The habits of truly original people

SpaceX aunches cargo capsule
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon supply ship lifts off from the launch pad on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. SpaceX founder Elon Musk said he never thought the company would actually be able to launch a rocket.
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Truly original ideas are often turned down.

"You wanna do what?"

"How would that even work?"

"What are you thinking?"

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The people profiled in Adam Grant's new book, "Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World," heard all of those things — and they went forward anyway. Electric cars, iPhones, "Seinfeld" — these groundbreaking ideas came from people who carried their original ideas through the noise of "no."

'Originals' by Adam Grant
'Originals' by Adam Grant
Courtesy of Viking

If it had been up to the original test audiences and NBC executives, "Seinfeld" never would have hit the air. It was too new, too strange, too unlike what else was on the TV.

Grant's book attempts to crack the code on the brilliant brains that have changed culture, science and technology.

"We look at these people who have driven creativity and change in the world ... and we think they're cut from a different cloth from the rest of us," Grant told MPR News host Kerri Miller. "We love to celebrate them, we look at them like heroes. Part of that allows us to say: 'They're different from me. I don't have to be one of those people.'"

"Originals" offers insights into how we could be one of the people, though, if we wanted to. Grant shared some of the habits and mindsets of "the truly original."


Original people don't actually love risk

It can be easy to think of influential people as fearless pioneers, but Grant said that wasn't the case.

"I've been stunned to discover the original people in the world are not who I thought they were at all," he said. "They actually hate taking risks. They're risk averse. They're more cautious than the rest of us. They're constantly feeling the same kinds of doubts and fears that the rest of us do; they're more ordinary than we realize."

What original people are actually afraid of

"When I was talking to Elon Musk, I asked him about his early experience starting Tesla and SpaceX, and he said: 'I didn't expect Tesla to succeed when I came in as a CEO. And I didn't think at SpaceX we could even get a ship into orbit, let alone back.'"

"I asked him: 'How did you have the courage to start it anyway?' He said: 'It was too important not to try.'"

"That exemplifies what a lot of original people do: They're afraid of failure, just like the rest of us are, but they're even more afraid of failing to try. They know that, in the moment, you might be worried about looking stupid or embarrassing yourself. But they say: 'You can fail by starting a business that goes bankrupt, but you can also fail by never trying to start a business at all.'"

"They realize, in the long run, the biggest regrets we have are not actions, but inactions. We wish we could do over the chances we didn't take — and they don't want to live lives of regret."

Seinfeld: The Apartment Fan Experience
"Seinfeld," which went on to become one of the most critically-acclaimed and beloved comedies of all time, almost never aired.
Tommaso Boddi | Getty Images

Grant shared an idea he picked up from Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of "Eat Pray Love." For people who say "I'm not creative," Gilbert suggests replacing the word "creative" with "curious."

"Would you ever say the sentence 'I'm not curious'?" Grant asked. "No. You can always find something to be interested in, and curiosity is the spark of originality."

Be confident in your ability to learn

Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, shared a piece of advice with Grant for the book.

"He said, 'It's very hard when you go into starting something new ... you don't have this extraordinary amount of self-confidence. The only thing you can have is confidence in yourself as a learner. To say, because I'm curious and because I'm motivated, I will try to get better tomorrow and I believe I can improve.'"

How parents can nurture originality — and how they can't

"Parents are drilling their kids to be high achievers. They want child prodigies, they want their kids to win the spelling bee," Grant, who is a parent himself, said. "What you see is they're doing a huge amount of narrow focus practice. Six hours a day at ballet, or five hours a day at the violin."

"Practice makes perfect, but it doesn't make new. You get really good at mastering things that people already know how to do, but you never learn to think for yourself. You see this very clearly with child prodigies who rarely grow up to become adult geniuses."

"I think what we need to do as parents is, we need to do a better job helping our kids focus not on following rules, but rather on living a set of values that are important to them. One of those values ought to be challenging convention and not always conforming."

Being passionate about the impact can make the difference

Trying to create an original idea to get ahead at work or boost personal gain may not be enough, Grant said. People who "were really passionate about how the art they were creating or the product they were making would benefit other people — that actually boosted their creativity."

"As they thought about having an impact and making a contribution, they were much more likely to do perspective taking, and imagine 'How is my audience going to react to this?' That helped them bet on the most useful or appropriate of their novel ideas."

Warby Parker Opens First West Coast Store At The S
Eyewear company Warby Parker started online but recently opened physical stores. The founders came to author Adam Grant with their idea, but he turned down the opportunity to invest.
Michael Buckner | Getty Images

On the great idea that Adam Grant didn't pursue

When a student approached Grant with an idea for a business that sold glasses online, Grant didn't bite. "I was like: 'Who would ever order glasses online?'" Grant said. That student was Neil Blumenthal, one of the four founders of Warby Parker.

"They gave me the chance to invest in the company. I declined, which is why my wife is in charge of all our investments now," Grant joked.

Playing it safe can help launch original ideas

Using Warby Parker as an example, Grant explained that people who dive headfirst into an idea risk rushing the execution. Even though the tale of college drop-outs earning millions with their start-ups is alluring, the four students behind Warby Parker took their time. They finished college and even had full-time jobs lined up in case the business didn't succeed.

