Chameleons and Contrarians

Blake Elias
2 min readMay 10, 2022

Some people blend in to whatever culture they land in. Others do the opposite.

We can call these types chameleons and contrarians, respectively.

Chameleons know how to change their colors to blend in. They get along with people easily, are highly agreeable and empathetic. They can assess the environment they’re in, then figure out how to adapt and thrive in that environment. They adapt easily to new cultures.

Contrarians come into a team looking to complement and augment the culture. They try to provide whatever they see as missing — rather than joining along the existing efforts. They’re there to provide the missing perspective, rather than elaborating on existing directions.

If you’re a chameleon, you should be an employee. You’ve mastered a particular discipline which you can bring anywhere you go. You can fit into a team of others working in that discipline, and add on to what they’re doing. (E.g. an engineer joining a team of other engineers.) You can accelerate existing efforts and amplify productivity.

If you’re a contrarian you should be an entrepreneur. You span several disciplines, and you can lean more into whichever one seems lacking at that moment. If the team is heavy on designers, you become an engineer. If the team is heavy on engineers, you become a data scientist / researcher. You’re there to point at where the team needs to go next — and not just in the incremental way, but in a paradigm-shifting way. What entire concept has the team not grasped yet, but needs to?

Our culture creates too many chameleons, and not enough contrarians.

If the status quo is just fine, then most people being a chameleon works great — we can all get along. [1]

But when things need to change — because they’re not sustainable, or far from being as they could be — then we need contrarians.

In today’s world, the status quo is not fine. We’re facing massive risks from climate change, economic shock, etc., and we don’t have the political processes in place to fix these issues as quickly as they need to be.

Not everyone can be a contrarian. Just by definition, if everyone was a contrarian, then contrarianism itself would become a commonly accepted ideal. So at some meta-level we’d be right back to agreement and conformity. Becoming a contrarian would be the perfect way to blend in (indeed, this seems to happen in some “startup”/“innovation” circles, with everyone trying to be “different”).

It’s also useful to have some notion of a common narrative. If everyone’s constantly pulling in different directions, nothing gets done.

But if a healthy amount of contrarians in “normal times” is something like 1% then right now we probably need more like 5 or 10%. Things really need to change. So right now, we need a few more contrarians — even if just to get us to a better place, where we can then relax and become chameleons!

[1] Even here, we still want a small number of contrarians, to produce a steady stream of innovation, but not disrupt anything too fundamental in society.