The Science of Originality: 5 Lessons from Adam Grant on Creativity and How to Become More Original

It’s just not me.  Creativity is just not my thing. I’m simply not capable of it.”

This is what a friend of mine said to me a few months back as we were discussing his plans for the future.

I felt deflated.  This statement just didn’t sit well with me.  It took that uncomfortable shape of a possible truth that one just prays is false.

It occurred to me at that point that many of my friends felt that way.  In fact, many of them had told me outright.  They had “come to grips” with this certainty.

For me, that has not exactly been the case.  I view myself as having the potential for at least some creativity or originality, but only to a point.  I could be mildly creative on an inconsistent basis – but nothing world-changing. The limit might extend to a funny line in a wedding speech or something comparable.

So perhaps my view is a fraction less depressing – but no more.

Further, like many, I assume,  I have always been aware of, and in awe of, a certain class of people that to me seem to be creative and original without trying.  For this group – Jobs, Franklin, Musk, Da Vinci, Seinfeld, Page, Branson, Grisham – creativity has always appeared to be effortless. They were simply “gifted” in some way that I was not.

My mental picture of their creative process was something like this: I assumed these gifted few had always known of their innate abilities and set out from the start to change the world. And endowed with that starting point, inspiration had always simply struck them. It merely comes in through the window as they sit and think, or perhaps as they sleep or take a bubble bath. And upon their inevitable and assured recognition of this idea – they would filter it through their perfectly situated genetic code, and, almost passively, produce a perfectly crafted idea.  Finally, they would waste no time – like Jack Bauer with the nuclear warhead deactivation code – they heroically fly in with their brilliant idea with reckless abandon – fearless and confident.

Though it may sound like a caricature – this is a fairly accurate portrayal of what my view of creativity has been.

Well, that was until I picked up the New York Times best-selling book, “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.” In Originals, Adam Grant, the top-rated professor at the Wharton School of Business, not only turns that view on its head – he altogether demolishes my, let’s say, less-than-scientificly-based perspective. With a ton of fire-power, Grant shows us that Originality is not just an art – it’s science.

Most of my prior ideas did not survive the scientific scrutiny of Grant’s meticulous and powerful research. From the lab to interventions in real-world organizations to interviews with some of the most original and creative people in business, art, entertainment and science, Grant builds a seemingly bulletproof case.

Throughout the entire book, I pictured my previously-held notions of creativity being progressively battered like Ivan Drago in the final punching crescendo in Rock IV.  And after the bell sounded and I picked myself up  – my mind had been changed for the better.

And as Rocky said to the once-hostile Russian crowd: “ if I can change, and you can change — everybody can change.”

And now that I’ve fulfilled a life-long goal of forcing that line into something I said or wrote – below I describe five of the research-back, practical applications I learned from Originals:

Lesson #1: Process over Product

My Assumption: Originals have the innate ability to produce a much larger quantity of great ideas than their peers.

This turns out to be highly misleading.

More Likely Reality: It turns out that Originals are “idea-machines” as I assumed.  But the large majority of ideas produced by that machine seem to be of low quality or usefulness.  Far from a bad thing, the production of these “bad” ideas is the process that eventually spits out a novel connection or insight. The key is consistently sticking to that process.

Here’s Grant:

“It’s widely assumed that there’s a tradeoff between quantity and quality—if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it—but this turns out to be false. In fact, when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality. “Original thinkers,” Stanford professor Robert Sutton notes, “will come up with many ideas that are strange mutations, dead ends, and utter failures. The cost is worthwhile because they also generate a larger pool of ideas—especially novel ideas.”

Example: Thomas Edison. There is no denying the genius of his best idea-  the lightbulb.  But did this idea come to him in a “lightbulb moment?”  How about all of his other ideas?  Were they lightbulb material?

Adam Grant and creativity researcher Dean Simonton would argue it was nothing of the sort.

Edison’s “1,093 patents notwithstanding, the number of truly superlative creative achievements can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.”  But it turns out, generating all of those ideas is the best indicator of innovation.”

“Simonton finds that on average, creative geniuses weren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers. They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality. “The odds of producing an influential or successful idea,” Simonton notes, are “a positive function of the total number of ideas generated.”