"Because they had a back-up plan, because they knew they had a safety net, they were able to spend six months just working on the name of the company," Grant said. "They tested over 2,000 name possibilities before they finally stumbled on Warby Parker as the winner. I think there were a lot of cases in their company where that caution allowed them to say, 'We're not going to rush in, we're going to be patient.'"

How "The Lion King" almost never was

"Creativity, at the end of the day, is about putting old things in new combinations or new things in old combinations," Grant said.

"My favorite example of this was at Disney. Years ago, they decided they wanted to make their first animated movie based on an original script, as opposed to just adapting a time-honored fairy tale." When the script was finished though, "nobody understood it." Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was in charge of the motion picture unit, said it was a B-movie at best. He didn't think they should make it. In a meeting where they were trying to salvage the project, "a producer from the back of the room says: 'This is Hamlet.' All of a sudden it clicks, the movie gets the green light, and 'The Lion King' becomes the most successful movie of 1994."

"The funny thing is, the original pitch for 'The Lion King,' was 'Bambi, in Africa, with lions.' Who would watch that? What are the characters and the plot going to be? Once they reframe it as 'Hamlet' with lions, all of a sudden people say: Of course, the uncle's going to kill the father and the son will avenge the death."

"That's an example of old things in new combinations: We have animated movies, we have 'Hamlet,' we bring them together and 'Hamlet' with lions is a major hit. That's a key way to be original."

British singer and songwriter Elton John (L) poses
Elton John and Tim Rice won an Oscar for their original song in "The Lion King."
Dan Groshong | AFP/Getty Images

There are no new ideas

Grant introduced a little-known term: kleptonesia.

"If you're a kleptonamiac, you're someone who has accidentally stolen other people's ideas, but remember them as your own," he said. "We all do this without knowing that is happened. I don't define originality as being completely unique. I just say it's about being different and better than what came before."

Don't underestimate the power of introductions

"One of the things I was most surprised to find is that making introductions for other people is a path to creativity and innovation," Grant said. "I think all of us underestimate the power of introductions in originality."

"If it weren't for introductions, we would never have had Apple or The Beatles, because both Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and Lennon and McCartney were introduced by mutual friends who said: 'Hey, I think you'd hit it off."

"In the Jobs case, it's particularly striking. Somebody said, 'Hey, you both like computers and enjoy playing pranks on people. You should meet each other.'"

Steve Jobs at an Apple Special Event
At at an Apple event where he introduced the first iPad, Steve Jobs stands in front of a photo of his much-younger self.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images 2010

The trait that sets Nobel Prize winners apart

"If you look at Nobel Prize-winning scientists, one of the things that distinguishes them from their peers: They are more likely to have artistic hobbies," Grant said. "Nobel Prize-winners are twice as likely to play a musical instrument, they're seven times as likely to draw or paint, 12 times as likely to write fiction or poetry, and — get this — 22 times as likely as their peers to perform as actors, dancers, or, yes, magicians."

"Part of that is just curiosity — people who interested in a lot of things express that in the sciences and in the arts, but there's also a case to be made that training as an artist can make you a better scientist."

On the gender imbalance in the acceptance of ideas

"A few years ago, Cheryl Sandberg asked me what my data said about gender," Grant said. He went back and re-analyzed 10 years of data.

"[I] was stunned to discover that when men spoke up with a new idea, they got a pat on the back. When a woman spoke up, she was either barely heard or she was judged as too aggressive," Grant said. "Even when it was the same quality idea, these gender stereotypes — where we expect men to be ambitious and driven and women to be communal and caring — led a lot of people to be threatened by women's originality."

Grant and Sandberg wrote an op-ed about it for The New York Times: "Speaking While Female."

One of the things they suggest is that ideas be evaluated on their merit, rather than on who came up with it.

"We saw orchestras do this years ago, when they went to blind auditions where you didn't know if it was a man or a woman playing — and women were remarkably successful," Grant said. "I think the same is true in idea generation."

Why brainstorming meetings should stop

Grant said five decades of evidence points to how ineffective brainstorm meetings are. Rather than put five people in a room together, "if you had instead put those people in separate rooms to brainstorm alone, you would get more ideas and better ideas."

Brainstorming in groups fails for several reasons. "One, there's a production blocking problem: Not everyone can talk at once, so you don't hear all the ideas. Two, there's an ego threat concern, that people are afraid of looking like idiots and the ideas that they don't share are the most creative ones, usually," Grant said. "Three, it's just plain conformity: An idea becomes popular in the room and everyone jumps on the bandwagon as opposed to doing divergent thinking."

"What you want to do is an alternative technique which is called brainwriting: Everyone generates ideas independently," Grant said. The ideas are then compiled and "the group comes together to what it does best, which is to evaluate the ideas and determine which ones to pursue."

The mistake you're making with your new ideas

"One of the mistakes that a lot of people make is that when you have a new idea, we go to our most agreeable friends and colleagues. They're nice, they're friendly, they're warm, supportive, and we know they're going to cheerlead for us," Grant said. "The problem is: Agreeable people hate conflict. They'll be really enthusiastic in that conversation, but then they're not that excited to rock the boat and support our ideas."

"The disagreeable people in our lives — who tend to be more critical, skeptical and challenging — are much more likely to tear the idea part, and they'll do it in service of trying to make the idea better. After that, if we can convince them, they will be our most loyal advocates."

For the full discussion on originality with Adam Grant, use the audio player above.

Originals Originals