How to be A Positive Deviant

Thermostats and thermometers

I work in an organization some people have referred to as "weird." It's hard to describe why it is, so let's just say its had its problems and leave it at that. So the other day, I was in the atrium of the building and talking to a couple of bright people who have recently been hired into positions of responsibility. We were collectively talking about fixing some of the problems endemic to the place. Then one said, "yeah, we just need a few more of us positive deviants to turn this place around."

Positive deviants. I love it! Of course, I thought it was just some new creative term he invented, but in googling the term have discovered its just a new expression making its way around the business world. But I don't care. I like it, and I'm going to adopt it!

Here's what happens, in any given organization, family unit, whatever. There's a set of expected behaviors or thought patterns that each has. Sometimes those behaviors or patterns simply don't work well. Often, things have to get really bad before anyone recognizes the dysfunction, and even then, very few people know what to do to turn things around. Most people just float in the same direction as the problem, and frequently complain about the problems. Others just leave, because life's too short to get sucked into ugliness or craziness. Then, there are the positive deviants.

Those are the people who refuse to be like that dysfunction, and instead just stay true and on a positive course, regardless of any chaos around them. They put one foot in front of the other, don't get thrown off course by weirdness, and just continue moving toward the direction of hope, and positivity, and profound possibilities. They are the thermostats. Others are the thermometers.


To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. ” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The first positive deviant
The first positive deviant | Source

Flip it...

But really it goes beyond positivity. It's great to be a happy or uplifting person. We need more of those desperately. But a positive deviant is also a solver of problems, a person who finds ways to spill more sunlight into the room by thinking and acting in edgy, unexpected, transformative ways.

One of the things I like to do when I come across what seems to be an insurmountable option, is to "flip it." Turn it on its head. As an example, I may look at:

  • whether it truly is an obstacle, or just appears to be because it resembles problems I or others have seen before.
  • whether what I believe to be may be black instead of white and vice versa. Perhaps its opportunity in disguise. For example, the person who appears obnoxious may be the person with the real solution instead of the person who just agrees with everything. Simply stated, do the opposite of what doesn't work!
  • whether action is warranted or not. Sometimes the best action is to sleep on it, give it some time and perspective.
  • the other side of the problem. What does it look like beyond the seeming bleakness of the moment - do things look different, or do they look much like this side of the problem; meaning, it really may not be a problem at all. It just looks like one in the moment. One of my favorite expressions is "100 years from now; all new people."

Even the terms "positive" and "deviance" don't sound normal together. We associate deviance with social weirdos or outcasts, who create blood-spattered artwork that makes us feel edgy and uncomfortable, but all it means is behavior that departs from social norms.


“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” ~ Mahatmi Gandhi

Positive deviance as a social phenomenon

There are myriad descriptions of positive deviants out in the internet. I found the best list of characteristics to be in this article, by the Positive Deviant Network, which include:

  1. Passion
  2. High moral or social purpose
  3. Seeing holes vs the net
  4. Moving towards, not away
  5. Rapid cognition
  6. Checking the edges, and
  7. Low regard for social convention

In the book The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems , the authors describe positive deviance as a strength-based approach which is applied to problems requiring behavior and social change. This approach is based on the following assumptions:

  • Communities already have the solutions. They are the best experts to solve their problems.
  • Communities self-organize and have the human resources and social assets to solve an agreed-upon problem.
  • Intelligence and know-how is not concentrated in the leadership of a community alone or in external experts but is distributed throughout the community. Thus the aim is to draw out the collective intelligence to apply it to a specific problem requiring behavior or social change.
  • A focus on sustainability enables the community or organization to seek and discover solutions to a given problem because successful uncommon behaviors are already practiced in that community within the constraints and challenges of the current situation.
  • It is easier to change behavior by practicing it rather than knowing about it (i.e.“it is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than think your way into a new way of acting”).


“About all you can do in life is be who you are. Some people will love you for you. Most will love you for what you can do for them, and some won't like you at all.” ~ Rita Mae Brown


How to be a positive deviant: the Gerg version

Those constructs of positive deviance are so well articulated, I won't repeat them here. Instead, here's my take on how to be a positive deviant, in whatever relationship, organizational or social structure you operate:

