Column: From Differences To Mistakes – Part I

Opposites Attract? Or, Hang Out With Like-Minded?
From Differences To Mistakes – Part I
Column by ELENA YANG

So, which is true? I am inclined to go with the like-mindedness.

Even when opposites attract, the opposites are usually manifested in the area of temperament, rather than how people think and what they value.  

We seek out those whose opinions are similar to ours; we read or listen to news outlets that closely reflect what we believe (if not exclusively, certainly most of the time), and our friends are by and large similar to us. 

Depending on your perspective, Margaret Heffernan says that we behave so because we are either lazy or efficient. (

Otherwise, it takes an enormous amount of time and effort to forge a relationship with someone who is wholly unlike us. 

Indeed, however we define diversity, we still tend to seek out those who think like us, be they different in cultural background, race, gender, age, life styles, etc.

Within organizations, Ms. Heffernan found in her data that 85 percent of participants admitted that they were not comfortable raising issues they believed would lose. 

In other words, people had decided, a priori, what the prevailing opinions or choices would be. How would we ever weigh truly different opinions and proposals in such an environment? 

We delude ourselves to think that it’d be easier to go along with the “majority’s” ideas or sentiment.

After all, constantly attempting to second-guess what others, especially your bosses, think and want drains energy too. We implicitly operate based on “there is one best way, or one right way.”

Ms. Heffernan started her TED presentation by telling the story of two diametrically different doctors, a married couple, Alice Stewart and George Neal. 

Stewart’s findings linking X-ray exposure and childhood cancer in the 1950s eventually lead to the disuse of X-ray examinations on pregnant women, albeit 25 years later. 

Changes, even in the face of evidence, don’t come easily. What Heffernan really wanted to drive home, though, is the point that being opposites or having conflict ultimately leads to progress. 

Alice and George differed in treating patients and approaching research. Neal preferred numbers to people and Stewart connected with patients easily. 

The couple did not reside in an echo chamber. Neal once said, “My job is to prove her [the wife] wrong.” 

It was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong that George could give Alice the confidence she needed to know that she was right.”  A beautiful paradox.

However, trying to have several such relationships, especially in today’s workplace, could be really daunting. 

Who has that kind of time and energy these days? There may be naturally built-in “oppositions” in certain professions, especially the scientific and technical – or at least I hope so – but less so for the majority of organizations, including universities. 

In Ms. Heffernan’s presentation, there was one point with which I had a quarrel. She characterizes the oppositional nature of the relationship between Alice Stewart and George Neal as “conflict,” and conflicts are good. 

I have posted about the “social functions of conflicts” before, and acknowledged that there are times conflicts produce positive outcomes.

However, I am wary of those people who seem to seek and create conflicts for the sake of conflicts. More importantly, differences and disagreements do not automatically lead to conflicts. 

Mr. Neal’s “opposition” was his attempt to provide different perspectives, and eventually validation, for his wife, and definitely not meant to cause conflicts all the time. 

In a more contemporary example of different opinions, some of us had the privilege of watching for years “At The Movies,” where Robert Ebert and Gene Siskel, both eminent movie critics, sparred. 

Ebert died last Thursday after a long battle against cancer. When I stumbled upon the TED Radio Hour’s piece on differences and mistakes, I thought it was fortuitous so that I could write about “different ideas or opinions” in memory of Mr. Ebert. 

A side bar: reprinted Mr. Ebert’s writing on facing death, titled, “I do not fear death.” (

It’s a beautifully written essay, reflective, thoughtful, graceful, illuminating, and brave. 

I will go into more detailed discussion on differences and mistakes next time. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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