Still not convinced? Picasso generated over 15,000 pieces of artwork, only a fraction of which were recognized as world-class. Mozart composed over 600 pieces before his death at age 35, only a handful of which are recognized by experts and composers as particularly creative. Einstein published over 240 papers with less than 10% having any significant impact.

As Thomas Edison is quoted as saying: “To have a great idea, have a lot of them.”

Tools. How to generate a lot of ideas – whether good or bad? Grant has some suggestions for inspiration:

  • Question the default. “Instead of taking the status quo for granted, ask why it exists in the first place. When you remember that rules and systems were created by people, it becomes clear that they’re not set in stone—and you begin to consider how they can be improved.”
  • Immerse yourself in a new domain. “Originality increases when you broaden your frame of reference. One approach is to learn a new craft, like the Nobel Prize–winning scientists who expanded their creative repertoires by taking up painting, piano, dance, or poetry.”
  • Gladwell’s Secret: “Malcom Gladwell spends a couple days per year in the New York Public Library – just wandering – picking out books and seeing what interests him,”  Grant explained in a recent interview.  And he finds this to be so powerful because “it is one of the only places that you can accidentally discover things that you want to learn more about.”

Ok – got it.  Generate ideas – not judging them, good or bad.  But with these 1000s of ideas,  how do we recognize a good idea when we see one?

Lesson #2: Don’t Trust Yourself; Trust Fellow Creators.

My Assumption: Originals are excellent at recognizing which of their ideas will be successful.

More likely reality: Originals are not good at recognizing their own good ideas.  They are useful in recognizing other peoples ideas – but only in the context of their own domains.

Just like the rest of us, they fall victim to overconfidence in their own ideas.

Here’s Grant:

“Social scientists have long known that we tend to be overconfident when we evaluate ourselves.

High school seniors: 70 percent report that they have “above average” leadership skills, compared with 2 percent “below average”; in the ability to get along with others, 25 percent rate themselves in the top 1 percent, and 60 percent put themselves in the top 10 percent.

College professors: 94 percent rate themselves as doing above-average work.

Engineers: In two different companies, 32 percent and 42 percent rated themselves among the top 5 percent of performers.

Entrepreneurs: When 3,000 small-business owners rated the probability that different companies would succeed, on average they rated the prospects of their own businesses as 8.1 out of 10 but gave similar enterprises odds of only 5.9 out of 10.

The best way to get better at judging our ideas is to gather feedback. Put a lot of ideas out there and see which ones are praised and adopted…”

Grant continues to explain how even Picasso and Shakespeare displayed overconfidence. There were many instances where they predicted great success for certain pieces that never received acclaim – and vice versa.

So if  we cannot depend on ourselves then the answer is simple:  Other people.

“The best way to get better at judging our ideas is to gather feedback. Put a lot of ideas out there and see which ones are praised and adopted by your target audience.”

However, as Grant admonishes – of ultimate importance might be exactly from whom you seek feedback.  And it isn’t who you might think.

Example: Seinfeld – the most popular sitcom in TV history – initially received horrible reviews from both focus groups and NBC executives. These are the “other people” that are conventionally thought to be predicative of success.  The initial report rated Seinfeld as “weak” to “moderate.” The first focus group was “not eager to watch it again.” In fact, it was one person away from being cancelled altogether.  And this was not because of George’s lack of artistic integrity.

Grant explains why:

“Neither test audiences nor managers are ideal judges of creative ideas. They’re too prone to false negatives; they focus too much on reasons to reject an idea and stick too closely to existing prototypes. And we’ve seen that creators struggle as well, because they’re too positive about their own ideas. But there is one group of forecasters that does come close to attaining mastery: fellow creators evaluating one another’s ideas [emphasis added].”

In the book, Grant points out how the unlikely champion of this underdog was Rick Ludwin—an expert in writing for shows that were “unlike anything else on TV.” He was not shackled by the confined world of Cheers and Who’s the Boss-like sitcoms.  But he was still a creator with vast experience in the broader domain.  Ludwin later championed another sitcom on the brink of cancellation: The Office.