  1. When the crowd is running one way, stop. It's possible that the right response is to turn and run directly opposite the crowd. If an angry dog runs snarling toward you, run at it like a wild radical; my bet is he'll turn tail and run away!
  2. Look inward, rather than outward for direction. You can't please everyone, especially when they're all going in a hundred different directions; it just gets confusing. Trust that you have the answers, and let them quietly reveal themselves to you.
  3. Talk to a child. If possible, ask what she would do, if she could.
  4. Turn weaknesses into strengths. If I don't pay attention while running, my speed drops about two-thirds into my target distance. At that point, my attitude drops and I start feeling defeated. Those thoughts drop my speed even more. So now, when I reach that point, I make it my personal challenge to stay focused, imagining myself finishing strong, straightening my posture and adding more bounce and swagger. As a result, I begin to feel insurmountable!
  5. Don't spend too much time focusing on a problem. Take our economic condition and all the fringe elements fighting against one another. I think a key issue is that the problem is not framed correctly. As I see it, a huge barrier is that too many people think that there is a limited number of possibilities - so to redistribute the economic opportunities in America, it must mean less for me an order to provide more for you. Is that even true? Flip it. As I conveyed in the Economics of Happiness, the health of our economy is predicated on the positive expectations of its citizens. Is that scary or wonderful? Both, of course. Free will. Why do we spend so much emotional energy on the things that are wrong? There is so much right. This isn't rocket science.
  6. A positive deviant is committed to the practice of continuous learning. We don't have to be alcoholics to know that 12 step programs are one great example of a successful system that basically instructs members on how to be better people. We are flawed. Admit it at least. Too many people seem to act as though they don't even know that.
  7. Don't be so committed to one dogma or set of solutions. You're not going to get in trouble if you're a Christian and read some Buddhist literature. No one's going to chop off your hands if you're a Republican and you vote for a Democrat. Lightning's not going to strike you if you admit to someone that you're wrong on an issue, or if you have to say you're sorry.
  8. By all means be authentic. Don't be some fake douche bag. The world's full of those.
  9. Stop being a fatalist. This world and people have existed for centuries. Just because you can't escape your fate doesn't mean you have to be all pissy about it! Find the sunrise. Look for the light. Trust that there is a solution on the other side when things seem bleak. Get off your high horse and let your bare feet feel the Earth.
  10. Watch for excuses - especially your own. "Most people would learn from their mistakes if they weren't so busy denying and defending them," says John L. Mason in Let Go of Whatever Makes You Stop .

It's tough work being optimistic. A positive deviant has to fight his our own frustrations and irritations as well as those around him. Sometimes it feels like a salmon fighting to swim against the current. But what's the alternative? Forward is all we have; that is the landscape upon which we plant the future of hope and possibilities. Being a positive deviant means being individualistic, exercising free will and taking creative control over what will be.

That's the real magic of living well.


“I won't tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world's voice, or the voice of society. They matter a good deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one's own life, fully, entirely, completely—or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose!” ~ Oscar Wilde

“My kids are starting to notice I'm a little different from the other dads. "Why don't you have a straight job like everyone else?" they asked me the other day. I told them this story: In the forest, there was a crooked tree and a straight tree. Every day, the straight tree would say to the crooked tree, "Look at me...I'm tall, and I'm straight, and I'm handsome. Look at're all crooked and bent over. No one wants to look at you." And they grew up in that forest together. And then one day the loggers came, and they saw the crooked tree and the straight tree, and they said, "Just cut the straight trees and leave the rest." So the loggers turned all the straight trees into lumber and toothpicks and paper. And the crooked tree is still there, growing stronger and stranger every day.” ~ Tom Waits

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Comments 20 comments

bipolar-living profile image

bipolar-living 5 years ago

I like the concept of positive deviant. You write about it well. I think I am one. Good quotes also. -- Jeff

Gerg profile image

Gerg 5 years ago from California Author

Thanks Jeff. After I finished writing, I was looking up quotes to use, and finally just sat still and thought about what I was trying convey and came up with "individuality" as a search term. That's the common theme of the quotes, and the hub.

Jackwms profile image

Jackwms 5 years ago

Maybe so, but I still don't intend to charge at aa angry snarlng dog.

Gerg profile image

Gerg 5 years ago from California Author

I have, actually. Mostly by instinct, followed by an adrenaline rush! Not unlike the time I came across the mountain lion while hiking alone...

Jackwms profile image

Jackwms 5 years ago

Did you charge at the mountain lion?

Gerg profile image

Gerg 5 years ago from California Author

No, but I raised my hands up, shouted, and threw rocks at him. I think if I would have run, I'd have been cat food!

ThoughtSandwiches profile image

ThoughtSandwiches 5 years ago from Reno, Nevada


I think you have just shown me my entry position into the business world...positive deviant. I need to update the goal section on my resume!

