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Don’t just Think Different, Think Opposite: Creating a sustainable world by turning conventional thinking on its head!

Just by reading the title many of you have undoubtedly made the connection to the marketing tag line for Apple. Such is the power of the business environment that surrounds us. Not only do we feel compelled to buy the products it creates, but even our consciousness is immersed with its messages and ideas. That combined with the often decades of job training that passes for education that we all endure makes it very hard for us to snap out of our way of thinking. It often takes long periods of being disconnected from the constant bombardment of what we call life, to just begin to understand that there is an alternate reality that we’ve been ignoring. Staying in a constant state of hypnosis in front of the screens that have spread like a viral disease we snap into a group mindset that often only manages to suggest modest changes that pass for innovative out-of-box thinking. What I would like to suggest here is that in order to make meaningful change we need to get completely out of our conventional mode of thinking and make the status quo stand on its head. In one way, it’s hard to do since as a first reaction the ideas would not make sense and would appear to be ‘crazy’. On the other hand, the solutions are easy to find as we just need to do a complete 180 from our current path.


Today, we’re not just in a financial crisis as the headlines keep reminding us. We’re also in a food crisis and a water crisis, and a health crisis, an environmental crisis, and a social crisis and on and on. Two-thirds of the people in this world are living on $2 or less a day. Enough said.  This should be enough for us to collectively realize that we cannot build a sustainable world using the same ideas, concepts and institutions that have been responsible for its precipitous decline. So here are some challenges to conventional thinking that may initially appear to be strange or crazy at first but at further reflection and contemplation would hopefully start to sink in. But in order to do that we all would have to un-learn decades of job training from the generation that raised us – remember that’s the type of thinking that created the mess we’re in!

What’s the function of a business?

Thinking conventional – Many would say that the function of a business is to make money for its shareholders by maximizing profitability. Such single dimensional thinking really does an injustice to the complex nature of a human being. Sure we all have a selfish nature that requires us to look out for ourselves. But we all undoubtedly have a selfless nature as well. To suppress that part of the human being in the work environment causes undue stress. In order to act selflessly the answer generally is to join philanthropy or an NGO. Meaning, in order to be a complete human being, we have to exit the system!

Thinking different – Many of us emphasize that in addition to having a focus on profitability, businesses should also involve themselves in social causes and care about the society that surrounds them. In many cases such lip service as putting out a box to collect food items is considered a win.

Thinking opposite – The primary aim of business should be one to provide social benefit. It should not have a focus on profitability at all – rather it should be focused on building equity and preserving capital. If some profit is made, then it should be re-invested to further the social benefit that’s the primary aim of the business. It’s this drive for necessarily being profitable, that wreaks havoc on the environment and the society that we live in today.

What’s the value of nature, say a tree?

Thinking conventional – Many would say that the value of a tree is the wood that comes from it, or perhaps the medicine that’s extracted from it, or perhaps the shade that’s gained from it.

Thinking different – Environmentalists today are trying to convince profit-maximizing businesses that trees are better alive than dead by putting a dollar value on the carbon that’s stored in the leaves that can be used as ‘off-sets’. We’re also trying to put a value on the natural eco-system such as to convince businesses that destroying this valuable source of raw materials would have a negative long term impact to profitability. Or perhaps a dent in the businesses’ reputation may have a negative impact of moving the product from the shelves.

Thinking opposite – The problem with such thought processes is they ascribe a value to nature in relation to the value derived by human beings. What we should realize is that humans are a part of nature and the wider ecosystem. Therefore the tree has inherent value independent of any value that humans may take from it. The tree has value just because it exists; period. As such it should be protected. If as humans, we feel like we’re the top of the food chain that does not give us dominion, but rather greater responsibility for its protection.

Why do banks exist?

Thinking conventional – Banks exist to lend money by taking collateral. Let’s say person A deposits $100 in the bank. The banks lends out $95 of that money to person B. Person B deposits that money in the bank. The bank will now show deposits of $195. The bank then lends out $150 of that money to person C. Person C deposits that money in the bank. The bank is now showing deposits of $345 – you get the idea. The actual wealth that was deposited was $100 but the bank is showing deposits of $345. Where did the $245 come from? It’s been ‘created’ out of thin air by the banking system. Somehow we’ve gotten used to this sort of conventional model and take it as normal!

Thinking different – Banks should give loans to small businesses to get started and they should re-invest a portion of their profits back into the local community that sustains them.

