Was Your Idea Too Creative?

Robert J. Sternberg describes eight different types of creators and how you can avoid having your work rejected when it's outside customary paradigms.

November 19, 2020
 
 
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When I was an assistant professor at Yale University, my faculty mentor shared with me a pearl of wisdom I never forgot. I don’t remember his exact words, but he basically said that ideas could be rejected not only because they stink but also because they are too creative. Years later, when I was dean of arts and sciences at Tufts University, my supervisor -- the provost -- warned me that if I tried to be supercreative and overturn the established practices of the university too quickly, I would get burned.

They both were right.

In research that I have conducted on my own as well as jointly with James Kaufman, professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, and Jean Pretz, chair of psychology at Elizabethtown College, we have found that besides differing levels of creativity, there are also different kinds of creativity and creative people. Some people have ideas that might be called paradigm preserving. Others are paradigm busters. It’s the paradigm busters that most get into trouble, even if they are exceptionally creative. Indeed, they may be too creative for some.

For example, psychologists Elaine Hatfield and Ellen Berscheid won a Golden Fleece Award (for “fleecing” taxpayers) from Wisconsin senator William Proxmire for their pioneering research on love, a topic that both Senator Proxmire and many psychological scientists believed should not be studied scientifically. Both of them would go on, many years later, however, to win the highest awards from both of the major psychological organizations in the United States.

It’s not only scholars but also administrators who can be paradigm busters. If you are or have been an administrator (as I have), you know how very hard it is to get paradigm-busting ideas implemented. As soon as you suggest doing anything differently, established constituencies come out of the woodwork to assure you that things could not possibly be done any differently from the way they always have been done.

What are the types of creators? I’ll consider the two general types I’ve just mentioned as well as some subtypes.

Paradigm-Preserving Creators

This is the kind of creator that people generally reward, with one exception. Here are four subtypes of paradigm-preserving creators.

  • Replicators are the individuals who -- either lacking novel ideas of their own or intent on showing others to be right or wrong -- repeat what others have done, usually with what are thought, or at least hoped to be, minor variations.
  • Repurposers take existing ideas or products and use them for other purposes. They take someone’s idea and ask what else can be done with it.
  • Small steppers are the most commonly found creators. They take the next step in an existing paradigm, whatever it may be. They are solid incrementalists, advancing a field of research or a university project brick by brick to build or fortify the foundations for future work.
  • Big leapers are giant steppers. They attempt to move things in the direction it is already going but beyond where many people are ready to go. This is the exception to the idea that people like paradigm-preserving ideas. Often, the world is not ready for their idea, with the result that either they get credit much later or someone else gets credit for having the idea or product at a later time when audiences are ready for the idea.

Paradigm Busters

  • Radical rebels depart from existing paradigms. They dispute the direction in which things are going. Instead of merely moving things forward, they move it in a new direction.
  • Reactionary rebels also believe that things are going in the wrong direction, but that the solution is not moving forward but backward. They believe that things once were on the right track but now have gone off track. Their solution is to return to where things once were and take off from there.
  • Revolutionaries believe that things have gone so far off track that they need to start all over again and move in a different direction. Thus, whereas a radical rebel believes we can take off in a new direction from where things are, the revolutionary believes they basically have to throw in the towel with what they have and rethink all they and others are doing.
  • Conciliators form new approaches by trying to integrate different existing approaches or paradigms. Their creative contribution is in seeing how approaches that might have been seen as independent of, or as in opposition to each other, can be reconciled.

Why Paradigm Busters Tend to Get Rejections

If you are a paradigm buster, you are going to get more than your share of rejections of your ideas, whether you are a faculty member or an administrator (or a student, for that matter). You may wonder why. Here’s why:

  • You may be incomprehensible or nearly so to your audience. When you propose ideas outside the paradigms to which people are accustomed, people simply may have trouble understanding what you are trying to say. It doesn’t fit their world. So, they reject it. For example, many professors who are now happily teaching online rejected the idea of online teaching when it was first proposed, before the COVID-19 pandemic, as unworkable and worthy only of lower-ranked institutions. Today, many of those same professors are happy to continue teaching online indefinitely. But if your audience understands your ideas, things do not necessarily get better, because …
  • You are defying the crowd. Most people work within existing paradigms. They are used to doing things in the familiar way. As philosopher Thomas Kuhn pointed out for science, most scholars work within a range of what is considered normal. The same applies to administrators. If you go outside the range of what is thought to be normal, you are considered, well, abnormal. Your audiences then may tend to want to see your ideas -- and you -- isolated. Either explicitly or implicitly, you are saying that you know better than everyone else, and thus you produce the usual reaction of people trying to swat down those who claim to be cleverer than they are.
  • You are threatening your audience. Many people have devoted their time and effort to developing and implementing ideas that you are seeking to overturn. Your overturning their ideas not only damages their self-esteem but perhaps also their chances for being hired, promoted or lured away into a new job. In a way, you are like a whistle-blower. Whistle-blowers, as you know, are not appreciated by those on whom they are blowing the whistle. You also may steal away acolytes -- young people looking for mentors whose ideas they should follow. People may react as most people do to threats: by seeking to wall them off.

