By: Adam Grant
39 MINUTE AUDIO / 5,500 WORDS (22 PAGES)
Originals—the non-conformists who change the world—are not just bold risk-takers who leap into the unknown. In fact, everyone can make an impact and challenge the status quo—in their workplace, their communities, or the wider world. The key is learning how to recognize and develop new ideas; how to persuade others; and how to manage the risks.
You don’t have to be born creative to be an original; in fact, you’re more likely to be someone who produces a lot of projects and ideas and takes the time to spot the one worth championing. Procrastination, caution, and balancing risks actually help to unleash originality.
And once you have a great idea, there are steps you can follow to make sure that you pitch your idea to the right people, at the right time. You can unleash and sustain originality at home and at work, learn the best ways to encourage originality in your children, and discover how to create a culture of originality in your company.
Originals are the ones who reject the default option, produce a lot of work, and take the time to recognize the original idea. They take a balanced approach to risk that leaves them free to think outside the box. They are open to new ideas, probably nurturing this with an involvement in the arts. Originals take the time to build their status so that they can persuade others; and they don’t shy from laying out the negatives of their idea up front. In some situations, it can be beneficial to be the pioneer, the first in a new market or territory; but often, it is better in the long run to be a settler, learning from others’ mistakes to create something even better. Procrastination can unleash the truly original idea, and experimental innovators get better with time. Originals learn to temper their radicalism to build coalitions of allies. As children, originals were likely later born, with parents who used reason to disciple. It is possible to build an organizational culture that encourages original thinking. And, when the going gets tough, defensive pessimism and deep acting can keep us moving forward.
Going against the grain
There are two routes to achievement—conformity and originality. Of course, nothing is completely original; we are all constantly borrowing ideas and thoughts, intentionally or not. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality.
Reject the default option
Why do some customer service agents stay in their jobs longer than others? Economist Michael Housman tried to find out by looking at data from over 30,000 employees who handled customer service phone calls across a range of industries. The one surprising correlation he found was that employees who used Firefox or Chrome as their internet browser remained in their jobs 15% longer than those who used Explorer or Safari. Further digging revealed the reason why: Explorer is the default browser for Windows, and Safari is the default for Mac users. Employees who accept the default browser treat their jobs the same way, accepting the job descriptions as fixed. When they are unhappy at work, they quit. But, employees who use Firefox or Chrome have taken the initiative to download a different browser. They tend to be more resourceful at work, looking for ways to do things better; and as a result, they stay in the job longer.
The hallmark of originality is this: don’t accept the default option. Explore whether something better exists. The starting point for this exploration is curiosity—why does the default exist? All of the rules and systems in our world were created by people. Which means that people can change them.
Child prodigies and risk takers
We tend to assume that the people who change the world were either child prodigies from an early age, or bold risk takers who were not afraid to pursue their dreams. Both assumptions are wrong.
Child prodigies are rarely the ones who go on to change the world. They don’t learn to be original and only a fraction of them go on to become revolutionary adult creators. They are hindered by achievement motivation—a phenomenal drive to succeed that ends up crowding out originality. Their fear of failure is so great that it prevents them from pursuing new ideas.
Nor does originality require extreme risk taking. Studies of entrepreneurs show that those who were more cautious, staying in their day jobs while pursuing their new idea on the side, had 33% LOWER odds of failure than those who quit their day jobs to focus on the new venture full time. If you have some doubts about what you are doing, you are more likely to build a business venture that will last. Phil Knight, founder of Nike, started selling shoes out of the trunk of his car in 1964 but kept his day job as an accountant until 1969.
The key here is having a balanced risk portfolio: having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another. When we cover our bases, we are freed from the pressure to pursue a half-baked idea or launch an untested business. This does not mean always aiming for the safe middle ground—it means taking extreme risks in one arena and offsetting them with extreme caution in another. When Sara Blakely came up with the idea of footless pantyhose, she invested her entire savings and worked nights and weekends to build the prototype; but she kept her full-time day-job for two years while she worked to found her company—Spanx eventually made her the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.
The most successful originals don’t leap off a cliff without looking—they tiptoe to the edge, triple-check their parachutes, and make sure there’s a safety net at the bottom, just in case.
Recognizing original ideas
The biggest barrier to originality is not idea generation, it’s idea selection. Our companies, communities, and countries are full of novel ideas—the problem is a lack of people who excel at choosing the right novel ideas. So, what are the hurdles and best practices in idea selection?
When we’ve come up with a new idea, we’re too close to it to be able to evaluate it accurately. On the one hand, we tend to be over-confident when we evaluate ourselves. On the other hand, even geniuses have trouble recognizing when they have a hit on their hands.
So, if originals can’t judge their own work, how do they maximize the odds of creating a masterpiece? Repetition! By producing a greater volume of work, the creative genius ends up with more variation and a higher chance of originality. Consider: Mozart composed more than 600 pieces of music before he died at the age of 35; Beethoven produced 650 over his lifetime; and Bach over a thousand. Each of these musicians created hundreds of pieces to generate a handful of masterworks. Einstein had 248 publications, only a handful of which (on general and special relativity) transformed physics.
For many of us, our first ideas are often the most conventional, the closest to the default setting. It’s only after we’ve ruled out the obvious choices that we have the freedom to think about more remote possibilities.
The story of Seinfeld
The first Seinfeld script was almost rejected by the studio executives. It was too unconventional. Focus groups didn’t know what to make of it, focusing on what it didn’t have: no sense of community like Cheers, no family dynamics like The Cosby Show, no relatability like ALF. Managers and test audiences are poor judges of creative ideas. They focus on reasons to reject something and stick close to the default setting. The best judges are our peers and colleagues—people with no particular investment in our ideas who are more open to seeing the potential in something unusual.
The one man who made Seinfeld happen, Rick Ludwin, didn’t even work in NBC’s comedy department—which may have been his greatest advantage. He had a background in producing segments for variety shows and comedies, so he had plenty of expertise in humor, but he wasn’t locked into the comedy-show default mindset. Once the show was accepted, he bet on writers who had the same insider-outsider status. Most came from late-night TV, so they had no problem with offbeat ideas.
Rick backed Seinfeld in particular because he watched Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David revise their concept and saw how they worked to get the execution right.
Researchers at Michigan State University found that Nobel prize winning scientists have a much higher engagement with the arts than ordinary scientists. A scientist who plays a musical instrument is twice as likely to win a Nobel relative to other scientists; someone who draws or paints is seven times as likely to win; a creative writer is 12 times more likely to win; and an amateur actor or dancer is an astonishing 22 times more likely to win a Nobel than other scientists.
Those interested in the arts—entrepreneurs, inventors, eminent scientists—have greater curiosity and aptitude. They have a personality trait called ‘openness,’ a tendency to seek out novelty and variety. It’s the trait that allowed Galileo to recognize that the patterns of light and dark that he could see on the surface of the moon through his telescope were actually mountains. Other astronomers using the weak telescopes in those days lacked Galileo’s background in painting, particularly his training in chiaroscuro, which focuses on representations of light and shade.
Speaking the truth
How can we reduce the risks of speaking up, and gain the potential benefits of doing so?
Challenging the CIA
In the early 1990s a young CIA analyst came back from a three-year assignment in Europe with a radical idea: instead of taking days or even weeks to produce paper reports, why not publish findings instantly and share them over the intelligence community’s classified internet? Carmen Medina’s ground-breaking idea was quickly shot down, slammed for being a security risk. Less than a decade after her initial failure, Medina was central to the creation of Intellipedia, an internal Wikipedia that has become a key resource for intelligence agencies. How did she do it?
After years overseas Medina has little status back in the U.S. She had not been able to prove herself to her colleagues, so they did not give her ideas any credence. If you want to influence others, you first have to earn their respect. Medina was trying to exercise power—getting a new idea accepted—without having the status to back it up.
Frustrated by her initial failure, Medina moved into a staff position and gradually worked her way into a more senior role in the area of security. When she presented her idea again, she was able to do so from a position of respect that she had earned by working within the system. She was able to present herself as being for something, as part of her mission to protect security, rather than just against the old ways of doing things.