Thinking opposite – Banks should be helping those who need money not those who already have money; thus there should not be any requirement for collateral before giving out a loan. Banks should be invested in the business that’s funded with the money that they lend. If the business makes money, the bank makes a return on its investment, if the business fails then the bank takes a hit as well. There should be no interest payments that would come due regardless of the outcome of the investment. Because the banks make money on money, meaning they make money via interest, they generally have no stake in the success of the borrower. Such lack of accountability via guaranteed profits on interest wreaks havoc on the environment via unnecessary projects that get funded.

Why do we receive an education?

Thinking conventional – We receive an education so we can make money when we grow up.

Thinking different – We receive an education so we can support our families and make a difference in society.

Thinking opposite – Education in its true sense is about making us more human. It’s about learning how to live. For example, someone who has received a degree in International Relations from college may have learnt how to talk to foreign diplomats but he still does not know how to talk to his parents or his neighbors. That knowledge was not taught because it does not help in making money. Let’s separate job-training from education and get ourselves some education!


There is no shortage of other similar examples that we can spell out.  Any one of these thoughts of turning conventional thinking on its head when ingrained in our psyche can have large scale implications on the sustainability of the world in which we live. As of now, we continue to pollute the earth with our unnatural behaviors and making it worse for the next generation – as if we were from another planet and only visiting here briefly! Let’s take the initiative of sustainability and turn it into a movement. And let’s turn conventional thinking around 180 degrees as that’s where the answers are to be found.

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  • Hi Rizwan,

    Very good thoughts. I am sure such opposite ideas can be looked for many other areas too. I believe the challenge is to undone the “training” as you mentioned. There are many people working in different parts of world on various topics, but the overall momentum is still the same. Hopefully it may change one day.

    In a way sustainability relates to living in harmony with nature. Unfortunately, humans being part of this nature are completely different from the rest. The one major factor that I believe is “to show oneself as the supremo”. Only humans are the one who have killed animals e.g. lions, tigers, elephants just for fun and not puerly for food. This is unlike other animals who only kill as per the need.

    I hope and wish that messages like yours will trigger some change.

    Thanks once again for sharing the good thoughts.


    • Thanks Arundeep for your comments and you do make a good point. There are certainly those who would kill for fun, but there are also those who would give up food if there’s only enough to feed their children. I know families in Texas who would give bananas to their children and eat the banana skins themselves. The human nature encompasses both aggression and compassion and the business world needs to adjust to accommodate it all. Currently even the language used in the business world is one of aggression when we talk of marketing ‘campaigns’ or ‘target’ clients or ‘smelling the blood and moving in for the kill’. Since business is such a large part of our lives, such language and accompanying behavior is not conducive to moving us towards a more sustainable world. Thanks.
  • Hi,

    Profit, profit, profit, this is what seems to move the world today and the earth is suffering from this thinking, and of course people suffers more.
    I know fast food companies that trash the food that they don´t sell before closing the store and prefer to trash this food than giving it away, they told me that if they give this food then employees will cook more food than necesary just to take the food to their homes, but they pay employees such a missery just for the profit and don´t care if they have enought food in their homes to give to their family. Companies like Caatering for airlines that also trash the food that was not necesary during a flight, they don´t give it to poor people because they are probably contaminated from foreing deseass but even if this is contaminated I think poor people prefer to take the risk rather than telling their children that they will have to go to “bed” not being able to eat during the whole day.
    We all need to change our way of thinking and blogs like yours can make the difference to create a sustainable world.


  • This was a great read. I totally agree with what is said and felt in it. I also realised that these issues are international – here in Pakistan as well, the situation is the same as stated.
    I would like to add a few things over here.
    Where the function of business is concerned, i also think that we have all experienced the ill-effects of capitalist societies. It is high time that socialism (or some other similar -ism) is also given some preference!
    Where the point about thinking opposite about banks is concerned, what has been mentioned is similar to the concept of Islamic banking. As I have worked quite a lot in this field, I know about some of the problems faced with practical applications in this concept. For example, when a client defaults, the Islamic bank cannot take any action because they do not have any collateral against a loan. Hence, all entrepreneurs with potentially very risky projects have started turning up to Islamic banks for financing. Hence, we can see that problems exist in thinking differently as well. But that is, in reality, the challenge! To look for solutions should be our target.
    Where thinking differently about education is concerned, I was really inspired by a recent Bollywood movie named 3 Idiots. It is a wonderful story about a student who studies only with the purpose of gaining knowledge. Anyone who can understand urdu or hindi should watch it. When I saw it, it made me realise that there are others who also think like me, enen though such people were not around me during my university days!
    In fact, I have always believed that even a single person can initiate change, if he manages to change himself first. And that is what is to be done by people who agree with this blog!