Best Facebook meme recently? “In a world, full of princesses dare to be Batman.” Originality is highly prized, but it’s hard to define and even harder to apply in a culture that often rewards conformity. Adam Grant, Organisational Psychologist and author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, asserts originals are people who stand up and speak up, value curiosity and often search for the better option. While “originals” sound like the cast of The Breakfast Club, Grant is not talking about a personality type, but rather specific personality traits like a reluctance to reject the status quo.
What is an original thinker?
Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon founded Spotify, a music streaming service with more than 75 million users. It is one of the most popular digital destinations to listen to music on a computer, smartphone or tablet and has been touted as one of the world’s most successful start-ups. However, before Spotify was a renowned million-dollar app, it was just two guys in an apartment trying to come up with an idea.
Ek states: “I had two passions growing up – one was music, one was technology. I tried to play in a band for a while, but I was never talented enough to make it. One day came along and I decided to combine the two [passions] – and there was Spotify.” Grant would describe these two as originals as they see failure as an opportunity for learning, not a setback. Originals, as described by Grant, have three key behaviours: (a) they take a long time to get moving; (b) they have the same self-doubt as others, but they interact with it differently; and (c) they have a history of failures before success.
Tortoise wins the Race
Originals are quick to start but they’re slow to finish. Watching Grant’s TED talk, he points to the fact that some degree of procrastination facilitates the creative process. How did he come to this conclusion? Grant, a self-confessed “precrastinator” – someone who gets his work done much too early to avoid any last-minute panic – began studying very successful people who appeared to work to tight deadlines but were still able to come up with great ideas. In a series of studies, Grant was able to show that procrastination gives you time to reflect on the idea.
Now, before we all throw away our to-do lists, there is a caveat. When it comes to procrastination, there is a happy medium – too much procrastination is unproductive, but so is too little. Grant found that moderate procrastinators were 16 per cent more creative than chronic procrastinators.
Grant uses the example of Warby Parker, a billion-dollar American eyewear company. Grant was initially approached by its founders to invest, but because they were dragging their heels for six months, he assumed they were going to miss the market. He felt they were too slow to get moving so he passed. He missed out on a billion-dollar industry.
Grant used this as a learning opportunity and wrote several books on people who share similar stories to the founders of Warby Parker. Through this missed opportunity, Grant learned that the founders were not worried about being the first on the market. They were trying to figure out how to get people to be comfortable ordering glasses online. Their carefree attitude was based on being the better supplier, not the first.
A study of more than 50 product categories compared the “first movers” – those who created the market – with the “improvers” – those who introduced something different and better. It showed the first movers had a failure rate of 47 per cent, compared with only eight percent for the improvers. Grant uses the example of Facebook waiting to build a social network until after Myspace and Friendster. He states we need to move away from the focus being who is first to the market, towards who is better.
Full of doubt and fear
Grant states that original thinkers have the same fear and doubt as others, but they just manage it better. Most people are, in fact, quite capable of novel thinking and problem solving, if given the support to act. When everyone thinks in similar ways, growth is often stagnated. Originals are reportedly the ones who fail the most, because they’re the ones who try the most but how do we know which ones are the best? From a business perspective, nine out of 10 start-ups will fail and, more depressingly, almost 50 per cent of new businesses, independent of the industry, don’t last four years.
So how can we capitalise on being original? Some of the answer comes from Grant, when he talks about focusing on being better, often improving on preexisting products. Additionally, reflection on the barriers or obstacles that interfere with an idea also increases creativity. Fortune magazine reported the top reason start-ups failed was that “they make products no one wants.” A careful survey of failed start-ups determined that 42 per cent of them identified the “lack of a market need for their product” as the single biggest reason for their failure. Business is an area where being an “original” is a good predictor of success, but what about other areas?
Back to the classroom
One of the biggest areas of conformity is the education system. I am not criticising the current curriculum or system, but do have some questions about what we emphasise. I often find it interesting that despite evidence showing that the more versatile the individual, the better chance they have of succeeding, we prize conformity.
A child is considered a success or gifted within this system if they reach the top of the pyramid. Research has found child prodigies rarely become adult geniuses who change the world. Grant states “we assume that they must lack the social and emotional skills to function in society, but when you look at the evidence, this explanation doesn’t stack up as less than a quarter of gifted children suffer from social and emotional problems. What holds them back is that they don’t learn to be original”. In other words, what has been reinforced is a practised skill not the reinforcement of generating new ideas. Creativity has shown to have huge payoffs, but how do we encourage creativity within the schooling system? How can we embrace individuality rather than steer children back to the mainstream? And how we can support our teachers to do this when have they so many demands placed on them?
To be original you do not need to try to be different, you just need to start nurturing those ideas at the back of your mind. Lightbulb moments do not tend to occur when we are meditating on a hill, but rather when we are engaged on other activities. What original looks like will be different from one person to the next. While history would tell us we can’t all create the telephone or invent the next best thing, we can all create new innovations in our lives. From a more efficient way to manage your money to a plan to get your kids to eat their vegetables. Whatever scale you use, allow yourself to be different and think differently.
To quote a world-famous innovator, the late Steve Jobs, “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”