When is Being an “Outlier” Worth the Risk?

Neal Gabler’s piercing essay “The iron law that’s choking creativity” in the Los Angeles Times (Calendar, 6/3/12) uses the cautionary tale of David Puttnam, British producer of memorable and successful films (including The Killing Fields, The Mission and Chariots of Fire), whose rise and fall in the Hollywood film industry illustrates the risks one faces, not just in filmmaking but in our society, when stepping off the conventional path. Gabler has come up with “Puttnam’s Law,” which basically states that society finds it more acceptable (i.e. forgivable) for a person to fail conventionally than to pursue new/better/smarter ideas in unconventional ways. Unfortunately, Puttnam’s Law prevents people from trying new things, even when they know the old way doesn’t work anymore.  The sad reason:  “The reward for succeeding in unconventional ways is less than the risk of failing in unconventional ways.”

David Puttnam with Oscar for "Chariots of Fire"

I encourage you to read his stirring essay, which inspired me to sit down and write a letter to the Calendar section (published in Sunday’s print edition, 6/10/12).  I have pasted it in below.  Gabler made me realize how the valuable lessons I had learned from filmmaking helped embolden me to think beyond the conventional middle school structure (which I had concluded was often insensitive to children’s developmental and scholarly needs).  When our family decided to “skip middle school” and  homeschool for two years, some questioned our judgement.  One parent told us we were ruining Natalie’s chances of getting into a competitive high school. Another parent told us she thought Natalie already spent too much time with us.  In those moments of feeling ostracized (as Gabler promises will happen), I was glad I had already had practice being an “outlier” (as Gabler calls the act of not acting like everyone else).  It gave us the courage to embark on the best adventure of our lives, instead of “retreating from what seemed daring, exciting or different because what would the other kids think if we didn’t all do what they were doing?”

An excellent film to watch about the 1924 Olympics

The link to Neal Gabler’s essay:

My letter to the LA Times:

Dear Editors:  Neal Gabler’s essay on “Puttnam’s Law” (“The iron law that’s choking creativity”) is one the most penetrating pieces I’ve read all year.  I was an MFA student in film production at UCLA when David Puttnam was placed in charge of production at Columbia.  I was thrilled; not just because I loved the films he had produced, but also because I was encouraged to see that a studio was brave enough to welcome a change-maker.  But in the end, as Gabler points out, it wasn’t.  By then, I realized that the only chance one could express an independent voice or vision was by joining forces with other outliers.  Luckily, I found support at Film Arts Foundation and New Day Films ( the still strong distribution cooperative where one can find numerous examples of daring thinking.

But what makes Gabler’s essay most provocative is that it reaches beyond the limited realm of the film world. In September 2009, our family (including my UCLA professor husband, 12-year-old daughter, and I) became education outliers.  Knowing what we knew about the flawed thinking behind standardized testing, hours of homework, and non-nurturing middle schools, we decided to “skip middle school” and home school our daughter for two years.  As Gabler warns about peer pressure, some ostracized us.  In those moments, I was glad for the practice I had as a filmmaking outlier, or should I say a Tocquevillian?

Note:  Gabler quotes Tocqueville in his essay.  I asked myself at the start of our learning adventure if it was possible to rediscover a sense of balance and love of learning in a society that Tocqueville described as “at once agitated and monotonous.”


  • Andy McEwan

    Well, Pamela, the answer to the question posed by the title of your post has to be – Always. I often think that being in the mass, the crowd, the herd means you can’t see far, your vision is drastically restricted. It is the “outliers”, those on the margins who can see farthest, see clearest and so see the bigger picture. Keep out there on edge!

    • TwointheMiddle

      Yes, that’s a neat way to put it, for once one steps out once and sees the amazing view, one never wants to be stuck in a spot where hardly anything is visible. Seeing the big picture is too gratifying. An obituary in today’s NY Times for Elinor Ostrom, Winner of Nobel Prize in Economics, notes her ground-breaking “outsider perspective.” Her unconventional ideas might actually help solve some problems. Although being on the edge “made it difficult for her to find a foothold in academia,” she didn’t allow that to deter her. She kept moving forward.

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