For Ludwin, It was vital to be a fellow creator – that separated him from the executives and focus groups.  But there was another necessary component: you must have expertise in the domain.

As Grant makes clear:

“being a creator in one particular area doesn’t make you a great forecaster in others. To accurately predict the success of a novel idea, it’s best to be a creator in the domain you’re judging.”

Even the most prolific creators can be poor judges of quality or innovation if they are inexperienced within the field they are judging.  This is especially true if they are “going with their gut.” No one seems to escape this: even the almighty Jobs.

Yes, Even Steve Jobs:  Steve Jobs understood digital hardware and software – in those domains, his intuition is serviceable.  And he used it invest time and money into products that changed the world.  He did not fair as well with another technology.

According to Grants research, there was an invention that Jobs recognized as “the most impressive piece of technology since the personal computer.” And Jobs was not alone. Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos agreed and so did other Originals– this was going to change the world of transportation for ever.

The device was called: the Segway.  And as Grant points out, unless your name is Paul Blart, mall cop, your world of transportation has probably been moved very little.

“The inventor projected that within a year, sales of his newest product would reach 10,000 units a week. But six years later, they had sold only about 30,000 units in total. After more than a decade, the company still hadn’t become profitable.”

Not quite the return the original investors were looking for on their $90mm investment.

How did Jobs, Bezos and so many Silicon Valley tycoons misread this situation so wrong?  One piece of the puzzle has to do with when intuition is helpful and when it is not.

“Our intuitions are only accurate in domains where we have a lot of experience.”

“In dealing with unfamiliar products, you need to take a step back and assess them. Non-experts make sounder judgments when they conduct a thorough analysis. When Steve Jobs had a gut feeling that the Segway would change the world, he was seduced by an impulsive attraction to its novelty rather than a careful examination of its usefulness.”

For a group of people with no transportation experience, a lot of homework was required to figure out whether the Segway was actually practical.”

Taking it a bit Further: In certain “unpredictable industries” – even experience is not good enough to warrant a decision based on intuition.

Grant points us to Dan Kahnemen and Gary Klein: “intuitions are only trustworthy when people build up experience making judgments in a predictable environment.”

“Kahneman and Klein review evidence that experience helps physicists, accountants, insurance analysts, and chess masters—they all work in fields where cause-and-effect relationships are fairly consistent. But admissions officers, court judges, intelligence analysts, psychiatrists, and stockbrokers didn’t benefit much from experience. In a rapidly changing world, the lessons of experience can easily point us in the wrong direction.”

Yikes — may want to get rethink giving that stockbroker of yours any more money…

OK so I have a lot of ideas and I have feedback on the good ones.  So I just quit my job and “go for it” right?

No so fast…

LESSON #3: Not Risk-Takers, Risk-Mitigators.

Assumption:  Most Originals go “all-in,” guns-a-blazin’ into their new ideas.

This assumption was first called into question when I read Richard Branson’s book: Screw it Let’s Do It.  In the book, the multi-billionaire indicated that the first thing he seeks out when considering a new venture is how to protect his downside.  In other words, he takes risks, but they are highly calculated.

If Sir Rich had that idea floundering – Grant’s research gave it the razors edge:

Let’s go to the Research:

“A growing body of evidence suggests that entrepreneurs don’t like risk any more than the rest of us—and it’s the rare conclusion on which many economists, sociologists, and psychologists have actually come to agree.”

In a fascinating study, management researchers Joseph Raffiee and Jie Feng asked a simple question: When people start a business, are they better off keeping or quitting their day jobs? From 1994 until 2008, they tracked a nationally representative group of over five thousand Americans in their twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties who became entrepreneurs. Whether these founders kept or left their day jobs wasn’t influenced by financial need; individuals with high family income or high salaries weren’t any more or less likely to quit and become full-time entrepreneurs. A survey showed that the ones who took the full plunge were risk takers with spades of confidence. The entrepreneurs who hedged their bets by starting their companies while still working were far more risk averse and unsure of themselves. If you think like most people, you’ll predict a clear advantage for the risk takers. Yet the study showed the exact opposite: Entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs had 33 percent lower odds of failure than those who quit.” (Emphasis added).”

