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Positive Deviance

October 8, 2013

I arrived a day early in Vermont where I gave a talk on “Cultivating Wellbeing in our Lives and Communities”. To orient me to Vermont, my host took me on a drive through Smugglers’ Notch, a narrow pass through the Green Mountains. Lined with 1,000-foot cliffs, the winding road is closed in winter. In earlier days, there was only a footpath and trail for horses. 

I was curious about the name.

In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson passed an embargo act forbidding American trade with Great Britain and Canada. This was a severe hardship for northern Vermonters, since Montreal was closer than other markets in the US. Many local people continued illegal trade with Canada, herding cattle and carrying other goods through the Notch. During the Prohibition years, liquor was smuggled from Canada over the improved road built in 1922.

Having spent a couple of days here now, I can attest to the creativity, resolve and tenacity of the folks here and their inclination to buck the system. Within the realm of health care, they may well be the first state to fully embrace single payer coverage. In my talk today, I spoke about the need for change and innovation – bold action! Pouring more money into the same health care system is not going to produce different results.

Perhaps what we need is more positive deviance. Positive Deviance is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges. It is an asset-based, problem-solving, and community-driven approach that enables communities to discover successful behaviors and strategies and to develop a plan of action to promote their adoption by all concerned.

This thinking is very aligned with my ideas around advancing wellbeing in communities. For more information on positive deviance, see:



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