How to Minimize Rejection of Your Ideas

If you are a paradigm buster, what can you do to maximize the chances of your ideas being accepted, or at least of their not being immediately out-and-out rejected?

When you propose a paradigm-defying idea, suggest referees for the idea who are paradigm defiers themselves. Get support from people who, like you, are paradigm busters. Many journals, for example, invite submitters to suggest names of referees. If you are doing paradigm-busting work, take them up on the invitation. If you are an administrator, get support from another paradigm-busting administrator, if you can find one. Suggest people who will understand a paradigm buster -- namely, those who are paradigm busters themselves.

Do not present your ideas as paradigm defying. Let your audience figure it out for themselves. As soon as you trumpet your ideas as being paradigm busting, you are opening yourself up, regardless of what you say, to attack from people who will disagree with anything too new. So, downplay the paradigm-defying nature of your ideas. Let your audience figure it out. Some won’t figure it out and thus will feel less threatened.

Be modest. Let the ideas or products speak for themselves. Be modest in your claims for what you are going to show or do. Let the ideas speak for themselves. Nothing incites antagonism like overblown claims. Such claims often incite people to want to put you down.

Be sure to draw as many connections as possible to existing ideas. Point out that even ideas that seem in some way to be incompatible with existing paradigms would not exist were it not for those existing paradigms. The new ideas build on previous ideas, even if they take a different direction. I learned this lesson from my own experience.

For example, in my early work, I was largely rejecting of traditional approaches to the assessment of abilities and achievement. I emphasized only how my ideas differed from the traditional ones. But I later came to realize that the problem with traditional assessment was not that it was all wrong, but rather, that it was incomplete. Instead of outright rejecting the traditional assessments, I should have built on them by adding creative, practical and wisdom-based assessments.

As you already know, everyone is hungry, sometimes starved, for credit. Instead of emphasizing how your breakthrough ideas shred other people’s ideas, show how they actually are compatible with past ideas, even they if they go beyond those past ideas. Many of those others will be so happy to see themselves cited, and even favorably cited, so that they will overlook your paradigm-busting aspirations. Or they even may not notice those aspirations.

Suggest to the editor or to a superior administrator that, if they want, they should seek public responses. People in positions of authority, such as editors or high-level administrators, often are afraid that breakthrough ideas are breakthroughs only because they are somehow flawed, even in ways the authorities may not see. By inviting responses, you are giving the superior a way out -- a chance to save face just in case something really is wrong with your ideas. And that way, the superior also can please those who disagree with you.

Welcome replication and offer to help anyone who wants to replicate. Explicitly invite replication and even offer to help. In scholarship, invite others to see whether they can get the same results you got. In administration, invite others to try out your ideas and see whether the ideas work for them. In that way, you defuse the argument that no one else could replicate what you did. You also present yourself as inclusive rather than as trying to exclude others who may disagree with you.

Be as flexible as you can be without selling out your idea or yourself. If your ideas are truly paradigm defying, a superior may ask you to tone down or modify either the ideas or your presentation of them. Be ready for such suggestions. Sometimes, you may be able successfully to argue against toning things down, but other times, you may be given the choice of either making changes or walking away. Try to be as flexible as you can, especially in how you present your ideas, without selling your idea or yourself out. If you just can’t in good conscience make the changes, you may have to try another journal -- or another university!

In sum, being a paradigm buster takes courage, persistence and even relentlessness, resilience and an ability to welcome negative feedback as a way to improve upon your ideas. You need to go for the long term. In the short term, you may get a lot of static. But in the long term, the paradigm busters are the ones who change the world. And anyone can be one of them if they are willing to defy the crowd, sell their ideas, present themselves and their ideas in a way that maximizes chances of acceptance, and then change the world, even if bit by bit. Paradigm busting is usually the road not taken, but over the long haul, it is a truly rewarding road to take.

Bio

Robert J. Sternberg is professor of human development at Cornell University and honorary professor of psychology at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. He is the author of Adaptive Intelligence, to be published in February 2021 by Cambridge University Press.

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