Professional Development: Originals

How Non-Conformists Move the World

Summary by Lisa Buck

According to psychologists, there are two paths to achievement: conformity and originality. Most of us are in the first category. In Originals: How Non-Conformists Moveoriginals the World, organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant examines the habits of people in the latter category, dubbed “originals”. Originals are the creative non-conformists who see things in new ways and drive change in the workplace, their community, and the world.

Grant says that originality is not a fixed trait; we can all enhance originality in ourselves and our colleagues, thereby fostering diversity of thought, generating better solutions, and championing novel ideas to improve our business.

Let’s take a look at some of the traits of originals that you can adopt to boost your originality.

Be Curious

Originals are curious—they question the status quo. Originals ponder why something is the way it is and consider whether it can be changed or improved. Many of us accept the defaults in our lives and our jobs; originals question the defaults.

Four graduate students who were friends wondered why eyeglasses were so expensive. Their research indicated that the cost of goods did not justify the price, and that 80% of the eyewear market was controlled by one company, explaining the high price tag. The friends wondered if consumers would buy cheaper glasses online. The result was Warby Parker, a successful company which revolutionized the eyewear industry. Warby Parker got its start because of the curiosity of four students.

Face Fear

Originals are not immune to fear and self-doubt. Originals feel fear and grapple with self-doubt, but they take action anyway.

• Dr. Martin Luther King was apprehensive when asked to lead the civil rights movement; his dream was to be a pastor and college president. But when asked to lead the bus boycott and march on Washington, he accepted.

• Michelangelo did not want to paint the Sistine Chapel when he was commissioned by the pope, as he considered himself a sculptor. He did it anyway.

Being original requires some risk. After all, you are proposing something new or doing something in a novel way.

Balance Risk

Being original requires some risk. After all, you are proposing something new or doing something in a novel way. The word entrepreneur literally means “bearer of risk”. However, originality does not require extreme risk.

Grant notes that the most successful originals offset risk in one area with caution in another realm. Entrepreneurs who start a new business but also keep their day job (at least initially) have a lower rate of failure.

• The founders of Warby Parker did not drop out of school to focus 100% on their new business.
• Nike founder Phil Knight worked as an accountant for five years after he started selling athletic shoes.
• Grammy winner John Legend worked as a management consultant for two years after releasing his first album.

Adopt a Creative Mindset

In business, Grant says the biggest barrier to originality is not idea generation, it’s idea selection. Evaluating ideas, products, and solutions to select the best one is not as simple as it seems.

In the workplace, it’s hard to accurately assess novel ideas. Managers tend to be risk-averse, focused on cost and the status quo, and they often do not accurately predict the success of an idea or product.

To more accurately judge an idea, Grant recommends adopting a creative mindset. Spend time generating ideas/brainstorming immediately before evaluating the proposed idea. The time employees spend generating ideas makes them better at discerning which suggestions and proposals from colleagues are worthwhile.

Engage in the Arts

Having an interest in the arts tends to influence how creative you are at work. The personality trait most associated with an interest in the arts is openness. Openness is the tendency to seek out novelty and variety, which leads to originality.

Nobel Prize-winning scientists are dramatically more likely than their scientist peers to be engaged in the arts (drawing, painting, literature, music, or even performing magic tricks). People who start businesses and contribute to patents are also more likely than their colleagues to have leisure time hobbies that involve the arts.

Successful originals don’t necessarily have the deepest expertise, but they seek out broad perspectives. 

Seek Diverse Experience

Successful originals don’t necessarily have the deepest expertise, but they seek out broad perspectives. Diverse experiences and perspectives foster creativity. Steve Jobs once said that in order to be innovative, “you have to not have the same bag of experiences as everyone else does.”

The more expertise a person gains in an area, the more entrenched they become in a particular way of viewing the world. According to Grant, the people best suited to evaluate new ideas have moderate expertise in the domain and broad experience elsewhere, such as in another field or working abroad. If we have deep knowledge in the area but lack broad experience elsewhere, we limit our creativity and ability to be open to creative ideas.

• The show Seinfeld was rejected by television executives as too unconventional, but a producer saw potential in it— he did not have experience in comedy or sitcoms, so he was more open to a show that didn’t follow the typical sitcom formula.
• Many publishing agents rejected the first Harry Potter book, believing it was too long for a children’s book. They adhered to rigid ideas of what children’s literature should look like.

Choose a Role Model

Originals often have role models or mentors who inspire them to be creative. Role models for originality open our minds to unconventional paths. Even fictional characters can be role models in creativity.

• Dr. King said his role model was Mahatma Gandhi.
• Elon Musk’s favorite book series is Lord of the Rings, a tale of a hobbit’s adventures to destroy a dangerous ring of power.
• Business titans Sheryl Sandberg and Jeff Bezos were influenced by A Wrinkle in Time, a story of a young girl who learns to bend the laws of physics to travel through time.

Procrastinate Strategically

Being original does not require you to be first; it just requires you to be different and better. Procrastination can actually enhance your chances of success. Being first (a “pioneer”) is an advantage in certain markets such as tech and social media, but in most markets, being first is a disadvantage. A pioneer is more likely to fail than someone who comes along later (a “settler”). Settlers learn from pioneers’ mistakes. Grant says procrastination may be the enemy of efficiency but not of creativity.

In embarking on a project or idea, Grant suggests carving out time to deliberately pause and wait. That allows time for more diverse thought and creative brainstorming. Grant notes that procrastination only works if one has motivation, not if it is to avoid effort.

• Leonard de Vinci worked on the Mona Lisa on and off for a few years and didn’t finish it until near his death.
• Dr. King was still making revisions to his “I Have a Dream” speech while he waited backstage minutes before taking the podium. In fact, the dream idea was not written into the speech at all.

Thoughtful disagreement and open-minded debate generates conversation and helps prevent overconfidence and people being afraid to speak up.

Avoid Groupthink

In a groupthink culture, people are pressured to conform to the dominant, default views instead of championing diversity of thought. Groupthink is the enemy of originality.

Thoughtful disagreement and open-minded debate generates conversation and helps prevent overconfidence and people being afraid to speak up. This leads to original breakthroughs and productive brainstorming, not only generating more ideas but higher quality ideas.

Dissenting viewpoints are important because they stimulate thought, lead to more novel solutions, and prevent a rush to judgment. Teams that encourage dissent make the best decisions. Studies show dissenting opinions are useful even when they are wrong.

Grant advises organizations to build a culture that welcomes dissent. Challenge, not merely reinforce, others’ perspectives. In addition, leaders should embrace upward feedback and role model receptivity to criticism from employees.

Polaroid failed because of its adherence to the assumption that customers would always want hard copies of photos. The key decision makers failed to question this assumption, a classic example of groupthink.

Focus on Cultural Contribution

Companies often assess a candidate’s cultural fit when interviewing. Grant advises leaders to assess a candidate’s cultural contribution, instead of cultural fit.

When leaders prize cultural fit, Grant says, they end up hiring people who are similar to the decision makers, sacrificing originality. Originality comes not from people who match the culture but from people who enrich it. Grant suggests that before hiring, leaders identify diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and personality traits that are missing from the culture and place a premium on those attributes in the hiring process.

By adopting these habits, starting with curiosity, we can enhance originality in ourselves and our colleagues, to improve the workplace and the community.

BuckLisa (1)Lisa Buck
Lisa Buck practiced corporate law in Minneapolis and was an adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law. When she isn’t writing for the Hennepin Lawyer, you can find her behind the lens at Lisa Buck Photography.