“The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.” Adam Grant
We often equate originality with being the first to do something, having a unique talent or ability that no one else possesses and most importantly, not copying others. The first two are realistic but the third is seriously flawed.
Everything we do is a manifestation of something we have experienced, read, thought about or seen. There is nothing that is truly “original” and if you actually had something that was – it would be so alien to us we wouldn’t understand it.
Most of us think the surest path to originality is experience. If I were to reach the pinnacle of my pursuit, I would be able to think of creative solutions that no one else could think of? Right?
But, there lies a paradox in achievement.
People who are celebrated as great prodigies aren’t actually innovators. Instead, they outperform people on the traditional path of life, they aren’t trail blazing an entirely new path, they’re just chugging very successfully along an old one.
Research shows that child prodigies, despite their early talent and abilities don’t generally learn to be original. As they perform in the highest arenas: winning national competitions, becoming chess champions and violin virtuosos – something tragic happens.
As Adam Grant points out,
“Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies and beautiful Beethoven symphonies, but never compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to the codified rules of established games, rather than inventing their own rules or their own games.”
It turns out that some things, consistently and effectively shape creative people. I’ve been searching for these all my life in an attempt to fix my “uncreativeness” and I can reliably say I haven’t found them.
However, I have met a man who has – Adam Grant.
Grant is an intellectual giant, a professor at the prestigious Wharton School of Business and one of the youngest most highly-rated professors there. In his newest book “Originals” Grant explores originality and sheds light on how we can become more creative and in return – live better and more fulfilled lives.
Before I get into what builds and nourishes originality. Let me describe it in one simple succinct sentence:
Creativity starts with asking why and not accepting the default.
We too often take the status quo for granted and think that we must accept things as they are. The rules of the system and life are created by people. Understanding that the rules don’t define you and starting to question is the first step.
You might want to write some of these down. They might just change the way you approach your work and life.
1. Triple the Amount of Work You Produce
Every innovator swings and misses and the number of those misses are often prolific.
- Vincent Van Gogh produced 2000 works of art and only became famous after his death.
- Emily Dickinson only had a few of her more than 1,800 poems published.
- Seuss’s first book was refused by 27 publishers before getting accepted.
- Harland Sanders, later known as Colonel Sanders continuously failed at multiple careers for over 50 years (including being a farmhand, army mule-tender and motel operator) before finally starting KFC at 62-years old.
The point is, the best way to increase your chances of success and creativity are by simply producing more work. The more output the higher the chances of one of them being exceptionally great.
2. Immerse Yourself in a New Domain.
In research by the Arts Foster Scientific Success Study, a group of researchers set out to collect data on all the Nobel Prize winning scientists of the last century. Their findings showed that the majority of Nobel Prize winners also actively engaged in other creative pursuits: dance, music, acting or sports.
Originality increases as we broaden its frame of reference. Taking up another hobby or pursuit exposes us to new mental models, which in turn provide new perspective to look back on our previous work.
Mental models are the equivalent of tools, when we have more tools we are more versatile and consequently, more creative. When we lack tools and only have a hammer everything starts looking like a nail.
Grant points out three ways we can expand our creative repertoires:
- Learn a new craft or skill that challenges us to think differently and do something entirely new.
- Change your job or position. Getting trained to do different tasks involves being exposed to new ideas and takes you out of your comfort zone.
- Learn a different culture. Living abroad can help you become more innovative; however, you can experience new cultures by just reading about them.
3. Procrastinate Strategically
Procrastination is often thought of as the villain of productivity. It’s always just waiting around the corner to suck you in and devour your time. While procrastination is usually detrimental, like all things in life it’s not so black and white.
Procrastination is needed for creativity. The open space where we play with divergent thinking and just do what we want gives time for ideas to incubate and form into new shapes and flavors.
If done right procrastination can provide your brain with just the respite it needs to surprise you with an ingeniously new idea.
