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How Does Being an Outsider Give You a Creative Advantage?

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Excerpted from Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire. © 2015 by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire. TarcherPerigee, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House LLC.

The Perks of Being an Outsider

Children learn from an early age that a failure to conform can lead to disapproval from teachers and peers, which may motivate them to try to be like everyone else. As an old Japanese proverb says, “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” In schools, the workplace, and society in general, failure to conform can lead to social rejection. But rejection, as painful as it can be, has a silver lining when it comes to creativity.

British writer Colin Wilson described the creative soul who risks rejection in order to be true to himself or herself in The Outsider, his 1956 manifesto on nonconformity. The book drew a deep connection between creativity and alienation. Wilson, who at the time was part of a group of antiestablishment writers labeled “angry young men,” theorized that great minds stood apart from the rest of society. Though they lived within cultures of conformity, “men of vision”— like Kafka, Nietzsche, and van Gogh—played by their own rules. While most men went along with the crowd, accepting life’s miseries “like a cow standing in the rain,” Wilson said that eminent creators used their imagination “not to escape reality but to create it.”

Wilson (who himself was something of an eccentric) was the first to present the hypothesis that social rejection may be not only the result of creativity but indeed the force that fuels it. As Wilson asserted, inspiration was to be found in defying the crowd. Now, research suggests that he was onto something. The need for uniqueness and individuality is a basic human motivation, as is the need for belonging. For the most part, we seek to achieve some level of balance between being an individual and being part of a group. Creative people, however, may have a greater need for uniqueness. This drive to separate from the group has been associated with both nonconformity and creativity.


Of course, rejection is no fun, and it’s been found to carry some negative psychological effects. Experiences of rejection can hinder cognitive performance, particularly when it comes to self- regulation and other tasks requiring executive control. But it seems that the extent to which we experience the negative effects of rejection depends on the extent to which we view ourselves as unique and independent individuals.

Wired to Create

When you experience rejection, it’s natural to take certain measures in order to preserve your self- esteem, like trying to fit in with a social group and gain their approval. However, research has shown that people who view themselves as independent may be somewhat immune to the negative effects of rejection, and may even use social rejection as creative fuel.


This phenomenon has been observed in the lab. A Johns Hopkins University study asked a group of students to create drawings of a creature from a planet “unlike earth.” The drawings were then rated for originality and creative merit. Before the task, some of the participants had been primed with a task that put them into an independent mind- set, while others were primed with a group mind- set. The students who were primed with the independent mind- set generated more original illustrations after being told that they were rejected from a group, as compared to those who were included in the group.

Sharon Kim and her colleagues, who conducted the study, hypothesized that these boosts in creativity were fueled by a differentiation mind- set, or as they put it, “salient feelings of being different from others.” Independent people not only may be resistant to the negative consequences of rejection but indeed may be strengthened by experiences that reaffirm their sense of independence. As Kim puts it, “Independent selves are motivated to remain distinctly separate from others.” This motivation may, in turn, trigger psychological processes that boost creative thinking. Rejection is not just a catalyst for creativity—it can also be a by-product of it. As the study’s authors write, “The very traits that distinguish highly creative people, such as unconventionality, make them easy targets for rejection.”

Excerpted from Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire. Kaufman is scientific director of the Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Gregoire is a Senior Writer at the Huffington Post, where she reports on health and science.