Examples From the Book:

“The entrepreneurs whose companies topped Fast Company’s recent most innovative lists typically stayed in their day jobs even after they launched. Former track star Phil Knight (Nike) started selling running shoes out of the trunk of his car in 1964, yet kept working as an accountant until 1969. After inventing the original Apple I computer, Steve Wozniak started the company with Steve Jobs in 1976 but continued working full time in his engineering job at Hewlett-Packard until 1977. And although Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin figured out how to dramatically improve internet searches in 1996, they didn’t go on leave from their graduate studies at Stanford until 1998. ‘We almost didn’t start Google,’ Page says, because we ‘were too worried about dropping out of our Ph.D. program.’ In 1997, concerned that their fledgling search engine was distracting them from their research, they tried to sell Google for less than $ 2 million in cash and stock. Luckily for them, the potential buyer rejected the offer.”

There are tons more examples in the book from the famous lead-guitarist, Brian May of Queen fame (stayed several years in his PhD program for, you guesses it, astro-physics!) to Stephen King (teacher, janitor, gas station attendant for seven years after writing his first story and one year after writing, Carrie).

OK so I am staying at my job and trying to work this on the side.  But I have to start right away right?  I cannot let someone else do this idea – I need to rush into it, right? Let’s let Billy answer…

LESSON #4: fast-followers, not first-movers.

My Assumption: The first-mover advantage is paramount and procrastination is always destructive.  That is, if you have an idea, you better get it into action before someone takes it.

It seems again my intuition was off.

More Likely Reality: According to Grant’s research (and the research of many others), the first-mover advantage, although real and impactful in some instances, has tons of flaws and may not be of ultimate importance if you want to be an Original.

Here’s Grant:

“In work and in life, we are constantly taught that acting early is the key to success, because “he who hesitates is lost.” When we have a meaningful task, we’re advised to get it done well ahead of schedule. When we have an original idea to invent a product or start a company, we’re encouraged to be the first mover. There are, of course, clear advantages to speed: we can be sure to finish what we start and beat competitors to market. But surprisingly, as I’ve studied originals, I’ve learned that the advantages of acting quickly and being first are often outweighed by the disadvantages. It’s true that the early bird gets the worm, but we can’t forget that the early worm gets caught.”

“You don’t have to be first to be an original, and the most successful originals don’t always arrive on schedule. They are fashionably late to the party.”

In 1993, researchers Golder and Tellis introduced the idea of a fast-follower.  A fast-follower is someone who does not enter a new market first, they lag slightly behind. They go into things at a steady pace, closely observing the first-movers and specifically noting what they do right and what they’ve missed.  A 2010 article in Business Insider summarizes: “Astute fast-followers recognize that part of Customer Discovery is learning from the first-mover by looking at the arrows in their backs. Then avoiding them.

As Grant points out:

“Surprisingly, the downsides of being the first mover are frequently bigger than the upsides. On balance, studies suggest that pioneers may sometimes capture greater market share, but end up not only with lower chances of survival but lower profits as well.”

Journalist and entrepreneur, Shane Snow (Wired, Fast Company, Contently), in his best-seller, Smarcuts, compares the timing and idea evaluation process to surfers deciding which wave to ride.  Many times, waves will come in sets called “trains.” In a train of waves, often an over-eager surfer will take the first wave, unaware that there are likely bigger waves quickly following.  The more experienced surfer knows the last wave is the time to move.

As Snow points out in the book, the most important piece to the equation is simply making sure to be in the water when the waves come. And “the best way to be in the water when the wave comes is to budget time for swimming.”

In a sense, the initial movers tend to pave the way – they take on the brunt of the initial legal feedback, they have issues they get themselves in that they cannot see their way out of, they spend money in places they do not need to.

Example: Grant tells of a young entrepreneur with a vision.  He was frustrated with the fact that he had to go all the way to Blockbuster to get a movie.  There should be a website to deliver him a DVD.  He raised $250 million and started the internet-based movie distribution company you know and love: Kozmo.  Who?

