Positive Deviant


Do you know someone, or hope to raise, or secretly think of yourself as:

  • Someone who thinks outside the box
  • Asks questions and really listens to the answers
  • Tries new ways of doing things even if it brings ridicule or worse
  • Learns from their mistakes and keeps trying

In his book “Better,” Atul Gawande, describes medical practitioners who fit these qualifications.  He calls them Positive Deviants. Gawande didn’t coin the phrase.  There are a slew of organizations studying, promoting and participating in positive deviance, but he provides terrific and inspiring examples:

People trying to eradicate polio in remote villages in India where lack of education, poverty, over-crowding, suspicion of outsiders and lack of supplies, among other things, make the task seem impossible. …


… and Virginia Apgar …

Wikipedia photo of Virginia Apgar

… who in the 1950’s was one of the first women in the US trained as a surgeon.   Told she’d never make it as a woman surgeon, she took up anesthesiology, became a leader in the field and went on to effectively found the field of neonatology.  When she noticed that babies who were born “blue” were set aside and allowed to die, she followed a hunch that more could be done and developed a method of measuring the health of newborns.  It revolutionized how babies are taken care of.   Anyone with children, remember the Apgar test? Hint:  this one is a 10:


We could use more Positive Deviants. Not just in medicine.  Here’s Gawande’s list of what it takes to be one:

1. Ask unscripted questions.

2. Don’t complain.

3. Count something.  Be a scientist.

4. Write something.  Writing forces you to distill your thinking, and putting your thoughts out in the public makes a difference.   “Modest contributions from many create a greater store of collective power than many individuals can achieve.” (I like this one.)

5.  Change.  Make yourself an “early adaptor”.  Be ready to fail and learn from your mistakes.

Looking for inspiration these days.  Have any stories about people willing to “deviate for change”?

More on positive deviation: http://www.positivedeviance.org/; http://webuser.bus.umich.edu/spreitze/ABS_SpreitzerSonenshein.pdf

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