The Contrarian Geek

[The] point is not that innovation attracts groups but that innovation is found in groups: that it tends to arise out of social interaction — conversation, validation, the intimacy of proximity, and the look in your listener’s eye that tells you you’re onto something. …

When [Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, Joseph Priestley, etc.] were not meeting, they were writing to each other with words of encouragement or advice or excitement. This was truly — in a phrase that is invariably and unthinkingly used in the pejorative — a mutual-admiration society. …

What were they doing? Darwin, in a lovely phrase, called it “philosophical laughing,” which was his way of saying that those who depart from cultural or intellectual consensus need people to walk beside them and laugh with them to give them confidence. …

We divide [groups] into cults and clubs, and dismiss the former for their insularity and the latter for their banality. The cult is the place where, cut off from your peers, you become crazy. The club is the place where, surrounded by your peers, you become boring. Yet if you can combine the best of those two — the right kind of insularity with the right kind of homogeneity — you create an environment both safe enough and stimulating enough to make great thoughts possible.”

Malcolm Gladwell: Group Think

Via!/quotes via @iamtef

I was out having drinks with my team recently, including two new hires (newer than me). One of them asked me in front of my boss what I’d found rewarding and challenging about joining the company. Feeling slightly exposed by such a question, but also incapable of giving anything other than an honest answer, I said: “I like the fact that we’ve fallen out and I haven’t been fired yet. In fact I like the fact that I’ve disagreed with other directors in the company and we’re all still here, moving forward.”

Now I confess, I do find confrontation on any level draining. I remember saying to my folks some time ago that it it was unhelpful having the trait combination of being blunt with people, then worrying excessively about hurting their feelings afterwards.

Confrontation is not easy and it doesn’t always take you forward, but the role of confrontation has been shadowing me a lot lately for the following reasons:

1. Serendipitous encouters with “contrarian geeks”

I met a weighty digital strategist earlier this year and quoted him at a Girl Geeks meet-up recently. I’d asked him to speak at one of our events and mentioned that I was looking for “charming geeks”. His quote is captured below:


2. Me and Steve Jobs

I finally got around to listening to the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. All 24.25+ hours of it. I listened on the way to work, from work, sometimes at work. Sometimes at home, on the subway, in bed. It made me laugh, it made me cry and of course it made me think. Differently. 😉 I’ve referenced Steve Jobs so much at work, they think it’s more than a little freaky. I also blame it entirely for a new voice in my Subconscious. Whenever I now come across a piece of work that I disagree with, I find a little voice crops up in my head saying “this is SHIT.” I’m stuck with my own mental avatar of Jobs and the voiceover of Dylan Baker. Of course I would never say “this is SHIT”, but I have the kind of shop window that often betrays what I’m thinking. My lips may be muttering “yes, that’s fine”, but my left eyebrow is arched like an angry cat, twitching with a magic of its own. Even a client has spotted the aforementioned eyebrow, though apparently (and fortunately) seems to find it entertaining.

3. Grumpy-Brit versus Nice-Canadians

I write some of the copy for Girl Geeks Toronto. A lot, but not all. Often getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong. The girls (usually the patient Caroline)  keep me on track. Having recently got into hot committee discussions about including the word “kick-ass” in a funding proposal and “hell” and “devil” in a survey (context is everything), I found myself shouting in an email today “this Canadian culture of avoiding offending anyone is really getting to me! Really can’t stand this bland, constantly inoffensive approach. We have no personality!” Now…. when I listen to myself in that quote (because the writing is just the expression of the voice in my head) I feel like a small child, stomping my feet on the ground and sticking my middle finger in the air to anyone who’s looking. That sounds more offensive than I ever could be, but I feel so passionately that the goal of any communication is to MOVE someone and moving a majority towards a positive inclination, may always be at the expense of trying to please everyone.

4. Consumer culture mutating in the B2B world

I think about friends who struggle to find work. I think about a friend who caught her boss going through her desk. And another friend who was fired on the second day of a new job, after being found crying (out of homesickness) in her cubicle. I think about a friend who advised me “to fuck the system because it fucks you.” And another friend who affirmed the culture of disposable employees in Toronto. 

I will not nurture a passive-aggressive culture. 

5. Is being good at the expense of being great?

I also think about being an Account Director and a manager of people. I think about what it means to interview someone, hire them and the fact that as an employer, as a manager – we owe it to those who work for us, to empower and enrich. Although I have so much still to learn (perhaps writing less open blog posts should be on the list), I made a pact with myself a long time ago to always treat people with respect. 

6. Don’t assume the meaning

Whilst looking up the definition of compromise versus confrontation (see below), I was distracted by the fact that compromise could mean “an endangering, especially of reputation” and that confrontation could be defined as “a bringing together of ideas, themes, etc., for comparison”. We can be too quick to dismiss a difference of opinion as a negative force and too much compromise may dilute identity entirely. (Dare I propose that is Canada’s challenge? A little tongue in cheek here…)

7. Global is unfinished business

Though having been involved with global brands in a national setting in the UK, in Canada I’ve been working with global brands in a global setting. Though immature in my experience, even in the last 18 months I have often wondered if global brand management is merely a series of local compromises. Can you retain integrity on the ground if you’re trying to optimise from a distance? Does the diffusion of local cultures globally make it easier to standardise messaging locally? I suspect we’re not going to find the answer anytime soon.

8. More on Steve Jobs


Again I think about the Steve Jobs biography and his obsession with forcing teams to sit down together, indeed to force the entire company to sit down together – physically, face-to-face. I think about his pride in getting Apple to achieve what other global players could not. I think about his reputation for confrontation and wholehearted resistence to compromise on any level.

9. The profound, but obscure finish

Confrontation may lead to compromise, but compromise without confrontation is an incestuous solution of reduction.



1.a settlement of differences by mutual concessions; an agreement reached by adjustment of conflicting or opposing claims, principles,etc., by reciprocal modification of demands.

2.the result of such a settlement.

3.something intermediate between different things: The split-level is a compromise between a ranch house and a multistoried house. endangering, especially of reputation; exposure to danger, suspicion, etc.: a compromise of one’s integrity.


con·fron·ta·tion act of confronting.

2.the state of being confronted.

3.a meeting of persons face to face. open conflict of opposing ideas, forces, etc.

5.a bringing together of ideas, themes, etc., for comparison.