the art of outsider thinking (+ why it makes you more creative)




So I agreed to write a blog post for a company I respect on a topic that fascinates me. While fitting ideas together and outlining the post, I started thinking

Who the hell am I to be writing on this?

Why should anybody care about what I think?

I wasn’t considering the post so much as the bio that might accompany the post. What were my credentials? Where was my real-life experience? How could whatever expertise I might have accrued in another, very different domain possibly apply to this one?

Why should anybody listen to me?

I felt like a total outsider.

I am a total outsider.

So could my perspective possibly be valid?


Jonah Lehrer’s new book IMAGINE: How Creativity Works would seem to indicate: Yes it can.

In fact, the outsider perspective might sometimes be the superior perspective.

Lerner refers to a man named Alpheus Bingham, a vice president at Eli Lilly (one of the biggest drug companies on the globe). He was in charge of research strategy, managing countless scientists working on countless technical problems, and he was increasingly concerned.

For all the money the company was throwing at these problems, hoping and expecting to come up with the next Prozac, they were getting crappy results.

“And that’s when I started to wonder if all these supposedly impossible technical issues were really impossible. Maybe we just had the wrong people working on them?….I always assumed that you hire the best resume and give the problem to the guy with the most technical experience. But maybe that was a big mistake?”

What Bingham did next was pretty radical.

Although companies like Lilly believed in deep secrecy – guarding against the possibility that competitors might steal their ideas – Bingham decided (and I am paraphrasing here): Fuck it.

He launched a website called Innocentive. He took the company’s hardest scientific problems and threw them out to the public. He posted them on the site and offered a financial reward to anyone who came up with a solution.

He didn’t expect many of them to get solved.

He was wrong.

“The answers just started pouring in,” he says. “We got these great ideas from researchers we’d never heard of, pursuing angles that had never occurred to us. The creativity was simply astonishing.”

The secret to this success, says Lerner, is outsider thinking.

The people deep inside a domain – the chemists trying to solve a chemistry problem – suffered from a kind of intellectual handicap. They were working with the same sets of ideas within the same categories and boundaries. They were living in the same intellectual grooves. As a result, the impossible problems stayed impossible.

The actual solutions to these problems came from people who were working at the very edges of their fields.

Chemists were solving molecular biology problems; molecular biologists were solving chemistry problems.

When solvers “rated the problem as outside their own domain”, they were more likely to stumble upon solutions. They were “bridging knowledge fields” – taking ideas from one domain and introducing them into a different domain.

They reframed problems, combined and recombined ideas, and opened up new lines of thinking.


This is why, Lerner continues, young people can be so innovative and disruptive in their fields.

They are “natural outsiders”.

A study done by Adolphe Quetelet in the 19th century shows that creativity doesn’t increase with experience. By studying the bodies of work of various playwrights, he found the so-called “inverted U curve” of creative output: creativity appears to peak, then level out, then start to fall as the individual moves into middle age.

Dean Simonton, a psychologist at UC-Davis, expanded on this, demonstrating that physicists usually make their most important discoveries before the age of thirty. (The only field that peaks before physics seems to be poetry.) Simonton argues that the innocence and ignorance of these young whippersnappers “makes them more willing to embrace radical new ideas”.

Meanwhile, the more experienced creators “start to repeat themselves, so that it becomes more of the same-old same-old.”

The move from outsider to insider status, then, seems to equal creative death.

Our thoughts get trapped by the familiar. The brain is a lazy beast. It’s constantly tracking patterns and looking for shortcuts. It’s constantly learning what it can get away with: what it doesn’t have to bother to notice. The more expert you become, the more settled in routine thinking-grooves, the more the brain blocks out all the stuff that’s not relevant.

The problem is, creativity happens when the brain is forced to make connections and find relationships between things that, on the surface anyway, don’t appear to have any relevance to each other.

