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What does it take to be original?

Posted in the following categories: Creativity

We live in a conformist world. Starting at a young age, we are taught to use #2 pencils and color within the lines. Most of us grow reluctant to speak up and stand out, for fear of being ostracized by the mob.

In Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World, Wharton professor Adam Grant explains how we can cultivate the rare trait of originality. The book is filled with useful insights, and here are the ones that I found particularly pertinent:

1.  Embrace failure.

The word entrepreneur, as coined by economist Richard Cantillon, literally means “bearer of risk.” As difficult as it is, failure is necessary for success. To come up with original ideas, you must fail fast and fail often. Here’s Grant:

The more you value achievement, the more you come to dread failure. Instead of aiming for unique accomplishments, the intense desire to succeed leads us to strive for guaranteed success.

The desire for guaranteed success, in turn, forces us to seek the comfort of the status quo and to place safe bets, which hampers original thinking.

2.  Don’t quit your day job.

There is a certain romance associated with the entrepreneur or idealist who quits a high-paying job to go at it alone. But originals initially tend to keep their day job and make small bets on the side.

One of my favorite authors, Stephen King, worked as a teacher, janitor, and gas station attendant for seven years after writing his first story. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, continued working full time at Hewlett-Packard after inventing the original Apple I computer. The director of the movie Selma, Ava DuVernay, made her first three films while working as a publicist.

Retaining your day job allows you to hedge your bets and creates what Grant calls a balanced risk portfolio:

Having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another. By covering our bases financially, we escape the pressure to publish half-baked goods, sell shoddy art, or launch untested businesses.

3.  Generate lots of ideas.

A greater volume of work creates more variation and a higher chance of originality.

Shakespeare, for example, is known for a small number of his classics, but in the span of two decades, he penned 37 plays and 154 sonnets, some of which have been “consistently slammed for unpolished prose and incomplete plots and character development.”

Picasso produced 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, and 12,000 drawings, only a fraction of which are noteworthy.

Just a handful of Einstein’s 248 publications had real impact.

But when we judge the greatness of these individuals, “we focus not on their averages, but their peaks.”

Many of us shun generating lots of ideas because we assume that there is a tradeoff between quantity and quality–better work requires less work–but Grant refutes this notion: “In fact, when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality.” As Stanford professor Robert Sutton also notes, “Original thinkers will come up with many ideas that are strange mutations, dead ends, and utter failures.  The cost is worthwhile because they also generate a large pool of ideas–especially novel ideas.”

Forcing ourselves to generate more ideas is particularly worthwhile since our first ideas are often the most conventional. “It’s only after we’ve ruled out the obvious,” Grant argues, “we have the greatest freedom to consider the more remote possibilities.”

As the saying goes, you gotta kiss a lot of frogs before you find the prince.

4.  Before you challenge the status quo, become the status quo.

As Francis Ford Coppola observes, “The way to come to power is not always to merely challenge the Establishment, but first make a place in it and then challenge and double-cross the Establishment.”  Infiltrate the system and then challenge it from within.

If you try to challenge the status quo too early in your career, you risk becoming ostracized or ignored. As Grant puts it, “We squash a low-status member who tries to challenge the status quo, but tolerate and sometimes even applaud the originality of a high-status star.”

5.  Lead with your weaknesses.

When we generate an original idea, it’s only natural to put our best foot forward, tout our strengths, and downplay our weaknesses. Grant advises against this approach:  “[W]hen you’re pitching a novel idea or speaking up with a suggestion for change, your audience is likely to be skeptical. Investors are looking to poke holes in your arguments; managers are hunting for reasons why your suggestion won’t work.”

Instead, consider this approach.

After having their first child, Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman were appalled by the amount of false advertising and bad advice being offered about parenting. They started an online magazine and blog network called Babble to challenge the dominant parenting clichés and tackle the cold, hard truth with humor. In 2009, when Griscom pitched Babble to venture capitalists, he did the exact opposite of what every entrepreneur has been taught to do: he presented a slide listing the top five reasons not to invest in his business. This should have killed his pitch. Investors are looking for reasons to say yes, and here he was, hand delivering a list of reasons to say no. Entrepreneurs are supposed to talk about the upsides of their companies, not the downsides. But his approach worked: that year, Babble brought in $3.3 million in funding.

