The history of creative thought and social progress is littered with stories of banned books, persecuted artists and scientists, and paradigm-shifting innovations that changed the way we look at the world.
Almost every innovation that truly made a difference was initially met with varying degrees of resistance, if not full-fledged condemnation. Henri Matisse, who himself earned a reputation as a rebel for pushing the art world from Impressionism and Postimpressionism into modernity, put it this way: "Creativity takes courage."
Highly creative people tend to be nonconformists, which psychologist Robert Sternberg defines as those who are "willing to generate and promote ideas that are novel and even strange and out of fashion."
In 1985, Sternberg and his colleagues conducted a study in which they asked people about the essential aspects of a highly creative person.
Some of the key attributes they listed are as follows:
- "Tries to do what others think is impossible"
- "Is a non-conformist"
- "Is unorthodox"
- "Questions societal norms, truisms, and assumptions"
- "Is willing to take a stand."
Sternberg found that artists who answered this question often said that a creative person is one who takes risks and is willing to follow through on the consequences of those risks. Businesspeople, meanwhile, responded that a creative person in the business world is one who steers clear of the pitfalls of conventional ways of thinking. Philosophers insisted that creative minds never automatically accepted the "accepted," and physicists emphasized the importance of questioning the basic assumptions upon which we operate.
The common strand in all these answers was the idea that creative people reject popular, conventional ways of thinking and instead support new and fresh ideas. The creative act itself is one of breaking from tradition and routine in order to create new patterns, ask new questions, and seek new answers.
In choosing to do things differently, creators accept the possibility of failure-but it is precisely this risk that opens up the possibility of true innovation.
Defying the crowd takes courage, and there's no doubt that it's easier and more comfortable to follow popular opinion. But risk and failure are essential components of meaningful creative achievement and, really, of any creative work. As Sternberg explains, the most original contributions in any field are unlikely to result from efforts to please the crowd.
To not only generate but to share nontraditional ideas, one must be willing to be a bit of a troublemaker and risk being labeled an outsider. As Isaac Asimov, the prolific author and biochemist, writes in a seminal 1959 essay on creativity, "A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us.'
Creativity is often the natural result of risk taking. Sternberg's "propulsion theory' suggests that creative contributions in a particular field can be measured based on the extent to which a new idea shifts that field away from current paradigms and toward a new way of thinking. By this model, the most creative works are the ones that are most successful in propelling existing ideas forward, and a truly creative contribution to any field requires leadership and vision insofar as it moves the field to an entirely new place.
Consider an initially failed propulsion in the field of medicine.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis hypothesized that disease could be spread in hospitals through small particles on physicians' hands. Semmelweis came to believe that many lives could be saved if medical professionals followed a hand-washing protocol, so he implemented antiseptic procedures in the obstetrical clinic of the Vienna hospital where he worked. Semmelweis found that washing hands with a chlorinated lime solution significantly reduced mortality rates.
It was a fairly contentious idea at the time-and, like many radical ideas, the proposition was not accepted by his colleagues. Semmelweis was ridiculed and dismissed from his position at the hospital. This caused him a great deal of distress, and he was later committed to an insane asylum. It wasn't until years later, when Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease, that Semmelweis's pioneering work on antiseptic procedures finally gained widespread acceptance.
Many Nobel laureates have similar stories.
In 2009, Juan Miguel Campanario investigated a number of instances in which leading researchers encountered resistance from the scientific community and science journal editors in reference to manuscripts that would later earn them the Nobel Prize. The journal Physical Review Letters rejected a key paper on the landmark discovery of superfluid helium, which later earned its authors the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics, while the prestigious journal Nature rejected the groundbreaking paper that first detailed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology.
It wasn't until thirty years after the landmark discovery of MRI technology that physicist Paul Lauterbur won the 2003 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Today, 10 million patients each year undergo MRI examinations. Lauterbur later recalled, "Many said it couldn't be done, even when I was doing it!'
Campanario's research revealed a systemic skepticism toward new theories that challenged existing scientific paradigms. And beyond Nobel Prize winners, many scientists and commentators have suggested that the scientific peer-review system is designed in a way that discourages innovation and instead rewards research that reinforces existing paradigms.
This is why the world needs innovators who push their fields forward, change paradigms and guide us to new ways of understanding.
Adapted from "WIRED TO CREATE: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind" by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire. Published by Perigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire.