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Being an Original: The Key to Unlocking Creative Thinking

It’s pretty rare to pick up a book, and then find yourself texting both friends and acquaintances to order it before you’ve hit page 30. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, the latest offering from Wharton professor and New York Times bestseller Adam Grant, is one of those books—relevant to almost everyone, and fascinating to all. Packed with compelling studies and anecdotes, Grant touches on everything from why child prodigies generally fail to make it big later in life to why procrastinators often come up with the best ideas. Ultimately, it’s a survey on tapping into the intangible and elusive vein of original thinking—and ways to foster and shepherd those sometimes groundbreaking ideas into the world. Below, he answers some of our questions.

A Q&A with Adam Grant

Q

How do you define originality?

A

It’s about closing the gap from creativity to change. Original people have new ideas, but they also take initiative to make their visions a reality. Of course, it’s all relative—what’s fresh in one domain is old hat in another, and what’s original today can quickly become yesterday’s news. Which is why I would like to see a 5-year moratorium on iPhone apps.

Q

One of the immediate—and most reassuring—revelations in the book is that successful entrepreneurship isn’t paired with taking risks. Can you explain a bit why this is the case, and how it manifests? What would your advice be to a working mom, for example, who is interested in starting her own thing but doesn’t feel like she can jump in with both feet?

A

When Sara Blakely had the idea for footless pantyhose, she didn’t walk away from her job. For two years, she sold fax machines by day and worked on Spanx in her spare time, until she finally perfected and patented her prototype. Then she became America’s youngest self-made billionaire. She’s not alone: eBay, Minecraft, Google, and Nike all started as hobbies. The evidence actually shows that founders who play it safe by starting businesses on the side are 33% less likely to fail than entrepreneurs who quit their full-time jobs. So what are you waiting for? Just promise me that whatever you do, you won’t make an app.

Q

This was another wild revelation in the book: That child prodigies rarely go on to change the world, and that the least likely kids to be the teacher’s pet are the most creative. What do you think the ingredients are—in childhood in particular—that foster out-of-the-box thinking?

A

Creativity is hard to nurture but easy to thwart. Kids need the freedom to explore, invent, tinker, and create. One practical step is to invite them to imagine the world through the eyes of their fictional role models. For example, if Hermione Granger were going to invent a game, what would it be? What kind of picture do you think Spider-Man would draw? (Adam Grant just wrote an op-ed for The New York Times on “why practice makes perfect but never new.”)

Q

The look into later-borns and their tendency to take risks was also fascinating—how can you promote great risk-taking and original thinking in all of your kids, regardless of birth order? What do you think it is that really sparks creativity?

A

I was fascinated by comedians—to make people laugh, they have to take risks and come up with original jokes. So I looked at Comedy Central’s list of the 100 greatest stand-up comedians, and they were more than twice as likely to be born last as first in their families. The odds of that happening by chance are two in a million, and I think we can learn two things from it. First, encourage children to find unique ways to express themselves. It’s hard to be smarter or stronger than your older siblings, so later-borns often try to stand out by taking risks and coming up with new ideas. We can help all our kids do that by involving them in creative activities. Second, give children the freedom to take some risks. We tend to be strict with firstborns and more relaxed with later children. As Jim Gaffigan quipped, “When you’re the youngest of a big family, by the time you’re a teenager, your parents are insane.” We can probably all do a better job letting kids break some rules, or at least invent some of their own rules.

Q

Selling people on your ideas—whether it’s a seedling of a thought that you want to become a business, or a better way of doing something within an organization—is another tricky minefield. You offer a lot of interesting insight and advice. Care to share a few points?

A

The more original your idea is, the harder it is for people to appreciate and accept it. Here are a few ways to overcome that barrier:

1. Make the idea more familiar. One of my favorite stories in the book was about The Lion King, which was sitting on the cutting room floor at Disney pitched as “Bambi in Africa with lions.” People couldn’t get their minds around it until someone asked, “Could this be Hamlet?” Boom: the script makes sense. The uncle kills the father, the son avenges him. With that in mind, look at the similarities between your new idea and what already exists, and draw the connection for people. This is why lots of startups are pitching themselves as “Uber for X.”

2. Openly acknowledge the limitations of the idea. That way, you show that you’re honest and self-critical—and you make it harder for your audience to come up with their own objections.

3. Seek feedback from disagreeable people. Most of us make the mistake of only asking friendly, nice people for input. They’re less likely to challenge us, and because they like to please others, they’re also less likely to go to bat for us. Find a few people who are critical and skeptical by nature, and ask them to tear your idea apart. The tough love will be valuable, and if you can get their support, they won’t be afraid to rock the boat on your behalf.

Q

You also explore the idea of groupthink—can you explain what that is, and why it’s problematic?

A

Groupthink is every team’s nightmare. It’s when people seek consensus and conform to the majority opinion instead of raising dissenting views. It’s a great way to make terrible decisions and shut down the most creative people in your group. And it’s responsible for the Challenger explosion, the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, and the bankruptcy of Polaroid. In all of these cases, people went along with the majority when a silent minority was right. They chose to launch a shuttle despite an engineer arguing that it was too risky in the cold, infiltrate Cuba against the advice of a key expert, and stick with hard copies of photos even though a few insiders saw that digital was the future.

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