Are You A Bit Of A Loser? Don't Worry, You're Probably Really Creative

A new study explores the connection between rejection and creativity and could provide perspective for companies looking to hire creative people.

Are you a recovering high school geek who still can’t get the girl? Are you always the last person picked for your company’s softball team? When you watched Office Space, did you feel a special kinship to the stapler-obsessed Milton Waddams? If you answered yes to any of these questions, do not despair. Researchers at Johns Hopkins and Cornell have recently found that the socially rejected might also be society’s most creatively powerful people.

The study, which is forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, is called "Outside Advantage: Can Social Rejection Fuel Creative Thought?" It found that people who already have a strong "self-concept"—i.e. are independently minded—become creatively fecund in the face of rejection. "We were inspired by the stories of highly creative individuals like Steve Jobs and Lady Gaga," says the study’s lead author, Hopkins professor Sharon Kim. "And we wanted to find a silver lining in all the popular press about bullying. There are benefits to being different."

The study consisted of 200 Cornell students and set out to identify the relationship between the strength of an individual’s self-concept and their level of creativity. First, Kim tested the strength of each student’s self-concept by assessing his or her "need for uniqueness." In other words, how important it is for each individual to feel separate from the crowd. Next, students were told that they’d either been included in or rejected from a hypothetical group project. Finally, they were given a simple, but creatively demanding, task: Draw an alien from a planet unlike earth.

If you’re curious about your own general creativity level (at least by the standards of Kim’s study), go ahead and sketch an alien right now…Okay, got your alien? Now give yourself a point for every non-human characteristic you’ve included in the drawing. If your alien has two eyes between the nose and forehead, you don’t get any points. If your alien has two eyes below the mouth, or three eyes that breathe fire, you get a point. If your alien doesn’t even have eyes or a mouth, give yourself a bunch of points. In short, the more dissimilar your alien is to a human, the higher your creativity score.

Kim found that people with a strong self-concept who were rejected produced more creative aliens than people from any other group, including people with a strong self-concept who were accepted. "If you’re in a mindset where you don’t care what others think," she explained, "you’re open to ideas that you may not be open to if you’re concerned about what other people are thinking."

This may seem like an obvious conclusion, but Kim pointed out that most companies don’t encourage the kind of freedom and independence that readers of Fast Company probably expect. "The benefits of being different is not a message everyone is getting," she said.

But Kim also discovered something unexpected. People with a weak self-concept could be influenced toward a stronger one and, thus, toward a more creative mindset. In one part of the study, students were asked to read a short story in which all the pronouns were either singular (I/me) or plural (we/us) and then to circle all the pronouns. They were then "accepted" or "rejected" and asked to draw their aliens.

Kim found that all of the students who read stories with singular pronouns and were rejected produced more creative aliens. Even the students who originally had a weaker self-concept. Once these group-oriented individuals focused on individual-centric prose, they became more individualized themselves. And that made them more creative.

This finding doesn’t prove that you can teach someone to have a strong self-concept but it suggests that you can create a professional environment that facilitates independent and creative thought.

"I’ve read article after article about how organizations want creative people," Kim says. "But it appears to me that all companies want candidates from the same schools, with the same background, and the same experiences." Kim hopes her study will have an impact on how companies think about who they hire, how they can retain the most creative individuals, and whether they’re really facilitating creative thinking among their employees. She says even small changes, like relaxing a dress code, can help.

Of course, there’s an irony here. If creativity depends on rejection, then companies would want to make it more difficult for employees to individuate, not less. Kim isn’t so worried about this outcome, however. "Even in a company where you feel happy, there are still plenty of opportunities to be rejected," she says. "You can still pitch that great idea to your boss and your boss will say, ‘um, no.’"

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  • Wholesale Suppliers

    Nice Sharing.
    I know many people in my life who live their life as a loser but i can not forget when those people Succeeded through their creativity.

  • Anika Davis

    Hmmmm! Interesting huh.

    Agree to Amananderson. I salute ancient people. They're really creative. Imagine they can even build great pieces of art without the help of the technology.

    Will, just consider successful entreps these days. They are the product of rejection, failure and look at them now. Wow.

    Thanks Jenn for the post.

