do, that he will do the opposite. Thus, when the waitress arrives at their table, George decides to break with custom. Instead of ordering a tuna salad sandwich with coffee, he orders a chicken salad sandwich with tea.
George then sees an attractive woman sitting alone at the lunch counter. The usual thing he does, owing to a lack of confidence, is nothing. But, with the encouragement of Jerry, George gets up from the table and approaches her. George initiates a conversation with the woman. Here, too, he does the opposite; instead of trying to impress her with his usual blarney, George bluntly tells her the truth: “Hi I’m George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.” The woman, Victoria, finds George’s bold honesty refreshing and appealing. She becomes romantically involved with him, and then arranges an interview for George with her uncle, who works for the Yankees. Her uncle then introduces George to George Steinbrenner, who owns the Yankees. George then does the opposite of what anyone else would do at an interview: instead of fawning over Steinbrenner or at least being polite, he criticizes him for mismanaging the Yankees. Steinbrenner immediately hires him, and George gets his dream job.
Doing the opposite has completely transformed George’s life, both inwardly and outwardly. The amazing thing is that it all began by ordering chicken salad and tea instead of tuna salad and coffee. Can a seemingly trivial change really precipitate major changes in a person’s life? It often can, if we consider that all of our interests, desires, activities, and conflicts are linked together, in an invisible chain, in ways that we do not realize. For example, that George eats tuna salad everyday for lunch is not insignificant. On the contrary, it is intrinsic to who he is as a person and to his present struggles and conflicts. (I wont venture into what tuna salad might have meant for George psychologically, since he is a fictional character. But the episode rings true enough to actual life.) In any case, when a person changes one thing in his life, it breaks the chains of habit such that everything else — big things, like social relations and career prospects — can also undergo a transmutation. Here, then, in the words of the I-Ching, is the transforming power of the small.
In a prior blog essay, we soberly explored the binding power of fate, i.e., the fixity of our character, or personality, to determine our life possibilities. Can the leveraging power of a seemingly small changes free us from our fate? The prospect of inner freedom is intoxicating! But, there is a catch: making a small change can often be immensely difficult. That is because little things often symbolize really big things. For example, giving up a single scoop of chocolate ice-cream can symbolize the beginning of a life of self-renunciation. Certainly, a seemingly trivial change can evoke the fear of the unknown. We might, for example, decide to take a walk down a different street, but such as seemingly minor change can symbolize setting out in a new life direction.
Not all minor changes will lead to major life transformations, but most can still have a significant, if less dramatic, effect. A lot depends upon the ripeness of a person, his or her readiness for change. Such ripeness is a function of despair, the realization that one’s current mode of existence is hopeless, and cannot bring one happiness and fulfillment. Despair, as Kierkegaard knew so well, is the doorway to a new life. As to whether or not we enter the door is, of course, another story.
There is another, somewhat related, phenomenon that we should consider. It can sometimes happen that we do change in some significant way, but don’t realize it. Then, one day, we are surprised to discover that we no longer wish to do what we had always been doing. We might find, for example, that we suddenly have no interest in drinking a peach brandy, but would rather have a scotch on the rocks. Or, perhaps, we look in the mirror and, for the first time, feel that the hairstyle that we have had for many years no longer seems appropriate. These little things are often indicative of big changes.
Albert Camus wrote that “Great ideas… come into the world as gently as doves.” As such, they often enter unnoticed. The same is true of the great changes that can occur in one’s character. When a major shift occurs, it often enters “as gently as doves.” Of course, what led up to the change was the alchemy of insight. I.E., insight gradually illuminates our life experiences. Then, one day, a tipping-point is reached — we now know too much to be the same person — and the change occurs.
The thing to do, then, is to take an inventory of all one’s doings in the world, in all domains — from food preferences to one’s manner of dress, from how one sits, stands, and walks to the words or expressions one uses in conversation. After completing this inventory, one should follow George Costanza’s example and do the opposite of what one is wont to do. If, for example, one wears a knit shirt, one should then switch to button-downs, and vice versa. If one avoids striking up conversations with strangers, one should initiate conversations with strangers. If one frequents the ballpark, one should frequent the opera, or vice versa.
After his strategy proves successful, George says to Jerry and Elaine: “And it’s all happening because I’m completely ignoring every urge to common sense and good judgement I’ve ever had. This is no longer some crazy notion. Elaine, Jerry, this is my religion.” But we must beware, for here is where resistance can set in. After all, are we truly prepared to jettison our common sense and good judgement? That loss can be quite disorienting. As George explains, up will seem down, and down will seem up. If we are not prepared to lose our touchstone of reasonability…