We are more comfortable with things that we are familiar with—ideas, sounds, faces, brands, etc. Medina realized this; so, when she became the deputy director of intelligence at the CIA she got analysts familiar with the idea of sharing information online by starting a blog on the classified intranet. Gradually, she added presentations and other items that got intelligence analysts used to the idea of sharing information openly.
Speak up or leave?
When a situation isn’t working out for you, you have four choices in how to respond: exit, meaning remove yourself from the situation; voice, or actively try to change the situation; persistence, meaning stick with it; or, neglect, which entails staying put but reducing your effort.
If you feel like you’re stuck with the status quo, with no control over the situation, you may opt for neglect, because you’re not really committed to trying to effect change; but, if you believe it is worth trying to make a difference, you’ll opt for persistence. If you are convinced you can make a difference, but you’re not really committed to the organization, you’ll leave. The only time when you can and should speak up is when you believe your actions matter and you care deeply about trying to make a change.
When you do choose to speak up, your audience and your timing are both critical. It’s tempting to go for a supportive audience that you know will smile and nod, but a critical one can push you to do better. Medina ended up with a manager who was tough, but his priority was strengthening the CIA. This gave her the impetus to promote her ideas on information sharing.
The top levels of any hierarchy are expected to be different; the bottom levels tend to feel they have nothing to lose if they embrace originality. The hardest level to convince of the need for change are the middle-management levels, where there are strong incentives to choose the tried-and-true default option over the untested new idea. Medina learned to voice her ideas upward, to the top, and downward, to the lower ranks, rather than focus on pitching her ideas to middle managers.
And, of course, speaking out is harder for women and minorities. A woman who speaks up can be labelled as aggressive, not innovative. For women and minorities—and especially for women who are minorities—it is particularly important to earn status before exercising power.
As for exiting, it doesn’t change the status at the organization you leave, but it may empower you personally to move forward. Exit was not an option for Medina; she believed passionately in the purpose of her organization and in the importance of her idea. For others, however, exit may be the only path to originality.
The Sarick effect
Named after social scientist Leslie Sarick, this is the approach of selling your idea by emphasizing all the things that are wrong with it. This sounds counter-intuitive: shouldn’t you emphasize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses? In fact, when you are trying to persuade people who have more power than you, like managers and investors, there are four good reasons to accentuate the flaws in your ideas.
Disarm the audience
Instead of saying, “You need to do this!” Medina had greater success in her second attempt to pitch her idea by saying, “Maybe I’m wrong, but perhaps we should try...”
You look smart
By pointing out what you know the problems are, you show that you are not overly-confident in your ideas; you are able to shrewdly judge the negatives as well as the positives.
You look trustworthy
Describing the problems makes you come across as honest and modest. Investors are already skeptical; telling them up front what the negatives might be makes them more inclined to trust you when you go on to describe the positives.
When you lay out the negative issues up front, your manager or investor is less inclined to try to think up their own ideas about what is wrong.
Rush ahead—or wait?
When is the best time to take original action? We assume that the early bird catches the worm, but research suggests that procrastination may be your most effective tool. Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, particularly if someone isn’t all that motivated to get something done; but it is certainly a resource for creativity.
Leonardo da Vinci was a classic creative procrastinator. He started the Mona Lisa in 1503, but didn’t finish it until 1519, working on it on and off while also doing other projects. These other distractions were vital to his originality.
I have a dream
In August 1963 Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered one of the most memorable speeches of the modern era at the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C. He had been asked to speak at the event months earlier—yet he did not begin to write out his speech until after 10:00 P.M. the night before and worked on it through the night. King had been thinking about his speech for weeks, getting input from close advisors about tone and content, but waited until the last hours before finalizing what he would say.
And, by procrastinating on the final product, King was also open to improvisation. The famous “I have a dream” section was not actually part of the written speech—he improvised the whole thing, in front of a live crowd of 250,000 and with millions more watching on TV, after gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted out, during his speech, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!”
If we plan something too far in advance, we tend to stick to the structure we’ve created. And, once we decide that a thing is completed, we tend to stop thinking about it. By mulling over his speech without finalizing it, King left himself open to responding in the moment, ad-libbing parts of his speech.