Which means that creativity gets exchanged for efficiency.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

By removing ourselves from what we know – by turning ourselves into outsiders – we force the brain to wake up and look at new things, or at old things from new angles.

Lerner points to mathematician Paul Erdos, one of the most productive scientists of all time who was

“famous for hopscotching around his discipline, working with new people on new problems. He embraced a multiplicity of subjects…As a result, his creative output never declined; there was no U curve for his career, just a sharp rise followed by a flat line….

….The moral is that outsider creativity isn’t a phase of life – it’s a state of mind.”


In his book EVERY BOOK IS A STARTUP, Todd Sattersten makes a rather neat distinction between ideas and insights. He compares it to the difference between a node (a single point in a network) and the network itself.

Ideas are nodes.

They are a dime a dozen.

Insights are much rarer: that intuitive grasp of sudden understanding that bends your thinking in a new way.

They are a constellation of nodes — ideas — that link up with each other to provide a greater meaning.

In the words of one Phil Dusenberry – “A strong insight can fuel a thousand ideas, a thousand reasons to act and make something happen.”

Sattersten explains:

“Buckle up” is a node; it’s an idea that pushes you to act. “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” is a network, an insight that evokes a whole host of connected nodes around responsibility, camaraderie, and consequences….

…If an idea is a node, a single lightbulb that has been turned on [over your head], an insight is the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City…our choice is what strings of lights we plug in to give our [creation] meaning.”


As individuals, we form our unique social networks. The average individual has 4 to 7 close relationships (there are only so many hours in a day, so many days in a life).

Those relationships link out to their own respective social networks, which link out to their respective networks, and so on.

So I’m thinking that, as individuals, we also form our own intellectual, creative networks. Just as I have my unique mix of friends, I have my own mix of interests and obsessions. These, in turn, link out to other interests and obsessions — some in obvious ways, some in not-so-obvious ways, and some in ways that are maybe only visible to me — and I can track them along those lines for as far as I care to.

Always, I am picking up scattered nuggets of ideas along the way.

If I stay deep inside one particular domain, dealing with other people who are also deep within that domain, those ideas are likely to be fairly similar.

But if I travel out along the lines of my creative/intellectual network until I find myself at the edges – where one domain starts blending into another domain — chances are I might find myself alone out there. The ideas that I have gathered will start connecting or colliding off each other, until they break open and flash out a creative insight that, down in the centers of those various domains, no one has really seen before.

It’s a bit like being a shaman. You go out to the edges of yourself, that strange eccentric country, and bring back the gifts you find in order to share them with your people.

Or maybe you just keep traveling on, taking your ideas to places where they haven’t quite seen the likes of you before.

The great thing about the Internet is that it allows us to do this.


In his book RETURN ON INFLUENCE, Mark W. Schaefer writes

Because of the Internet’s vast ability to grant social proof and our increasing willingness to accept that evidence as truth, the talent to create and distribute meaningful content can be a legitimate source of online influence even apart from an individual’s actual experience, capability, or personal accomplishments…

…Disconnecting our personal traits from the ability to influence can be dangerous, but it can also be liberating. Influence built on content – our own hard work, our own voice – can free us from the shackles of traditional trappings of influence associated with going to an Ivy League school, living in the right part of town, having movie star looks, or driving an expensive car.

Today anybody anywhere can have influence, and that is a great thing.

Bingham – the guy who created InnoCentive – would, I think, agree with that. He has witnessed the benefits. His company has paid out awards to outsiders who have solved the very problems that perplexed the company’s insider scientists.

These outsiders include:

“A person who studies carboydrates in Sweden, a small agribusiness company, a retired aerospace engineer, a vet, and a transdermal-drug-delivery-systems specialist. I guarantee that they would have found none of these people within their own company. They would have found none of those people if they had done a literature search in the field of interest. They would have found none of them by soliciting input from their consultants. And they probably wouldn’t have hired any of these people anyway, because none of them were qualified.”