Excellent Hub with excellent ideas that can help all of us to flip that box around whilst thinking outside of it!

Thanks! Voting all the Ups.


Gerg profile image

Gerg 5 years ago from California Author

Rock on, Thomas! Yeah, you need the latest business vernacular-du-jour; last year it was "value-added", before that, "circle back", "overarching", etc. etc.

Good luck flipping!

SanneL profile image

SanneL 5 years ago from Sweden

Hmm. . .positive deviant. . .I love the sound of it!

I am definitely an authentic positive deviant, feeling many times like a salmon fighting to swim against the current. However, I enjoy the feeling of living!

Gerg, I enjoy your list very much. I'm bookmarking for future reminder.


Gerg profile image

Gerg 5 years ago from California Author

SanneL - I appreciate your affirming thoughts. "I enjoy the feeling of living" - I guess that says it all! Thank you.


RandomThoughts... profile image

RandomThoughts... 4 years ago from Washington

The other side of the problem and making excuses...Looking at the other side, I hate to admit, would be a new concept for me. Making excuses is one I work on daily to not be a victim in my own life. Being in one of the twelve step programs, there is a saying: It is not a problem that you are facing, it is an opportunity offered to you...that said, really it depends on how black I am when the picture is really white. All in perspective. I think I will write myself a note to remember there is another side to this and maybe this isn't as bad as perceived. Thanks for the suggestions, it is a refreshing viewpoint.

Gerg profile image

Gerg 4 years ago from California Author

Thank you, RT. I write frequently to myself in these hubs, so I understand very well. Often the excuses aren't to others, but to ourselves - so we internalize because we don't want to come across as negative or as a fatalist, but then realize we give ourselves that impression all the time. One of my favorite lines here was the quote above: "Most people would learn from their mistakes if they weren't so busy denying and defending them." Ain't that the truth?

JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

For several years I was on the staff of the State Committee of one of the political parties where thinking outside the box was a virtue. (An entire staff of positive deviants! Heaven!)

The word "can't" was not in our vocabulary. Instead, our motto was "How CAN we?". If we were stuck for a solution to a problem, we had a sound-proof room we could go into and scream our guts out until we were stress- and tension-free. It was also "okay" to yell obscenities at one another across the open area in the center of the suite (none of which was to be taken personally), or if need be, throw ourselves on the floor and pound the carpet. Reporters LOVED visiting our office during campaign season. It was understood **anything** they saw or heard was not for publication. Not a problem...they were there for comic relief, not a story.

I'd never heard the term "positive deviance" until now, but can attest from experience it's THE absolute best atmosphere for a productive workplace!

Voted up and awesome! ;D

Gerg profile image

Gerg 4 years ago from California Author

Throwing yourselves on the floor and pounding the carpet? Wow, now that's a unique place. I can't fathom how you could convince reporters not to report that!

Regardless, you get it. There has to be some sense of safety in order to foster the spirit of positive deviance. A few people in leadership get it where I work; others are threatened by the word "deviant". Truly emotionally intelligent people understand what this involves, and I believe you do. Thanks for your thoughts, JamaGenee!


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

They didn't report our antics because we kept them well supplied with stories they *could* use...and because they weren't about to jeopardize access to a place where they could leave the notebook at the door and unwind, too. A win-win situation for all. ;D

klarawieck 4 years ago

What a great concept! I'm going to have to read this article tomorrow and the day after, and the day after that... to remind myself to follow that list. I'm a very positive person, and I don't follow the crowd if I'm not sure I like where they're going. But number 9 and 10 had me scratching my head.

Gerg profile image

Gerg 4 years ago from California Author

Don't forget, Klara, my hubs are my self-therapy, so it 9 and 10 don't relate to you, f@#$ them; just eat up #'s 1-8! Seriously, though, the world's full of fatalists (ie "it'll never work..."). I just don't think you're one of them. For your ongoing encouragement, thank you!


klarawieck 4 years ago

I wouldn't consider myself a fatalist, but I see so many people in denial, trying to paint a brick wall with a coat of white paint so they can pretend its made of marble! If I see a lost cause, I don't even bother. So that's why I wasn't sure about that one. And the excuses... well... I've got a whole repertoire as to why I don't keep up with my daily exercise as I should. But I know I nailed #8. I'm as authentic as anyone could be.

Gerg profile image

Gerg 4 years ago from California Author

Ain't that the truth re denial. And I agree - you have that one down!

Lleroi profile image

Lleroi 2 years ago from Sacramento, California

This is exactly the type of message I hope to convey. Well done sir and continue.

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