03/08/2015 11:24 EDT | Updated 05/08/2015 05:59 EDT

What Frank Underwood and George Costanza Can Teach Us About Thinking


In the second episode of the current season of House of Cards (don't worry, no spoilers follow), Frank Underwood has an epiphany. Faced with a series of obstacles even his devious mind cannot defeat, he suddenly realizes that if he can't get the Congressional leadership "to do what they're dead-set against doing ... we have to reverse our thinking."

Somewhere in my head, a little bell went off. I had heard that strategic advice before, but from another TV character. People who spend any time with me know that I frequently quote from Seinfeld as an unexpected source of pop philosophy. Conventional wisdom says that it was a show about nothing; actually, it was a show about everything. There are few quandaries in modern life that can't be better understood with a little insight from Jerry, Elaine or Kramer.

I actually take many of my cues from George Costanza. In one memorable episode, George was having his usual bad luck with women in particular and life in general. He resolved to do "the opposite" of what he had always done in the past, perhaps channeling Einstein's dictum that the definition of insanity was to keep doing the same things and expecting different results. George's new philosophy was instantly successful: going up to a beautiful woman in their diner, he uses the following approach: "I'm unemployed and I live with his parents." Her response? "I'm Victoria. Hi!"

Doing the opposite is not just a clever sit com plot device, it's actually a shrewd life strategy, and a timeless one at that. A century and half ago, Oscar Wilde summed up this thinking when he pointed out that "everything popular is wrong." His contemporary Mark Twain added: "when you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect."

More recently, lifehacker Tim Ferriss noted how all of the rules of the real world are actually "a fragile collection of socially reinforced illusions." He's right. Have you ever wondered why we take summer vacations? Because we need our kids to help plough cornfields, apparently. The practice is a relic of the agrarian economy. Summer vacations were not originally vacations at all. They were meant to allow farmers' children (a critical part of the work force at the time) to pitch in during harvest season. Small family farming began to recede in the 19th century and yet we continue to live with its legacy in the 21st century.

Summer vacation is an example of what some people call the 'QWERTY Effect', named after the curious reason why Anglo-Saxon keyboards have letters that spell out Q-W-E-R-T-Y in the upper left-hand corner. Back when people wrote on typewriters with keys (Google the word to see what they look like, millennials!), the earliest machines were very delicate. In fact, the main challenge was to prevent users from typing too quickly and jamming the typebars together. In 1873, Christopher Latham Sholes managed to slow down the speed at which people could type by setting out the keys in one of the least efficient ways possible, and the QWERTY layout was born. Fast forward to today, and the keyboard on which I'm typing (or 'keying'?) this post on still maintains the QWERTY layout even though there's no ribbon to be found anywhere.

The QWERTY keyboard has become a metaphor for outmoded but deeply engrained activities that persist well past their point of relevance. When I realized that so many aspects of my life -- from when I work to how I type -- were based on old habits, I began to wonder what else we've been conditioned to accept as 'fact' without critically assessing it first. It was then that I discovered the power of what I've come to call 'perpendicular thinking'.

In geometry, a perpendicular line is one that meets another at a perfect, 90 degree right angle. Aside from the association with the word 'right' (as in correct, not conservative!), I describe the approach this way because we need to develop the reflex of coming at any commonly-held practice from an angle. We owe it to ourselves to question what we're told, investigate if it's still true, and make a conscious determination to embrace or reject it.

Becoming more comfortable going against the grain is at the heart of this type of thinking, so let me leave you with some suggestions:

Don't subcontract critical thinking to society. More often than not, conventional wisdom is more reliant on convention than sagacity. Question it, and you'll realize that we're surrounded by 'truths' that are not actually true.

Contemplate -- perhaps even take -- the road less travelled. Always stop and think when someone says that you're 'supposed' to do something. It may turn out that you're the only one who knows what they're doing.

Flip the script. Make your mistakes magnificent by focusing on understanding your own failures rather than trying to reverse-engineer others' successes. Plan your exits as carefully as you do your entrances.

Finally, be uncommon. Always try to be in a 'Category of One'. A noted businessman and philosopher once said, "You don't want to be the best at what you do; you want to be considered the only ones who do what you do." His name: Jerry Garcia. His achievement: turning The Grateful Dead into the most successful touring band of all-time.

Make these principles part of your life philosophy and tap into the power of perpendicular thinking. Take the advice of Frank Underwood and George Costanza: sometimes, consider doing the opposite (but don't just take my word for it).