King also had a wealth of material to draw upon: he had been delivering variations on this speech and its themes for over a year. Come the day, he had plenty of passages, ideas, and oratorical fragments to draw upon.
Pioneers and settlers
American culture believes strongly in the advantages of being a first mover, a pioneer who is the first to move into a new territory or market. However, pioneers often end up with a lower chance of survival—they tend to overstep and scale too fast. Settlers, on the other hand, bide their time until they’re ready to introduce something new. They focus on providing superior quality rather than trying to figure out what to offer in the first place.
The kinds of people who are late movers—settlers—may also be better suited to succeed. They are more risk averse, waiting for the right opportunity and balancing their risk portfolios. Pioneers are more likely to make impulsive decisions.
Settlers are also more likely to improve upon competitors’ technology and make something better. Pioneers tend to get stuck in their early offerings whereas settlers can observe market changes and adjust. Sometimes, being first pays off—when patented technology is involved or there are strong network effects. But in an unknown or uncertain market, there are usually disadvantages to being a pioneer.
There are parallels here with Carmen Medina’s story at the CIA. When she first voiced her idea in the early 1990s, the agency was not ready. But after a few years, electronic communication had become more secure and more familiar. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were the final push needed to convince people that the costs of failing to share information were too high to ignore.
Youth vs. age
For every young genius who peaks early, there are plenty of old masters who peaked later in life. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane when he was just 25; Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular movies came decades into his career (he was 61 when he made Psycho). The age difference comes down to conceptual innovators versus experimental innovators.
Conceptual innovators formulate a big idea and set out to execute. They are sprinters who do their best work when they are young. But, conceptual innovators can also become less original once they get entrenched in a certain way of solving problems.
Experimental innovators solve problems through trial and error, learning as they go. They are marathoners who do their best work when they are older. Experimental innovators accumulate knowledge and skills, creating a more sustainable source of originality. Leonardo da Vinci was in his early fifties when he started work on the Mona Lisa. While Martin Luther King, Jr. was only 34 when he gave his “I have a dream” speech, he had been speaking publicly about civil rights for two decades, effectively gaining the insight and wisdom of an ‘old master’ in the process.
Originals form alliances to advance their goals, and work to overcome the barriers that prevent coalitions from succeeding. Most efforts to change the status quo involve a minority challenging a majority. Coalitions are a powerful part of this effort; but they are also inherently unstable and depend on relationships among individual members.
Stone, Anthony, and Stanton
Lucy Stone was an early and influential leader in the women’s rights movement, organizing a convention in 1851 that called for women to have the right to vote and own property. Her speeches inspired Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and for years the three collaborated on the cause of women’s suffrage. However, they had begun to differ on tactics and in 1866 Anthony and Stanton partnered with a known racist, George Francis Train, who supported white women’s suffrage as a way to curb the influence of African Americans. Anthony and Stanton then opposed the Fifteenth Amendment that proposed giving African American men the right to vote.
Stone was a supporter of the abolitionist cause and spoke in favor of a continued alliance with black activists. This prompted Anthony and Stanton to split with Stone in 1869, forming a rival suffrage organization.
Ultimately, the two major wings of the suffrage movement did reunite—but only after the three dominant women had stepped away from leadership positions. The lesson here is that to build coalitions across conflict lines you don’t send in the hawks to negotiate, you send the doves.
Both organizations also needed new allies, which they found in the form of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a group focused on curbing alcoholism. Rising WCTU leader Frances Willard became a strong voice in favor of women’s suffrage, casting the vote as a way for women to protect their families from “the tyranny of drink.” She used a lot of Biblical references in her speeches, which made audiences comfortable with the radical idea of votes for women. She was the quintessential tempered radical, presenting her values (the vote) as a way for an audience to pursue their own values (temperance).
In 2011 college senior Meredith Perry came up with the idea of wirelessly charging devices using ultrasound. Her professors and various ultrasonic engineers all said it couldn’t be done. This is the classic case of an original trying to overcome the skepticism of potential key stakeholders.