Counterintuitive?  Yes. But it works, for several reasons.

Honesty about your weaknesses disarms the audience. As Babble’s Griscom explains:  “Unbridled optimism comes across as salesmanship; it seems dishonest somehow, and as a consequence it’s met with skepticism. Everyone is allergic to the feeling, or suspicious of being sold.”

When you’re forthcoming about your weaknesses, the audience becomes your ally. You’ve given them a problem to solve, not a sales pitch to reluctantly accept.

Speaking openly about your weaknesses also increases your credibility. Here’s Griscom: “If I’m willing to tell them what’s wrong with my business, investors think, ‘There must be an awful lot that’s right with it.’”

I’ve recently tried this approach in presenting papers at faculty workshops and conferences. I begin by laying out my argument and devote the last 5 minutes of my talk to explaining its weaknesses. This approach has worked remarkably well as the audience, instead of attacking my arguments, starts brainstorming how to fix the weaknesses I identified.

6.  Moderate your radicalism.

Radical thinking is necessary to generate original ideas, but selling them to the public often requires moderation:

Coalitions often fall apart when people refuse to moderate their radicalism. That was one of the major failures of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a protest against economic and social inequality that began in 2011. That year, polls showed that the majority of Americans supported the movement, but it soon fell apart. Activist Srdja Popovic marvels that its extreme positioning alienated most of its potential allies. Its fatal error, he argues, was naming the movement after the radical tactic of camping out, which few people find attractive. He believes that had the group simply relabeled itself “The 99 Percent,” it might still exist. The Occupy name “implied that the only way you could belong was if you dropped everything you were doing and started occupying something,” Popovic writes.

On similar terms, when you pitch original ideas to others, appeal to the other person’s values: “Instead of assuming that others share our principles, or trying to convince them to adopt ours, we ought to present our values as a means of pursuing theirs. It’s hard to change other people’s ideals. It’s much easier to link our agendas to familiar values that people already hold.”

7.  Appoint a devil’s advocate.

Grant argues that “The easiest way to encourage non-conformity is to introduce a single dissenter.” Dissenting opinions are useful, even where they are wrong, because they can kick a group out of “groupthink” mode. You can follow Google’s lead:

To ensure that authentic dissenters voiced their viewpoints earlier, Bock’s team created the “Canaries”—a group of trusted engineers across the company who represent diverse viewpoints, and have a reputation both for being sensitive to adverse conditions and for speaking their minds. They took their name from the nineteenth-century practice of using canaries to detect deadly gases in coal mines. Before Google’s people operations team introduces a major change in policy, they often run it by the Canaries for critical feedback. They’re part advisory board, part focus group, and they’ve become an invaluable safeguard to make sure Googlers’ voices are heard. By reaching out to them in advance, one member of Bock’s team explains, “Our biggest complainers become our strongest advocates.”

Merck employed a similar strategy to its benefit:

At the pharmaceutical giant Merck, CEO Kenneth Frazier decided to motivate his executives to take a more active role in leading innovation and change. He asked them to do something radical: generate ideas that would put Merck out of business. For the next two hours, the executives worked in groups, pretending to be one of Merck’s top competitors. Energy soared as they developed ideas for drugs that would crush theirs and key markets they had missed. Then, their challenge was to reverse their roles and figure out how to defend against these threats. This “kill the company” exercise is powerful because it reframes a gain-framed activity in terms of losses. When deliberating about innovation opportunities, the leaders weren’t inclined to take risks. When they considered how their competitors could put them out of business, they realized that it was a risk not to innovate. The urgency of innovation was apparent.

The full book is chock-full of useful insights and well worth the read.

Grab your copy here.

The Contrarian Handbook
The Status Quo.

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