4. Seek More Feedback
We all know that feedback is essential to growth. This is a no-brainer and I’m sure you can find a thousand articles about feedback cycles.
However Grant’s research shows that not all feedback is made equal. If you want feedback that works, isn’t overly biased and more accurate than any other form – get feedback from your peers.
The best feedback comes from those you work with, not your superiors. Seek others in your industry and field to tell you what they think. Managers and supervisors will present options that are often too critical and lack the unique insight that your peers can provide.
5. Balance Your Risks
When taking a risk in one domain, offset it by being conservative in another.
If you have a side business or venture, don’t quit your day job and go all in. Grant found that a large number of successful entrepreneurs, including the founders of Google, kept their full-time employment well into the starting phases of building their companies.
Following your passion isn’t always the safest idea as I’ve talked about before. Instead bring it along for the ride.
6. Make Your Ideas Familiar to Others
The mere exposure effect is a cognitive bias wherein we show a tendency to favor objects or people we have previously seen. It’s been theorized that since we have already seen this person or object and feel comfortable with them, we no longer have to spend our precious brainpower analyzing what their intentions are, or if they are a threat.
Less cognitive resource usage = more I like you.
When originals have new ideas they couch their ideas in already familiar terms. Like a Trojan Horse, ideas can slip by undetected. Think of this example:
Disney directors almost decided to kill the Lion King. No one could understand it and the plot seemed too “out there” to work. It was destined to go straight to the DVD aisle, until one of the younger creative directors mentioned that the Lion King was basically Hamlet – with animals. Connecting it to that idea gave the Lion King a new identity, one that people could understand.
When originals want people to accept their radically different ideas, they couch them in already understood terms.
7. How Originals Manage Emotion
Motivation isn’t a stable entity; even the most innovative people have their moments of creative drought.
However there are a couple of things that originals do differently:
- When conviction falters, they think of the progress they have already made.
- By focusing on progress, you’ll be more committed to act.
8. Don’t Try To Calm Down
When feeling upset or frustrated we are often told to find a way to vent our anger. Whether that is through talking to someone else about how you feel or simply destroying an innocent inanimate object, research shows it doesn’t help. Actually far from it, it actually exacerbates the problem.
Instead, reframe anxiety.
- Fear indicates something that you haven’t done before, or need to try.
- Frustration is the “burn” of the workout, while the reward lies ahead.
- Confidence isn’t a prerequisite to start an activity. Rather you should commit to the activity first then the confidence will follow.
9. The Status Quo Will Persist If You Don’t Resist
With every situation or problem we are only given four options:
- Exit – leave the scenario.
- Voice – share what you think and feel and ask for a solution.
- Persistence – persist in the same pattern of existence as before.
- Neglect – neglect your creative potential for the ease and comfort of conformity.
Grant states that only voice and exit improve your circumstances. If we are stuck in the status quo we need to either speak up and voice our perspective or simply leave. The opposite is a surefire way to damage your creative potential.
Your Ideas are all Second-Hand
Grant’s book shows that the most groundbreaking innovations in the world aren’t created via random acts of genius but rather by systematic intelligent dissatisfaction with the status quo. In other words, it’s those people who decided to finally stop and question what the hell was going on and actually ask – why.
This question translated into radical change and an engaged desire to explore what else was out there. The end result was originality.
Last post I wrote about Vuja De, the opposite of Déjà vu, when we experience something old with new eyes. When we drive ourselves to ask why things are the way they are, we gain a fresh perspective on old problems. The best part of this is when we start to look at the systems around us and realize that most of them are from social origins.
Rules and systems are created by humans, just like you and I. Awareness is the first step in contemplating how we can change them.
In exploring this topic for the last month, the question that keeps echoing in my head is what have I accepted as the status quo and – does a better option exist?
The solution might not be easy or possible to find, but this question can start you off on a path to a better and more original life.
It’s important to remember that even the biggest success, if by someone else’s standards, is still an act of conformity.