10/02/2012 04:28 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

An Education in Creative Courage

Most conferences have a topic or theme, but the WWW conference, held a couple of weeks ago at the ESRI headquarters in Redlands, California, focused on something else: what it takes to become an "outlier," to use Malcolm Gladwell's term, and have a transformative effect on our understanding of the world. Gladwell, in his book Outliers, argued that accomplished people not only have innate talent, but also a willingness to work hard (the 10,000 hours he sees as required to achieve proficiency) and a supportive familial or social setting. However, as I listened to the accomplished people that Richard Saul Wurman, the impresario founder of the TED conferences, gathered in Redlands, I wondered if outliers also have something else, a character trait I'll call creative courage.

This wasn't the avowed focus of the WWW conference, which had the title "intellectual jazz." It felt instead like a highbrow talk-show program, in which Wurman participated in a series of divergent conversations, each roughly 40 minutes in length, among two or more people, all of whom represented some the most important contributors to their fields. Wurman tried to elicit themes - beauty, nature, violence - from the conversations, but the character of the people he had assembled more than compensated for the conference's lack of coherence.

His guests included musicians (Yo-Yo Ma, Herbie Hancock,, biologists (E.O.Wilson, Craig Venter, Geoffrey West), computational innovators (Jack Dangermond, Danny Hillis, Stephen Wolfram), designers (Frank Gehry, Moshe Safdie, John Maeda, Todd Oldham), and members of the media (David Brooks, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Norman Lear). And all of them seemed to share one trait: the relentless pursuit of a big idea or passion, regardless of what their colleagues or critics thought.

We often associate such single-minded passion with artists, and those at the conference did not disappoint. The musicians Ma, Cristina Pato, and Mike Block mixed musical genres to great effect, including a spontaneous pop, classical, and rap performance with And architects Gehry and Safdie reflected on their fascination with the ineffable - with the dynamics of wind-blown motion in Gehry's case or the effects of unseen forms and forces in Safdie's - that has led them to design some of the most compelling buildings of our time.

But several of the scientists at the conference have ventured even further from conventional thought. Intersecting physics and biology, West has discovered a constant relationship between the mass and metabolism of all living things that may be the 21st century equivalent of Einstein's insights into the relationship between energy and matter a little over 100 years ago. Mixing cognitive science and evolutionary psychology, Steven Pinker argued that, despite the apparent increase in bloodshed around the globe, human violence has decreased in recent centuries, which among things raises questions about how accurate a picture of reality we get from the media. And overlaying computer science with landscape architecture, Dangermond has developed ways of mapping data that reveals geographical patterns and relationships that have long remain hidden. Like so many of the speakers at the conference, they have each combined divergent fields to come up with unconventional insights or innovations that have literally changed how we see the world.

Such creative courage can sometimes make us uncomfortable. Wolfram's query at the conference - "Is the whole universe reducible to a few lines of (computer) code" - sounded reductionist to the extreme, and yet his work also begs the question of whether the fear of over simplification that his work engenders is really a fear of what we don't yet understand. Likewise, Venter's discussion of how we can now computationally design new organisms by modifying their genetic information seemed like so much science fiction, but such fictions, however frightening at first, have had a history of coming true.

What I found most surprising about the WWW conference was the accessibility and even the ordinariness of these extraordinary outliers. I mean that not as a put down, but to make the point that many people have the potential to make contributions as important as the conference speakers. Which takes me back to Gladwell. While he rightly debunked the popular myth that only a few, innately talented people can ever achieve greatness, Gladwell's emphasis on having a supportive social setting also makes it seem as if real accomplishment lies beyond an individual's control. At the same time, Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule tends to conflate hard work with brilliance, and proficiency in a field with its transformation.

As the speakers at the WWW conference amply demonstrated, outliers do need talent, hard work, and at least one supportive person in their lives. But without the creative urge to imagine something new and without the courage to pursue that against all odds, we would have a world of very proficient people, all good at doing what we already know how to do. Unlike innate talent or a supportive family, however, we can teach creativity and courage, instilling in students character traits that can increase their chances of great accomplishment. Not that our educational system recognizes this. We have become so focused on leaving no child behind and so wary of talking about character, lest it sound prejudicial, that the very traits we will need to thrive in the future, to transform our lives for the better, hardly ever gets mentioned, let alone taught, in our schools.

So see the WWW Conference as an educational wake-up call. School should be about equipping students not just with the skills, but also with the self-confidence to pursue their passions, regardless of what others may think. And it should be about learning not just what we already know, but also with imagining what we haven't yet imagined possible. We can create many more outliers, more visionary innovators, if we choose. And we can start by thinking about education more like Wurman: as "intellectual jazz."

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.