It’s enough to make you think that expertise is, at least in some cases, slightly overrated.

It’s enough to make you think that maybe we shouldn’t judge, define or limit ourselves by what we are “qualified” to write or speak or think about.

We should pursue our fascinations, our obsessions, out to the very edges, and trust that somehow, at some point, the dots will connect in a way unique to us — that still creates meaning for others.

If we could practice and embrace outsider thinking – if we could throw open the doors to people who have never before had access to the golden inner sanctums – if we could introduce a rich diversity of creative badasses into the highest circles of power, who knows what global problems we might solve?

But it also means that we as outsiders have to step up. We have to take those half-baked ideas living inside us and flesh them out through the spirit of inquiry and learning, learning, learning. We have to develop our own unique, informed perspectives and put them out there.

We have to have faith that our perspectives are worth putting out there.

Like I said before, I am totally unqualified to write the blog post that I should be working on right now.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to finally go write it.

Mar 24, 2012

11 comments · Add Yours

I think that being an outsider probably does have some distinct advantages when it comes to finding solutions or a much-needed new perspective on a topic. The problem, from my point of view, is that much of society has become so splintered into exclusive silos of experts and niche communities that we’re missing out on a lot of human potential. Most of us are so afraid of being an outsider that we rarely venture into the areas where we might be seen that way. And it’s a damn shame. So thank you for having the courage to do so! May we all be so brave.


My friend Andrea Kates explores this same idea in her book Find Your Next. Great post, Justine!


Great article. I heard someone say once: “specialization is for insects”.


Great read, Justine! Being on the outside gives one an ability to see patterns across disciplines and the links between things. Outsiders don’t approach a problem by trying to validate a theory, they are able to ask the questions that lead to the unexpected result.

I found this type of innovation practiced by Insight Labs where 20 people from a variety of disciplines – senior executives, entrepreneurs, academics and artists – are assembled and have three hours to come up with a novel way to solve a complex problem:

Looking forward to reading Lehrer’s “Imagine” as well!

Thank you,



Hi Justine! I’ve been reading your blog for about six months and have never commented. I just wanted to thank you (very generally) for all the thinking and working and writing you do. Whether you’re writing about creativity, about tapping into your strengths, about writing, about women, I always feel surprised and challenged and encouraged. I’m in Sweden now, but I’m looking forward to being back in the States so I can put my hands on all the books you refer to. Thanks again!


As someone who has never been able to successfully ‘niche’ down, and is ever-conscious of the inefficiency of this… I loved this post. Thanks so much.


Inspirational, Justine. It confirms my intention to try something new, to move out of my comfort zone and start again. Thanks.


This post really resonated with me. It took me years to stop agonizing over feeling like an outsider no matter where I was and accept the fact that maybe that was part of my role in the world–and that it just might be an asset. You continually provide a special kind of encouragement here. Thank you.


Great post! Creative death is a pretty scary thing, when you put it that way.

“young people can be so innovative and disruptive in their fields.

They are “natural outsiders”.

I love that you point out that the brain is a lazy beast and constantly looking for efficiency–at the cost of creativity. An excellent warning. Thank you!


Certain disciplines, like medicine, actively discourage outsider thinking, sometimes not because their ideas are radical, just unpalatable.

Like the example of Semmelweis, the doctor who suggested that women were dying from infection after childbirth because the other doctors weren’t washing their hands between patients. He was ignored, labelled a nutter, and committed to an asylum, where he died. His germ theory wasn’t acknowledged until after his death. He was an outsider, and he was right, he just couldn’t get anyone to listen.

I think that’s so often the problem, the outsiders are there, they just can’t get the attention their theories deserve, for whatever reason. It may be dogma, or perhaps just something as simple as timing.


Here’s a bit of a political take on the subject which I found interesting reading. It was rather critical, but I guess that’s because of the political context. See what you think:


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