Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Outsiders and Creativity

Despite being on the faculty at the Johns Hopkins University, I don't always read the Johns Hopkins magazine (a publication for alumni, students, faculty, etc.) every time I get it.  A couple days ago, I was trying to straighten up some of the mess that is "my stuff" at home and paged through the magazine coming upon an interesting article about whether "outsiders" are more creative.  It was fascinating as it told the story of a paper by Sharon Kim, a faculty member at the Carey Business School, who had done a study that produced evidence consistent with the idea that "rejection is not merely a byproduct of the fact that creative people can be unconventional but that the experience itself may promote creativity."  (For the record, I am quoting the article which directly quotes the paper by Professor Kim and two colleagues.)  The article concludes with a quote from Professor Kim as she thinks "the hero in this story is independence.  That is something that people don't talk about often, the benefits of being different...I think that identifying the ways in which being independent can foster creativity is important."

The article was also careful to note that not everyone who is an outsider is necessarily creative and that not all situations that make someone feel like an outsider necessarily result in greater creativity.  That was definitely neither the article's purpose nor the conclusion of Dr. Kim's research.

What is interesting for me to ponder what this means in my own life. It is neither Biblical nor religious at all, yet the search for meaning fits perfectly with my Augustinian spirituality.  In any case, I think about feeling like an outsider (in some ways) in high school and playing Dungeons and Dragons.  The latter (known as D&D back in the day) was not necessarily creativity for the good of society, but it did involve creativity.  I think about leaving the hard sciences after my freshman year at Penn State and after spending what felt like years in high school preparing for and switching to health policy as an "outsider".  That led to seeing things in ways that may have been a little different.  I eventually moved into "health economics" and the economics part particularly having been admitted to the School of Public Health at Michigan first and then joining the economics department and coming at things a bit differently.  Even my success at Johns Hopkins in the Bloomberg School of Public Health--successful as a researcher, yes, but with a love of teaching that is not as highly rewarded as if I were at a small liberal arts college, and the creativity and new thinking that I have brought to my teaching.

Am I saying that I have been perfect in any of these tasks with extra creativity?  No.  Am I saying that I was ever as wildly creative as Steve Jobs--of course not and I will never be?  Am I saying that I am always an outsider--no.  I just tend to come at things from the outside and then hang around long enough to become an insider.  What is interesting is that once I become an insider new opportunities appear for me to find a way to come at something new from the outside and take a fresh look.  It may or may not benefit society--or even my little niche within society.  But I find the new challenges refreshing, uplifting, and amazing.

What will happen when I turn the next corner?  Who knows--but I'm sure it will be interesting, whatever it is.  

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