Demystifying Originality: Adam Grant on the myths of creativity and becoming an “Original”

I wanted to be it. But I saw it as something that was out in the world in other people [not me],” remembered award-winning journalist, Krista Tippett, in a recent interview with best-selling author and magic-evangelist, Liz Gilbert.  The two super-women were ruminating on their once-brittle childhood views of the intangibility of creativity. “You had to be in some special way gifted – in some special way original: an artist. That didn’t feel attainable to me. I had a feeling of being left out of creativity.”

Now best-selling authors and creative machines, the two have long-since dispatched that notion – calling it “destructive” and “mythical.” Easy for them to say, right?.

Picasso, Da Vinci, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Elon Musk. These are the so-called “gifted” people. They are the ones whom two-time best selling author, Adam Grant, refers to as “Originals”

the people that move and shape the world.

So what sets them apart?  What makes them so creative and entrepreneurial?  Were they born with it?  Was it taught to them at a young age?  A combination?

If you’re anything like me (or the younger versions of Krista and Liz) you’ve always viewed these people as incredibly exceptional in some way. To you they are giants of unwavering confidence – flowing with original ideas and incomparable genius.

In short, you see pride, you see power, you see badass mothas who don’t take no crap off of nobody.

And nearly a decade ago, Adam Grant viewed Originals in much the same way when he confidently passed on an investment opportunity.  It was the biggest investment mistake of his life…

* * *

In the fall of 2008, the top-rated Wharton professor was approached by a few of his graduate students seeking an investment in their internet-based, retail start-up that focused on eyewear. Grant found the idea intriguing but found some glaring holes in the team seeking the investment. Specifically, he didn’t feel they were as gung-ho as a team he would expect to succeed.  Grant remembers:

“They didn’t match. Neil and his colleagues lacked the guts to go in with their guns blazing, which led me to question their conviction and commitment. They weren’t serious about becoming successful entrepreneurs: They didn’t have enough skin in the game.”

The graduate students also failed to check just about every other one of Grant’s boxes:  They had little to no experience in retail, no functioning website (it’s online sales!), they seemed to be playing it safe – all having lined up back-up jobs, they appeared to lack urgency, and they were extremely disorganized. As Grant protested: “it had taken them six months just to agree on a name for the company(!)” (emphasis added).

Grant passed.  Easy decision.

* * *

As it turns out, six months to figure out a name was probably fast given the thorough method used. Because they viewed a strong brand as being vital in such a low-barrier market,  they took their time on the name, testing  over 2,000 names  for feedback from their respective networks.  They were seeking a name that “sounded sophisticated and unique, and evoked no negative associations.

They finally agreed on one inspired by a Kerouac novel: they called it Warby Parker– a company now valued at

over one billion dollars.

As Grant Documents:

“The students expected to sell a pair or two of glasses per day. But when GQ called them “the Netflix of eyewear,” they hit their target for the entire first year in less than a month, selling out so fast that they had to put twenty thousand customers on a waiting list. It took them nine months to stock enough inventory to meet the demand.”

Grant was floored.

What had he missed?! Did Grant make a mistake in his analysis or were these guys just lucky?

He had to find out.

Over the course of the next five years or so, Grant aggregated, distilled and performed an immense amount of research – hellbent on finding the answers. In 2015, he put them into his second best-selling book, “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.”  The results are staggering.

* * *

Today, when Grant looks at these so-called “gifted” people he sees things from a different perspective.

He sees uncertainty and fear; he sees a bunch of procrastinating, wavering, risk-avoiders who all generate a ton of really bad ideas.  He sees people like you and me – full of faults and mistakes. This brings to mind Junior Bevil’s father – Whitby – from the movie Cool Runnings who had these loving words for his 30 (?) year old son: “I see a lost little boy, who’s lucky to have a father who knows what’s best for him.”

What’s more, Grant’s research suggests that Originals succeed not in spite of these “faults,” but because of them…

“I want to debunk the myth that originality requires extreme risk taking and persuade you that originals are actually far more ordinary than we realize…they may appear bold and self-assured on the surface but when you peel back the layers, the truth is that they, too, grapple with fear, ambivalence, and self-doubt. We view them as self-starters, but their efforts are often fueled and sometimes forced by others. And as much as they seem to crave risk, they really prefer to avoid it.”

In his incredibly interesting and insightful 80,000-word tome on what it takes to become an Original – to generate, evaluate and champion original ideas – Grant  seeks to upend the conventional “wisdom” regarding originality.

To do this, Grant creates a line up of your all-time favorite creators, entrepreneurs and innovators, stamps their legends against the wall and smashes them to pieces, putting them back together, bit by research-backed bit, until finally, their pasted-together collages look much more like something you’d see around the old block, or even in the mirror.

The conclusion Grant comes to is an inspiring one: “Originality is not a fixed trait. It is a free choice.”