Kozmo was the first Netflix.  He found a huge market-demand but apparently ended up not being able to overcome some logistical and strategic errors.  Grant quotes Malcom Gladwell in the book:

“Wouldn’t you rather be second or third and see how the guy in first did, and then . . . improve it?” Malcolm Gladwell asked in an interview. “When ideas get really complicated, and when the world gets complicated, it’s foolish to think the person who’s first can work it all out,” Gladwell remarked. “Most good things, it takes a long time to figure them out.”

Need more proof?

Video game consoles: First, came Magnavox Odyssey; 3 years later – Nintendo.  Social networks: first, Friendster and MySpace, next – Facebook. Personal Computers: first, Atari, Commodore, and Apple I.  Next, IBM PC which held most of the market share before exiting in 2004.

Grant also points out other advantages to waiting, such as one’s ability to generate more creative ideas by allowing ideas to materialize in their heads and get away from their usually first and more conventional ideas. [This process is something scientist and author Barbara Oakley calls, “divergent thinking”- more to come on that in future posts…]

Grant concludes:

To be original, you do not have to be first, you just have to be different and better.”

Ok, I take my time and make sure it is different and better, but I am still afraid and I don’t have full confidence in my idea. What do I do?

As Odysseus says to a long-haired and strikingly handsome, Brad Pitt: “Fear is useful…”

Lesson #5: Fear Inaction more than Action.  Doubt your Ideas, not yourself.

Assumption: Originals are fearless and have full confidence in their ideas.

More Likely Reality: Far from fearless – Originals do have fear – a lot of it.  Just like the rest of us, they are scared of failing and that they’re idea isn’t going to work, but they fear something else a little more – failure to act – and it is that that propels them forward.

Perhaps the most important lesson of this book for Grant was that Originals are human.  They fear and quibble and procrastinate and they are uncertain.  But it is the way they handle those emotions and experiences that tends to separate them.  And it allows them to change the world from which they are separated.

Here’s Grant in a recent article:

“When most of us fear failure, we walk away from our boldest ideas. Instead of being original, we play it safe, selling conventional products and familiar services. But great entrepreneurs have a different response to the fear of failure. Yes, they’re afraid of failing, but they’re even more afraid of failing to try.”

“When people reflect on their biggest regrets, they wish they could redo the inactions, not the actions. ‘In the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did,’ psychologists Tom Gilovich and Vicky Medvec summarize, ‘which is why the most popular regrets include not going to college, not grasping profitable business opportunities, and not spending enough time with family and friends.’”

In terms of their ideas – they understand the first draft is usually garbage.  In fact, they are counting on it.  They realize what Eric Reis realized in his book, The Lean Start-up: the point is the feedback.  Get the thing made, then have it torn to shreds – by creators with experience in the field, of course – and then make those changes, not worrying about being first, but just worrying about being different and better.

Examples: “Mark Cuban passed on Uber. In the early days of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin tried to sell their search engine for less then $2 million, but their potential buyer turned them down. Publishers rejected Harry Potter because it was too long for a children’s book. Executives passed on Seinfeld for having incomplete plot lines and unlikeable characters. Pay a visit to Jerry Seinfeld’s bathroom, and you might find a memo hanging on the wall that calls the pilot episode of Seinfeld ‘weak’ and says ‘No segment of the audience was eager to watch the show again.’”

According to Grant, the important thing here is that they realize they are not their ideas.  If their idea doesn’t work, they try to fix. If the fixing doesn’t work.  They move on to the next thing.

“Originals learn to see failure not as a sign that their ideas are doomed, but as a necessary step toward success.”

To sum up– want to be more original – here are some steps Grant suggests:

  • Generate more ideas – make it a habit
  • Get Informed Feedback — Run those ideas past others; specifically those with creative expertise in a predictable domain
  • Mitigate Risk – Protect your downside by keeping your day job and working on your ideas at night and on the weekends.
  • Take Your time — Don’t rush in, let the idea have access to your divergent thinking while you evaluate the landscape and possible first-mover issues
  • Believe in yourself, doubt your ideas; fear is useful – use it to propel action

That’s the end of the article – scram! Just kidding – thanks for reading.  But really, it’s over…

As always, all feedback encouraged and appreciated.

This is the prequel to this post..




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