I was lucky enough to get to speak with Adam Grant, the New York Times best-selling author and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. His previous book, Give and Take, helped highlight the power of generosity as an amplifier for success. In his just-released book Originals, Grant shares what he’s gleaned from researching some of the world’s most original companies, individuals, and iconoclasts over the years.
I think the most influential original of our time is J.K. Rowling. One, she’s sold more books than other series in history except maybe the Bible—not bad! Two, there’s evidence that you can predict a country’s innovation rates by looking at whether popular children’s stories 20 to 40 years earlier emphasized original accomplishments. When creativity becomes important in a culture, it tends to weave itself into children’s literature. Some of the major tech pioneers of our time drew their early inspiration from reading Madeleine L’Engle, Tolkien, and Ender’s Game, and I think Harry Potter is this generation’s version of that.
One of the interesting ideas you explore in the book is that first movers don’t necessarily have the best advantage. I’d never heard of Kozmo, an unsuccessful predecessor to Netflix that got millions in funding but failed.
I mentioned Kozmo largely because I was a user of them when I was in college; it was a really big deal. They basically promised one-hour delivery of anything. Like Amazon Prime Now, except they had bike runners, and they didn’t have any kind of reasonable logistics operation; they way overstretched. It was kind of crazy. I remember going to their site and ordering videos, and they showed up… and it didn’t last very long.
There were lots of case studies that didn’t make it into the book. On the myth of the first-mover advantage, Facebook at minimum was third, behind Myspace and Friendster. Google was a different generation of search engines, far behind AltaVista, Yahoo!, and Ask Jeeves—they were operating for years before Google came along. You look at those cases, and you see that it’s easier to improve on somebody else’s idea than to build a whole new market from scratch.
You use not only business examples, but also historical examples in your book (which I found fascinating). I had no idea that the schism in the suffragette movement was so severe, nor how the alliances between the temperance movement and the suffragette movement really helped to drive the right to vote forward, or how Dr. Martin Luther King’s extensive public speaking experience on the subject of civil rights helped to fuel his success as an original (despite his procrastination in terms of waiting to write the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech until 10 PM the night before). What other historical moments would you love to explore further?
That was amazing. You just summarized two chapters in a few sentences. What else would I like to explore further? One thing I’d love to learn more about is Einstein’s early history with music. His mom enrolled him in violin lessons when he was five, and she had this dream that they would do duets together, and he HATED playing the violin. He seemed to dislike anything that had to do with authority. It almost seems like his mom was the first “tiger mom”—you will practice the violin—and he played diligently, but he hated it. He ended up quitting in his teenage years, and on his own discovered Mozart’s sonatas, and fell in love with them. And it was that—not his mother pushing him—that piqued his interest in music, and he said later that his theory of relativity was a musical thought, and he would have never revolutionized physics had it not been for his background in music. It would be fun to learn more about the ways that art can make us better scientists—which are fascinating.
You bring up in your book that three common cultural templates are professional, star, and commitment types of businesses. Why do you feel the commitment template is the most successful, yet also the most potentially difficult to grow and build on?
This is from a study of Silicon Valley founders, and what blueprints they had in mind for their cultures. The commitment culture is basically about saying “Look, we’re not going to hire people on the basis of their skills (professional culture), or their potential (star culture); we’ll focus primarily on their values.” That means putting culture fit first. If you’re a startup, that’s useful in the beginning, because it helps you attract and motivate people who are really willing to go above and beyond. They have a tremendous sense of passion for the mission; they feel a lot of belongingness. Startups that hire on culture fit are less likely to fail and more likely to go public. But after that, they grow at much slower rates.
They tend to end up with a lot of groupthink. When you hire on culture fit, you end up bringing in a lot of people who think the same way that you do. The risk is that you don’t have enough cognitive diversity. You have more trouble changing and adapting to a dynamic world. Of course, that’s not inevitable. If you make diversity of thought one of your core values, and create a safe space for people to voice dissenting opinions, you can avoid that trap.
Procrastination is traditionally a dirty word, but you make some convincing claims as to why it helps fuel the success of originals. Can you share some more thoughts on the subject and why you enjoyed learning about it so much?
I was intrigued to discover so many great originals were procrastinators, from Leonardo da Vinci to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This went very much against my own tendencies, as someone who’s usually a “precrastinator”—I like to do things before their due date and jump into tasks early. I used to take pride in that! But after working on research with a student, Jihae Shin, it became very clear that delaying the start or finish of a task can actually open us up to more original ideas! So I taught myself to procrastinate. It was really fun. I take it back—it was agonizing. The result of it was fun, the process was not.
I loved the story about how the most creative fashion collections came from houses whose directors had the greatest experience abroad. How can members of the WeWork community learn from this example?
It was working abroad, not traveling abroad, that predicted originality. And it was also working in countries very different from your own. So it’s not that helpful if you’re working in New York to go and hang out in New Jersey. You might try to figure out which WeWork locations have norms and customs most different than yours and then start to collaborate with the people in that place, so you can learn from how they think. Even something as simple as exchanging feedback with them can gain access to their ways of working.
As someone who’s had the opportunity to create a lot of work—thousands of interviews, many of which people did not necessarily notice, but some of which they did—I could really relate to your anecdotes describing that quantity is the most predictable path to quality. To generate a handful of masterworks, Mozart composed more than 600 pieces, Beethoven produced 650 works in his lifetime, and Bach over a thousand.
For most people, the problem is not idea generation; it’s idea selection. Lots of people have original ideas, but they don’t know which ones to pursue. We’re surprisingly bad at judging our own ideas, because it’s too easy to fall in love with our own creations. Getting better at idea evaluation is something I’d love to see people do, and one way to do that is through getting feedback from two groups of people. One is fellow creators, because peers are very good judges of original ideas: they have a little bit of distance from your ideas and they are creatively involved, so they see more potential than middle managers do.
The other group is disagreeable people. Most of us, when we have a new idea, we take it to the nicest, friendliest, most agreeable people we know—we expect them to be supportive. And they will cheerlead in that conversation. But because they are also people who want to get along and maintain harmony, they are reluctant to rock the boat. That discourages them from standing up for us. Disagreeable people give us much more useful feedback—they will tear our idea apart to help us. And if we can persuade them, they will be our most vocal advocates, and they will run through walls for us, because that’s how they operate.
Would you consider yourself to be an original?
I don’t think it’s my place to judge. But I can tell you that I’ve become more original over time. I used to conform a lot more than I do now, and I’ve become much more comfortable championing new ideas even when they’re unpopular.
Photo: Sam Ubinas