  • aman anderson

    Well, duh! People have to do something to stay happy! But all jokes aside, I have always saw some connection between oppression/rejection and creativity. We can see that from the dark ages of Europe, political art, etc sprouting the awakening of music and liberal arts. 

  • Bill

    Even when you are creative at work, and everyone apparently loves you, rejection is just a moment away. "We can't afford to be creative at the moment" is one line. Merely being a bit different is enough to make people uncomfortable when things get difficult. And if you get a bit short (or even scornful) of those who can't see what's blindingly obvious to you, you will get the last laugh, but from the outside.

    There was research many years ago that indicated that the creative problem-solver that everyone relied upon, and was a bit 'different' because they thought differently, was the first person voted off the island. When the pressure is really on, conformist behavior of long standing is what wins, regardless of how well you make the organization run. Fear of the unknown or the unknowable ('uncanny') is always just below the surface.

  • aokolue

    This is so true, which is why I've found a lot more success working as a consultant/freelance. I'm hoping to grow to a company that welcomes difference. It's been the best lesson I've learned thus far.

  • Paul Jones

    All this sounds familiar. "The Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth---Why Outsiders Thrive After High School" by Alexandra Robbins. The Goodreads Best Nonfiction Book of 2011. 

    Similar article reviewing that book here:
    But the strong angle in the study cited appears to be essentializing the need for rejection as a part of creativity. I reject that.

  • Rachelle

    It seems a lot of people who are very creative adults, were "different", "not popular" in school.   As adult they go into a creative field and start working at companies with people who were like them in high school... A very enriching experience. But  I don't think it is the social rejection that drives the creativity, most likely the opposite.    

    I agree that when  a company has a people with different background it is great as each employee can bring a different perspective but different backgrounds does not necessarily translate into more individual creativity quotient. It is just that people will be exposed to different perspective, which can affect uniformity.  

    Also keep in mind that some companies have a certain culture, and want people who will embrace and thrive in that culture, multiple employees may have very different background but still fit in the company's culture.  

    Saying all companies want a people with the same background is an exaggeration, this may apply to certain industries, but definitely doesn't apply to a company with a strong creative DNA. 

    Or,  maybe it does because then all the employees would be creative. But I think this is a desirable situation.  

  • Djmarie 80

    Too bad this story's author isn't a "loser". Then I wouldn't have wasted my time on a failed attempt at creativity.

  • Tim

    Interesting comment about the process of being told 'no'.  The author correctly says that we need to be both open minded in receiving input and judgemental in implementing it.

  • Nna Sam

    I have been labeled a loser for almost all my life...I have always know I was very creative and I nurtured my creativity to the point I became really innovative and enterprising- now everyone wants to work with me. I am grateful that I discovered my God given talent quit early and I appreciate the fact that you took the time to write this honest article. Nice WORK!!!

  • Dave Barton

    By that token those who are rejected by creative agencies are obviously the most creative. So maybe ECDs should look at everyone they didn't employ first time around, and employ them, firing those they currently employ. Then they can fire the first lot of rejects and re-employ the former employees, proving they're the most creative as they've now faced rejection. 

    It's not just a hat-rack...

  • Dalegoldberg

    That's over-analyzing the message in the article. I think the author is talking more about social rejection and individualism. Obviously, there has to be some balance between acceptance and rejection. 

    Growing up, I was often rejected because of my different ideas. I was a Jewish-Unitarian, a vegetarian, and I was very shy - no one wanted to eat with me at lunch. That sense of social rejection drives our thoughts inwards. In some crazy way, it almost makes you talk to yourself so that you have someone to talk to. You become comfortable with that which results in you becoming comfortable brainstorming and thinking by yourself (which might also explain why the smartest people in school are stereotypically social rejects). Today, I'm a Program Director and Writer for a film company so I have been accepted as part of a creative team for my work. I still tend to come up with my best ideas when I'm alone, though. There's a great video on TED about the power of introverts by Susan Cain which I think is a great expansion on what the author is talking about.

  • Stephie

    I laughed out loud when I saw the title...but then read the first paragraph...thanks for making me feel even more marginalized guys...Sincerely, FEMALE creative geek.