8 ways you can become a Positive Deviant

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In Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, physician Atul Gawande describes a talk he made to medical students addressing the topic, “How do I really matter?” He decided to offer “five suggestions for how one might make a worthy difference, for how one might become, in other words, a positive deviant.”

(In yesterday’s post I defined positive deviants as individuals who with the same resources available to their peers achieved more favorable outcomes. They do so through identifiable behaviors that distinguish their performance from that of others.)

In his talk Gawande suggested:

Ask an unscripted question. “You don’t have to come up with a deeper important question, just one that lets you make a human connection,” he wrote.

Don’t complain. “[N]othing in medicine is more dispiriting than hearing doctors complain.”

Count something. “It doesn’t really matter what you count… The only requirement is that whatever you count should be interesting to you.”

Write something.

Change. “[M]ake yourself an early adopter,” Gawande recommended. “Look for the opportunity to change…. Be willing to recognize the inadequacies in what you do and to seek out solutions. As successful as medicine is, it remains replete with uncertainties and failure.”

Gawande’s suggestions lead me to think more deeply about the behaviors of school leaders whom I have viewed as Positive Deviants.

I concluded that they possessed one or more of the following habits:

1. Writing to gain clarity and to communicate;

2. “Counting” things to improve their performance (most things that count can be measured, even if only in rudimentary ways);

3. Reading widely in search of new ideas, perspectives, and inspiration;

4. Continuously seeking more effective and efficient ways to do things;

5. Engaging the support of others when challenged by stretching goals or demanding circumstances;

6. Persisting over many months and even years to achieve important goals because the values represented by those goals were so important;

7. Seeing things in unique ways that were in opposition to accepted wisdom or common practice; and

8. Assuming that important problems can be solved, and that working alone or in collaboration with others they would contribute to their solutions.

What behaviors would you add to this list?

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4 Responses to “8 ways you can become a Positive Deviant”


  1. 1 barbarawmadden March 20, 2013 at 8:03 am

    Dennis, as usual you have hit a well-tuned note with me. I may not hit on each of the eight steps every day, but they are a part of my core ebb and flow. 🙂

  2. 3 barbarawmadden March 20, 2013 at 8:08 am

    Reblogged this on that MADDENing teacher and commented:
    How to be the best Positive Deviant possible


  1. 1 Better: Performance and Change Through Positive Deviance Trackback on December 21, 2014 at 3:12 pm

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