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Misfits and Innovators

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean“It’s better to be a pirate than to join the navy.” Steve Jobs

According to some writers and research, some of the “big names” of creativity and innovation share personal qualities with various sorts of “misfits.”

In her Forbes magazine article, writer Erica Swallow refers to the book “The Innovator’s DNA” which lists several “disruptive innovators” including a number of creative and business leaders such as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Meg Whitman (eBay) and Sharon Aby (Beyond Ideas).

She writes that they think and behave differently, and “possess a suite of skills that enable them to connect dots that the rest of us don’t usually perceive.”

From my article Using The Skills of Disruptive Innovators.

In their interview titled “The Creative Power of Misfits” for The Truth About Creativity conference hosted by David Burkus, authors Kyra Maya Phillips and Alexa Clay talk about research for their upcoming book “The Misfit Economy.”

They include the Steve Jobs quote in an article and recall visiting a friend at a new Silicon Valley startup company:

“It didn’t take long for us to spot the first pirate flag – the skull and bones that characterise the renegade attitude inherent in Silicon Valley’s tech disruptors.

“This rebel spirit has since trickled into the rest of Silicon Valley. Mark Zuckerberg has continued the spirit with his own rebellious maxim: ‘Move fast and break things.’ Silicon Valley – and its disruptors – run on rebellion, a low regard for risk, and phenomenal innovation. The pirates of Somalia happen to use the same exact recipe.”

From A buccaneering spirit is not piracy’s only gift to business (originally appeared in Wired Magazine, September 2012).

Violent gun-toting pirates as depicted in the Tom Hanks movie “Captain Phillips” are one thing, but the majority of misfits and lawbreakers (and don’t we all fit in that category in some way) are much less “evil” and may just be trying to get by in this confusing journey of life.

Kyra Maya Phillips and Alexa Clay; Sophia AmorusoOne example of a creative leader who was briefly an “everyday criminal” is Sophia Amoruso, author of #GIRLBOSS.

The summary of her memoir-advice book notes, “She spent her teens hitchhiking, committing petty theft, and dumpster diving.

“By twenty-two, she had resigned herself to employment, but was still broke, directionless, and working a mediocre day job she’d taken for the health insurance. It was there that Sophia decided to start selling vintage clothes on eBay…”

In her book, Amoruso comments about her shoplifting experiences, “I was twenty years old and decided that a life of crime was not for me.”

She founded clothing and accessories company Nasty Gal in 2006 at the age of 22. It had revenue close to $100 million in 2012.

Criminals and creative thinking

In another article of theirs, Kyra Maya Phillips and Alexa Clay note:

“Criminals form part of our collective imagination and are part of our origin story. For many Americans, rogue individuals were instrumental in ‘how the West was won.’ But in the present, our empathy for criminals is rarely piqued; unless, of course, we’re watching The Wire or reading about 18th century pirates (and imagining Johnny Depp).

“In every day practice, many of us hold a deep fear of criminals — of drug dealers, terrorists and “others” that pose threats to our sense of security, violate our laws and transgress against our moral frameworks.

“Many gangsters are natural born innovators with restricted economic opportunities. Nobody understands this better than Catherine (Cat) Rohr, who quit her job in private equity to become a champion for the incarcerated.”

They quote Rohr:

“I suddenly realized I was meeting entrepreneurs in prison. That these guys who had run drug businesses had all these entrepreneurial characteristics like scrappiness, charisma, and real skills in leadership and management.”

Phillips and Clay add:

“Cat launched a program called Defy Ventures, in New York, that provides a business incubator for ex-offenders who then have an opportunity to compete for $150,000 in seed capital for their businesses.”

From article The Economy of Punishment.

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Here is a short audio clip of Phillips and Clay from their video interview:

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The Truth About Creativity conference

You can hear more of “The Creative Power of Misfits” in a video excerpt at the site of The Truth About Creativity conference, which has recordings of interviews with 31 experts on creativity and innovation.


Misfits and Innovators

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2014). Misfits and Innovators. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Jun 2014
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