Whether it is by accident or design, I often tend to end up driving and especially owning cars that are extremely sensitive to outside conditions. For example, I frequently have to drive up and down the northern part of OR-217 to the Sunset Highway, and because of the change in elevation between the West Hills and Tigard and Lake Oswego there are frequently winds along the road, which serves more or less like a pass. While the persistent winds might not be noticeable to some drivers or in some cars, being a rather attentive driver who watches the leaves and debris blowing and their patterns and can feel the force of even a light breeze against the car, I notice even the little wind that makes its presence known as a headwind in the morning and a tailwind in the evening. So, noticing the conditions of what is around me comes pretty naturally.
When I was a undergraduate student, the president of my university was a fellow named Steven Sample. He was famous, at least in some circles, for a book he wrote called “The Contrarian’s Guide To Leadership.” I have not read the book, but it sounds like something I would enjoy. At the risk of oversimplification, a major aspect of being a contrarian is going against the grain, by choosing to do things when others are not doing them. There are times when this is not a good idea. For example, if one wants to pick up some fried chicken from the deli, it is not a wise idea to pick up chicken that has been sitting around for a few hours. When it comes to food that is lying around on warming plates, you want to go when there are plenty of others, as it helps make sure that your food is fresh.
That said, there are many occasions where it is a very good thing to go contrary to others. Driving is a good example of an activity where going with the crowd will get you stuck wasting frustration, hours of time, and gallons of gasoline behind people who don’t have a clue about what they are doing. The same is true if you wait until the last minute to try to purchase health insurance from the health care exchange. In both of these cases, one is dealing with limits of capacity. There are only so many people who can answer phones and only so many lanes on a freeway. This means that if more than a certain number of people try to go through those choke points, then everyone will have to wait a long time to get anything through the choke point.
These two cases suggest two different cases, one where being a contrarian is a good thing and one where it is a bad thing. We saw in the first case that what made it bad to be a contrarian was a lack of flow. That which has become stale and stagnant is not desirable, even if no one else is there. There are some things that draw value based on their flow, not based on their presence. On the other hand, where limited capacity is the issue, then you want to seek times of low-capacity where there is room to operate without hassle and with minimum delays. In life, therefore we have to determine whether the situations we are dealing with are cases where some level of popularity is necessary in order to keep things fresh and flowing, or whether we are dealing with a capacity issue where there are limitations in room. They also suggest that there might be sweet spots in the middle, where there is enough traffic for flow, to preserve alertness and freshness, but where there is still plenty of extra capacity, if one is not sure whether concerns over flow or capacity dominate. Why this is not more easily understood is a mystery to me.