Eventually Perry stopped telling the experts what she was trying to create—a transducer to send power over the air— and instead asked for interim steps. She persuaded acoustics experts to design a transmitter, others to design a receiver, and an electrical engineer to build the electronics. She tempered the radicalism of her idea by obscuring its most extreme feature.
The power of familiarity
In the early 1990s a group of writers at Disney were trying to create something new, an animated movie based on an original concept (rather than well-known fairy tales such as Cinderella or Snow White). They were struggling with the idea of Bambi but in Africa with lions—Disney executives didn’t understand the idea until producer Maureen Donley said, “This is Hamlet!”
Suddenly everyone in the room understood where the movie was coming from. The Lion King went on to be the highest grossing film of 1994, winning two Oscars and a Golden Globe. Had the writers started with Hamlet they would have ended up with an animated Shakespeare knockoff. Instead, they started with a novel template then came up with a familiar concept that gave everyone a single point of reference.
Why do some baseball players steal more bases than others? One study revealed a surprising fact: birth order is a big determining factor. Younger brothers are 10.6 times more likely to attempt to steal base than their older siblings. It comes down to a propensity to take risks.
Firstborns vs. laterborns
In the realm of sports there are marked differences between firstborns and those born later in the family hierarchy. Laterborns are more likely to take part in risky, high-injury sports like rugby, ice hockey, and gymnastics; firstborns tend to go for safer options like golf, track, and crew. The same pattern holds in science and politics. Laterborns are readier to embrace radical new ideas, even later in their own lives.
Experts have long touted the advantage of being the firstborn—they are more likely to win Nobel prizes, get elected to Congress, or become CEO of a major corporation. On the other hand, laterborns are more likely to switch jobs sooner and more often and so rise faster in the salary rankings. Hundreds of studies have reached the same conclusion: firstborns tend to be more dominant, conscientious, and ambitious; laterborns tend to be more open to taking risks and embracing original ideas.
Laterborns quickly learn to stand out by being different; they also tend to face less strict discipline from their parents than firstborns. As a result, they are more apt to take risks.
The role of reason
Aside from birth order, there is also a notable difference in the way highly creative people report having been disciplined as a child. Parents who emphasize moral values, rather than absolute rules, and who explain the reason for a particular rule, are actually encouraging their children to comply voluntarily. They also tend to encourage their children to consider the impact of their actions on others.
Another key parenting tactic that encourages creative children is to praise their character: saying, “you are a very helpful person,” rather than “that was a nice thing to do;” or, “please don’t be a cheater,” rather than “please don’t cheat.” Children internalize these comments and make them a part of their self-identity.
What really causes groupthink, and what can we do to prevent it?
The problem with Polaroid
Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, was an original who is remembered for inventing the instant camera. Unfortunately, he did not instill those original attributes in his company; Polaroid pioneered the digital camera, but ultimately went bankrupt because of it. Land and his senior managers made the fatal assumption that customers would always want hard copies of their pictures; in a classic case of groupthink, no-one questioned this assumption. Company founders tend to follow one of three organizational models or blueprints:
They hire candidates with specific skills.
They look for future potential rather than current skills, hiring the brightest people.
They focus on cultural fit before all else, looking for people who match the company’s values and norms. Companies with commitment blueprints work to build strong emotional bonds among employees and to the organization.
Sociologist James Barron studied firms across the three blueprint types and found that those with a commitment blueprint had the highest success rate. Failure rates were much higher for star blueprint firms and highest of all for professional ones.
In its early days, Polaroid embodied the commitment blueprint, with core values of intensity, originality, and quality, and hiring a diverse workforce. Over time, however, commitment cultures become too insular. In a more competitive marketplace they are less likely to recognize the need for change. As the digital revolution began, Polaroid’s dominant culture had made it overly-confident in its analysis. The company was unable to recognize the need to change.
One of the strongest corporate cultures around is that of investment firm Bridgewater Associates. Its philosophy is outlined in a set of over 200 principles written by the founder, Ray Dalio. New employees are hired based on how well they fit with the way of operating described in the principles.