Were grant equipped with that perspective in 2008, perhaps he would have made a different choice. Grant reflects:

“When I compared the choices of the Warby Parker team to my mental model of the choices of successful entrepreneurs, they didn’t match… In my mind, they were destined to fail because they played it safe instead of betting the farm. But in fact, this is exactly why they succeeded.”

* * *

The Warby Parker story is a fascinating one (and a tough pill to swallow for Grant) but perhaps the more fascinating story here is Grant and his inspiring response in the face of adversity.

Remember, Grant turned down an investment that would have likely been worth millions and millions of dollars in just a few short years – likely leading to life-changing circumstances for Grant and his family.

How would most people you know react to such an apparent blunder?

My guess: something like this or perhaps this.

But Grant’s reaction looks nothing like that. Possibly in part because, as Grant shows in the book: venting doesn’t dissipate anger – it amplifies it.

However, the more important reason, I think, is back to this an idea Grant harps on in the book. Originality is a choice – and as Grant makes clear in the final chapter of the book – so is the mindset that goes with it.

Grant has clearly made that choice and instilled in himself the habits that allow this optimistic mindset to manifest. Citing research by psychologist Dan McAdams, Grant writes:

“The people who had been recognized for making original contributions to their communities shared many more stories that started negatively but surged upward: they struggled early and triumphed only later. Despite being confronted with more negative events, they reported greater satisfaction with their lives and a stronger sense of purpose. Instead of merely enjoying good fortune all along, they endured the battle of turning bad things good—and judged it as a more rewarding route to a life well lived.”

Right on cue, Grant was ready to endure his battle – taking the bad – no, awful – investment choice and turning it into a good – no, perspective-altering – book.

As Charles Duhigg explains in his NYT best-seller, The Power of Habit, leaders tend to use moments of crisis to change the status quo. In the book, Duhigg quoted Rahm Emanuel – then White House Chief of Staff – during a meeting with chief executives following the 2008 financial crisis: “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

And this is especially true if that leader is what psychologists call a “basic-level optimist” as  social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, explains in his best-selling book, The Happiness Hypothesis:

“Because optimists expect their efforts to pay off, they go right to work fixing the problem. But if they fail, they expect that things usually work out for the best, and so they can’t help but look for possible benefits. When they find them, they write a new chapter in their life story (McAdams’s level 3), a story of continual overcoming and growth.”

Grant took this literally – writing many, captivating chapters with a Gladwellian-like glide  – weaving together stories and lessons learned from Warby Parker and his subsequent research –  including interviews with business titans such as Google co-founder Larry Page and real-life Tony Stark, Elon Musk.

Adam Grant & Sheryl Sandberg (

Adam Grant & Sheryl Sandberg (

Although Grant seems to be writing about people unlike him – these highly accomplished Originals, Grant already embodied many of their most vital qualities.  I think Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg puts it best in the book introduction: “Adam Grant is the perfect person to write Originals because he is one.”

* * *

I love the way that Grant ends the book and so taking a cue from Austin Kleon, I am going to literally steal it right now.  It gives me goosebumps ever time:

“’I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world,’ E. B. White once wrote. ‘This makes it difficult to plan the day.’

The Declaration of Independence promises Americans the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the quest for happiness, many of us choose to enjoy the world as it is. Originals embrace the uphill battle, striving to make the world what it could be. By struggling to improve life and liberty, they may temporarily give up some pleasure, putting their own happiness on the back burner. In the long run, though, they have the chance to create a better world. And that—to borrow a turn of phrase from psychologist Brian Little—brings a different kind of satisfaction. Becoming original is not the easiest path in the pursuit of happiness, but it leaves us perfectly poised for the happiness of pursuit.”

Originals is as compelling of a read as it is endlessly informative and thought-provoking. It altogether challenged my most basic assumptions regarding creativity and entertained me while doing so.  Somehow Grant makes being wrong feel great

For a further discussion of the book and breakdown of 5 lessons I learned –click here.


5 Comments on “Demystifying Originality: Adam Grant on the myths of creativity and becoming an “Original””

  1. The quote “’I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world” both resonates with me and haunts. You’ve inspired me to go for the full read of Originals.

  2. Very interesting read!! As someone who has designed and made stuff from earliest childhood on, these curious notions that people have about being “creative” continue to surprise me. As if it involves something more profound than simply reaching out your two hands, picking up a couple things that caught your eye, and start putting them together. Or just writing down the words that are always swirling around in your brain anyway. Or doing something about the “god, someone oughtta just make it easy to catch a ride with all these mostly empty cars passing by” thought you had. Or maybe that IS profound. In which case, it’s easy to be profound. Don’t worry about other people judging your initially-lame stuff harshly- you will be your own far-worst critic. As it should be. Get to work, be profound!!

    Justin, thanks so much for making this book accessible like this. And thanks for plugging Austin Kleon; he’s one of my favorite anti-hero heroes!

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