This story was originally published in Art Hive Magazine issue #29, Spring 2019
In “The Opposite,” a classic episode of Seinfeld from its fifth season, the character George Costanza, normally down on his luck, turns his whole life around in a matter of days by doing the opposite of all his instincts. He decides that if all his instincts have made a disaster out of his life, then the opposite of his instincts will fix everything. Of course, Seinfeld is a comedy, but there’s more than a little merit to this life philosophy.
Through the course of your life, you build up a whole set of habits and attitudes that guide you through the day. Without these habits, it would be impossible to function. Imagine if you had to consciously think about every step when walking, as if you were a toddler again. But sometimes these learned habits get in the way, because their automatic action makes it hard to do things differently.
The Seinfeld opposite method of success doesn’t actually work by doing the exact opposite of everything, but by reminding you to question your assumptions about how to act. As long as you don’t take it too far, there is merit in using this method to break out of a rut by creating more successful habits. At the very least, you’ll stand out from the crowd, and sometimes that’s half the battle.
George Does the Opposite
In “The Opposite,” George laments his disaster of a life. He’s broke, unemployed, and he lives with his parents in his 30s. Finally, in a fit of frustration, George decides that he’s tired of doing the same thing day after day, and instead of ordering tuna on toast with coleslaw and a cup of coffee, like he does every day, he orders chicken salad on un-toasted rye with potato salad and a cup of tea instead, remarking that, “Nothing has ever worked out for me with tuna on toast!”
Being a comedy where humor comes from the unexpected, things go awfully well for George. He starts dating a beautiful woman, his unemployment and baldness notwithstanding. And not only that, she sets him up with an interview for a front office job at the New York Yankees. Once again George puts his opposite method into action, and he insults the head of the Yankees to his face. George is hired on the spot.
The premise seems outlandish, but it’s not quite insane. By doing the opposite of his instincts, George forces himself out of his old routines, and his actions gain a new sort of do-or-die confidence. Even when he insults the Yankee’s boss, he shows a sort of straight talk that the boss appreciates, having gotten tired of lackeys and yes men.
Ingrained Habits Versus Neuroplasticity
In an interview discussing “The Opposite,” Jason Alexander, the actor who plays George, describes how a number of his friends actually tried the opposite method in real life. And according to Alexander, many of them did very well with it.
The success of the opposite method comes down to the way habits form. Researcher Wander Jager describes how “Habits provide a significant advantage in terms of savings on cognitive effort.” But habits also stop you from incorporating new information into your automated instincts, “Hence, whereas the habit may originate from a process in finding out the optimal behavior given the prevailing circumstances, the circumstances may since then have changed such that alternative behavior would yield better outcomes.”
If you commit to doing the opposite of your instincts as George does, it will force you to consciously think about every decision you make, thus cutting through the bad automatic habits you’ve built up over the years. If those habits haven’t lead you to good results, then doing the opposite might be just what you need. Or at the very least, it might not be any worse than what you’re already doing.
For example, if you habitually put off work in favor of browsing Facebook, committing to doing the opposite would probably be a great help. Your brain might get stuck in ruts, but through the wonder of neuroplasticity it’s still possible to change your ingrained patterns if you stop and think before letting automatic habits take their course.
Scott Adams, the cartoonist behind Dilbert, describes success as being more about your processes than your goals. Instead of constantly trying to get to far away goals, he describes how when he was writing a book he created, “a process I was pretty sure would get me there.” It’s much easier to think about how to improve your habits little by little each day than it is to constantly worry about some far away goal. Committing to doing the opposite can keep you thinking in the present and help you see what’s really happening instead of what your ingrained habits think is happening.
What is Opposite Anyway?
In “The Opposite” when George orders chicken instead of tuna, Seinfeld suggests that the real opposite of tuna is not chicken but salmon. The opposite of subjective things is itself subjective. The opposite method isn’t really about doing the exact opposite, but trying to think about how to do things outside your ingrained habits.
Nevertheless, often doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing feels like a breath of fresh air. Think about the cycles of style in fashion, architecture and even in TV. Trends often seem to suddenly change all at once.
After years of flared jeans in the 1970s, everyone seemed to suddenly go the opposite way at the beginning of the 1980s. Then after years of straight jeans, flares came back suddenly in the early 2000s only to then suddenly disappear in the late 2000s and reappear once again in 2018.
People get tired of the same thing over and over again, and being the first person to do something different will often put you ahead of the trends. Part of George’s success in “The Opposite” was simply the confidence he had in his actions because he had nothing left to lose.
Seinfeld itself was part of a cycle. It’s cynical worldview was a breath of fresh air after the decade of sappy family comedies that had previously dominated prime-time TV. Along with other new cynical shows, such as The Simpsons, Seinfeld was ahead of the pack.
There isn’t really a right way of doing things in life. Life is about the confidence of your own actions, especially if you differ from other people. Do the opposite and you might find a new route through life that’s fresh enough to lead to success. Maybe you’ll even be able to weasel your way into a position at a major sports team like George Costanza.
Check out our podcast Hello Creatives! on this topic: “Do the Opposite: The George Costanza Method of Success.” You can find Hello Creatives! on iTunes, iHeart Radio, Google Play, Stitcher, SoundCloud & Spotify.