Despite being a part of the volatile financial services industry, Bridgewater has thrived; it is consistently praised for its innovative strategies. Its secret is promoting the expression of original ideas. The company avoids the stagnation of groupthink by inviting dissenting opinions. Every employee is expected to voice concerns and critiques directly to each other; they are evaluated on whether they speak up. They are even expected to challenge the core principles. Dalio wants people who think independently and so enrich the culture. Decisions are not based on seniority, as at Polaroid, but on quality.
This is not the same as assigning a devil’s advocate, someone who’s role is to voice dissent on an idea. Managers tend to pay only lip service to assigned devil’s advocates—genuine dissenters are much more valuable. Bridgewater goes out of its way to find dissenters and encourages people to sit down and thrash out their disagreements. Dalio says the resulting cacophony is the best way for people to learn; the transparency avoids groupthink. Rather than espouse the standard management line of “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions,” Bridgewater encourages employees to raise problems. Then, everyone can figure out what the best solution is.
Not everyone’s opinion is rated equally—Bridgewater is not a democracy. Instead, every employee has a believability score on a range of dimensions of values, skills, and abilities. When you express an opinion, it’s weighted by whether you’ve established yourself as believable on that dimension.
Dalio’s number one principle is, “you must think for yourself.” The Bridgewater culture helps to unleash originality in others.
How to keep going
Going against the grain involves a lot of emotional drama. How do we recognize that, and make it work for us?
Faced with challenges, people take one of two approaches. A strategic optimist will stay calm, anticipate the best, and set high expectations. A defensive pessimist will feel anxious, expect the worst, and imagine everything that might go wrong. Interestingly, pessimism can help to manage fear and anxiety—by imagining the worst, the defensive pessimist is motivated to avoid it. The fear turns into commitment. The anxiety peaks before the event, leaving them ready to succeed.
One of the universal fears is public speaking—and the usual advice to someone about to speak on stage is, “try to relax and stay calm.” The best advice, however, is to get the speaker to reframe the fear as excitement. Fear is an intense emotion; rather than try to suppress it, convert it into another intense emotion.
If you want to inspire people to go out on a limb, you need to show them that they are not alone. This was a tactic developed by Srdja Popovic, one of the masterminds behind Otpor!, the grassroots youth nonviolence movement that overthrew the dictator Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. Popovic realized that true revolution is not a sudden explosion but a long, controlled burn. The movement focused on accumulating small wins that people could look back on and get a sense of progress, which helped to build their commitment.
When they launched Otpor!, the young activists knew they needed to outsource inspiration, creating a symbol—a black clenched fist—that they spray painted across the capital, Belgrade. Seeing the symbol let those who opposed the regime know that they were not alone. They also used humor to attract allies and subvert enemies, such as sending Milosevic birthday presents like a one-way ticket to the Hague to be tried for war crimes. Humor is a great way to defuse the fear of speaking up.
When people think a challenge is particularly risky, they are not going to be motivated to act if you highlight the benefits of change. In this case, the best way to motivate them is to destabilize the status quo and emphasize all the bad things that will happen if they don’t act. Remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech? He spent the first 11 minutes stressing all the negative things about the status quo, before delivering the hope for change. He laid out the fierce urgency of now then turned to what could be. His audience needed to see the nightmare of today before they could be moved by his dream of tomorrow.
Anger can help to motivate us but taken too far it can make us less effective. Venting might make us feel better in the near-term, but it also stokes the anger and makes us more aggressive—toward everyone. A central theme of the civil rights movement was to stop venting and to channel anger into reflecting on the victims of the injustice. It’s a way of staying both hot and cold—hot to fuel the change, and simultaneously cool to figure out how to shape the action.
If you’re feeling an intense emotion like anger, you can put on a mask and pretend you’re not upset, but this is surface acting. Much more effective is to employ deep acting—changing your inner feelings to actually become the character you want to be. It is what actors call method acting. You have to dissolve the divide between your true self and the role you are playing. Martin Luther King, Jr. did this by calling attention to the victims of violence and injustice, channeling the emotion into anger for others, rather than against the oppressor. Being angry for others makes us want to help, to seek justice, to create a better system rather than just punish and destroy.
Originals embrace this uphill battle for change, striving to make the world what it could be.