Want to Innovate? Science Says, “Be A Nonconformist!”

Want to Innovate? Science Says, “Be A Nonconformist!”

Psychology October 30, 2018 / By Dr. KH Kim
Want to Innovate? Science Says, “Be A Nonconformist!”

Do you feel you are a square peg in a round hole? Don’t worry; you could become an innovator if you use your nonconformity to your advantage. With conventional thinking, an EXPERT can only reinvent the wheel. By thinking a different way, an INNOVATOR can combine the wheel with something else, or extend the wheel or its use. Which do you want to be?

Creativity is a process of making something unique and useful, and this process can lead to innovation. Unique creations require flexibility of thought and skills to entertain and develop uncommon ideas, which are borne out of differing opinions, not consensus. Remarkable ideas that supersede current knowledge flourish in the presence of diverse intellectual perspectives where conformity and status quo are challenged. A diverse group can create distinctive ideas, drawing on the variety of experiences from different backgrounds, thoughts, views, and skills. Intellectual diversity, a multiplicity of ideas, philosophies, and perspectives, is the main contributor to creativity and innovation. However, when you are in a climate where intellectual diversity is not valued, you may be mistaken for a troublemaker. Notable innovators in history thought and behaved differently from others and were nonconformists. They were often misunderstood or seen as troublemakers, such as

  • Albert Einstein, who was the only graduate in his department who could not find a job for two years after graduation because none of his professors would write a letter of recommendation for him, as he thought and behaved differently from them.
  • Georgia O’Keefe, who was viewed negatively by the proper Southern girls after her family moved from Wisconsin to Virginia. She was strong and independent, and as an adult, many in the male-dominated art world viewed her negatively because she, as a pioneering female artist, did not conform to the gender norms.
  • Nelson Mandela, who was viewed negatively when he ran away from his arranged marriage, refusing to conform to his tribe’s tradition; and as an adult, he was viewed negatively by many in the White-dominated nation of South Africa because he was a Black man who refused to stay in his place.

Einstein, O’Keefe, and Mandela shared the nonconforming attitude, one of the 27 common characteristics of notable innovators, which made their unique ideas possible, and they bloomed into innovators. The following four steps discuss how to nurture the nonconforming attitude and innovate by first, knowing your identity; second, expressing yourself; third, building your craft; and last, putting a twist on the craft through adding uniqueness to it.

Step 1: Know Yourself

Nonconformity starts with you knowing yourself, identifying your uniqueness, and becoming comfortable with being an intellectual minority.

  • Take responsibility for your own life, and don’t let anyone dictate your worth.
  • Reject the expectations of others for your life, and develop your own beliefs by critically thinking about your world.
  • Recognize what inspires you; for example,
    • Name a favorite thing, person, hobby, song, motto, or philosophy by which you live.
    • Identify these differences as forms of your uniqueness.
    • Work on expanding and maximizing these differences.
  • Celebrate how your nonconformity enriches your own and others’ lives.

Step: 2 Express Yourself

Being a nonconformist can be uncomfortable. Develop resilience and willingness to resist convention, and overcome the fear of rejection to reach your own potential. Uncomfortable experiences may include being mocked or teased for being unusual or showing unorthodox desires; however, continue forward with your desires and interests. You may feel that society confines you to certain forms of expression and gender roles, but be free to express yourself as you want, whether via sexuality, profession, language, religion, or lifestyle. Become comfortable with unpopular ideas and find ways to respectfully express them, despite social pressures. Start practicing expressing yourself. For example:

  • Discuss your needs or desires, and advocate for your choices.
  • Ask others for assistance and remember asking for help is a sign of resourcefulness, not weakness.
  • Find something small to firmly and politely say "no" to.
  • Join groups that are unfamiliar, and consciously notice when you are following others, and decide to do otherwise.

And then, practice becoming a change agent, such as:

  • Test socially accepted facts, and seek proof through experimentation, discovery, or observation.
  • Evaluate the validity of information from the media, and write to the media to correct mistakes.
  • Question popular and common beliefs, and be willing to hold unpopular views on issues, especially when others are afraid to.
  • Speak up for the victims of bullies and against inequality, and connect with current debates on inequality and social justice in the community.

Step 3: Build Your Craft

Instead of comparing yourself to other successful people and wishing you had what they have, build your strengths by focusing on something you excel in. To do this:

  • Develop something you are passionate about and align your actions with that passion.
  • Take time and work on your skills and craft.
  • Evaluate whether each task will get you closer to your goal.
  • Establish yourself as an authority; and show who you truly are to the world (see “How To Develop Your Passion").

Then, seek opportunities for innovation through networking, collaboration, and win-win competition. Solicit suggestions and guidance from others while remaining free to choose what to do with the suggestions. Create allies by finding others who share and believe in similar dreams, and surround yourself with the right people to support your mission and goals. Additionally:

  • Learn how to compromise and negotiate.
  • Challenge others’ opinions, expectations, beliefs, and stereotypes through respectful dialogue.
  • Pick battles wisely to fight for issues that matter the most, and strategically break unjust or wrong rules.

Step 4: Make the Craft Unique

Appreciate your own and others’ strengths to develop your distinct style. While leaving room for mistakes and errors, constantly assess your own work so you can improve it for its useful aspect of innovation, and then focus on making your craft different for its unique aspect of innovation. To do this:

  • Learn and master the existing rules or constraints in a system or tradition.
  • Then, challenge or change them within the system/tradition, and develop a unique concept, approach, or product. To do this:
    • Evaluate current systems/traditions in place in your field.
    • Overcome mental barriers, such as rigid rules about what is allowed and what works.
    • Develop defiance against inconsistent or unjust theories, rules, norms, or values.
    • Consider multiple angles to a situation and different viewpoints by engaging in complex, varied, and expressive dialogues and debates.
    • Stand up for your beliefs and for people who share them.
    • Ask others to disagree with you, and listen to others’ arguments and explain your position.

Creativity has the power to transform the good into the best, and you, no matter your background, deserve the opportunity that creativity brings. There are no shortcuts to innovation. Only proactive practice is rewarded. First, find who you are. Second, express who you are. Third, build your craft. Last, put a twist on it, while becoming and remaining a nonconformist. Practice makes easier!

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