The Magic of an Orthogonal Mind

Orthogonal is an unusual word. Orthogonal is a unique word. Orthogonal is an orthogonal word.

Here’s an easy way to think of this concept: Imagine one straight and narrow line on a graph (g), traveling in one rigid direction in perpetuity. Now imagine a line (P) branching out from your original line, like so:

Another example might be this flat plane (E). Do you see line (x)?:

Or how about:

Now you can begin to understand the essence of orthogonality. Orthogonal lines are different from the rest. They fly in the face of mainstream. They may lead off into the abyss or lead to greater and greater heights. There is a level of risk in veering off the main line, yet the potential for new possibilities is endless.

Orthogonal lines provide three-dimensionality to an otherwise two-dimensional situation.

Let’s take this a step further. You may have heard of one of Albert Einstein’s famous quotes: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” What he was really addressing in this statement is the need for orthogonal thinking.

Nature, and human nature in particular, has the tendency to settle into familiar routines, regardless of the downstream effects. We get addicted to smoking, sugar, judging others, or pessimism. We gravitate towards treadmills, Netflix, political parties, and our morning coffee. We adhere to strict religious beliefs, specific diets, and the 40 hour workweek. Why? Because they are familiar, they are comforting, and they are predictable.

The Groove Deepens

This is a particularly alarming predicament. Faced with the choice between a familiar option and a novel option to solve a serious problem, you will probably choose the familiar. Subconsciously, you crave the comfort of familiar solutions, no matter how much lower the chances are that they can solve your greatest discomfort. And so, the status quo persists, the groove in the record deepens, and the willingness to think differently erodes.

In a sea of sameness, in a world of monotony, and in a life of rigidity, problems inevitably arise from such mainstream inertia. And who are the ones that usually solve these problems? Those who approach problems with an orthogonal mindset.

Ben Franklin

Steve Jobs

Elon Musk

Just to name a few.

In all of the most successful people I’ve known, met, or observed, the orthogonal mindset is the thread that runs through them all. To do anything great, you must think differently.

Orthogonal Living

Imagine what you could do on a personal level if you simply decided to approach an aspect of your own life from an unusual perspective. I’ve tried to apply an orthogonal approach to many areas of my life:

  • I improved my health by simply deciding to stop eating like everyone else around me.
  • I calmed my mind by stopping the incessant stream of “breaking news.”
  • I’ve simplified my life by ceasing the belief in what everyone else believes: that buying stuff makes me happier, more secure, look better in the eyes of others, etc.
  • I gained control of my destiny by betting on myself, and saying “no” to renting out my time.

And there are many more examples, but you get the point.

This isn’t a post to boast about all of that — it’s to show what is possible by approaching life in this way. To share what I believe is a real key to life: the willingness, and the ability to think differently than the masses.

Orthogonality is a muscle you must build over time. Following the safe path will atrophy this muscle after so many years.

Developing an orthogonal mind requires you to question authority, external and internal. It requires you to muster courage to try different things. It requires you to have the audacity to stand out from the crowd, even if it makes you unpopular. Orthogonality is certainly not the safe route. Just ask line (x) in the second graph above.

Prospect Theory

Going off on a different, unpaved path is scary. You stay on the main road because it is proven, it is safe, and it is familiar. You are risk averse, and therefore gain little more than what the safe path allows. The prospect of not losing what you have is far more appealing than gaining what you don’t. You would rather keep your $20 dollars than gain an extra $20. That, in a nutshell, is the cognitive bias known as prospect theory—the fear of losing, the fear of failing.

This is a cognitive bias you must guard against. It is what keeps you sedentary. It is what keeps you silent. It is what keeps you acquiescent.

You can penny pinch your whole life, but you’ll never become wealthy that way.

You can keep your cozy office job, but you’ll never experience life to the fullest that way.

You can keep searching Indeed.com for a new job, but you’ll only disappear into a sea of like-minded job-seekers that way.

You can run on the treadmill every day, but you’ll never get six-pack abs that way.

When you opt for the safe path, you certainly won’t look stupid, but you’ll miss out on opportunity, on possibility, on serendipity, on discovery, on innovation, on exploration, on reinvention, and on your full potential. You relegate yourself to ordinary. And that’s fine, but if your goal is to make a mark in this world, you must think orthogonally.

Playing it safe keeps us in the Old World.

Playing it safe loses the Revolutionary War.

Playing it safe keeps you on a horse and buggy.

Playing it safe relegates the moon to just theory.

Playing it safe keeps a flip phone in your pocket.

Playing it safe stares into the future and keeps it there.

In each of these situations, if you approach the problem through the mindset of the general consensus, if you aim to not lose, you end up losing anyway, the world loses, and generations to come lose.

Think with an orthogonal mind

Next time you hear an unusual or even ridiculous idea, pause and think about it. Instead of rejecting it completely, ask yourself – what value does it have? What is the logic behind it? Is there evidence backing it?

Open your mind to the unexpected. Let go of defensiveness toward the unfamiliar. Question your own beliefs rigorously. Don’t believe everything you think.

Learn to listen instead of arguing, you just might learn something.

When someone says “that’s just how it has always been done,” make the effort to understand why. Ask if it is really the best way. Explore other possibilities.

But don’t pursue orthogonality for its own sake. Lathering your Cheetos in melted butter is orthogonal, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do for your health. Consider every decision on its merits of logic and reason. Look at the totality of evidence, and then decide if it’s worth it to take the risk.

Test different ideas and iterate often. Just because people don’t do it doesn’t mean it’s automatically wrong. For all you know, everyone might be wrong and your method might be the best way. But you’ll never know unless you test it. Take what works and discard the rest.

Learn to take pride in your experimental mindset. Sure you risk looking foolish pretty often, but it is you who will be the problem solver. You will be the one forging new paths, challenging long-held beliefs, and cultivating your authenticity rather than blending in.

It is your willingness to fail that will bring you closest to success.

Such is the magic of an orthogonal mind.

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