Adam Grant and Dan Pink on Originality, Tiger Moms, and the Benefits of Procrastination

“You have kids who can play these beautiful Mozart sonatas, but they’ve never learned how to compose a single original note of their own. Most of the people who do original things are much more likely to have broad interests and curiosities.”

Adam Grant and Dan Pink are two of today’s foremost thinkers in the worlds of business and social science. Adam, known for his bestselling books Give and Take and Originals, is an award-winning professor at the Wharton School of Business. Dan Pink is the author of several bestselling books on business, work, and behavior, including To Sell Is Human, A Whole New Mind, and Drive. They recently sat down for a conversation on originality and excellence at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in New York. The full video can be viewed here.

Dan: You remember that Apple ad, Think Different? It says, “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers.” Adam’s book is about what originals are: crazy, zany, rebels.

Adam: It turns out that originals procrastinate all the time, and they feel a ton of fear.

Dan: Okay, so why do we get it wrong? What’s the misconception?

Adam: We only tell part of the story. We hear about Bill Gates dropping out of college, we think he’s this swashbuckling daredevil, and we leave out the part where he doesn’t drop out, he takes a leave of absence and is bankrolled by his parents and has a year of software sales under his belt. Doesn’t sound very risky, does it?

Dan: You’re saying that a lot of originals are really people who hedge risk effectively. If you’re running an organization, you want to hire originals, right?

Adam: I hope so.

Dan: You ask people, “What web browser do you use?”

Adam: We can predict your job performance and your commitment just by looking at what browser you use. It turns out that Chrome and Firefox users are better at their jobs, and they stay around 15% longer than Internet Explorer and Safari.

Dan: Tell us the story of how somebody discovered that.

Adam: It was this economist, Mike Hausmann, who has data on over 50,000 people working customer service at call centers. He’s trying to predict their job performance and realizes that he has been accidentally [tracking] what browser you used to log in to fill out a survey. He finds this consistent advantage—customer service reps, if they use Chrome or Firefox, get to customer satisfaction levels in 90 days that take poor Internet Explorer and Safari users 120 days to get to. I wanted to know why. Is this a technical advantage?

All four browser groups have the same typing speed and the same amount of computer knowledge. A lot of people looked at the study and were like, “Great, if I want to get better at my job I should just download a new browser.” No, it’s what the browser shows about your personality. In order to get Chrome or Firefox, you have to take some initiative. Internet Explorer and Safari came pre-installed on your computer, and you accepted the default. There are some people who say, “I wonder if there is something better out there,” and that’s a window into how they tend to approach their lives.

Dan: Do you think that when you hire you should look for cultural fit?

Adam: If you’re early stages in your startup. Companies that hire on cultural fit when they’re small end up being less likely to fail and more likely to go public than the ones that hire on skills or star potential. Then they grow at much slower rates than all of their peer companies. It’s good to start, bad over time.

Dan: What do you do over time?

Adam: Over time, cultural fit gets you groupthink. “I want people who share our values” is code for “I’m going to hire people who are exactly like me.” What you want to do is hire on cultural contribution. Instead of asking, “What does our culture stand for, let’s replicate that.” You say, “What’s missing in our culture?” Bring in people who will enrich it.

Dan: Cultural contribution—are there questions you can ask about that? Are there qualities you should look for in somebody?

Adam: Yeah. One of my favorite questions is to ask people at the end of the interview, “How would you improve our hiring process?” Then you figure out, “Do they see a way that the culture could be better?”

Dan: You’re actually improving the process, but you’re also using it as proxy for identifying original thinkers. You do something else, in your classroom, that I found really fascinating. You talk about the importance of getting feedback and asking questions.

“I had an advisor who warned me, ‘There’s going to be a mutiny in class.’ I was very excited about that prospect.”

Adam: When I first started teaching I had no idea what I was doing and I was trying to figure out how to make the class better. Like most of us, I collected feedback forms about a month in, and I asked the students to write what they would like to see changed. But I wanted to learn from the students how to teach. I took all the comments, typed up verbatim, and then emailed them to the entire class.

Dan: Positive and negative alike?

Adam: Everything. It was mostly negative. I had an advisor who warned me, “There’s going to be a mutiny in class.” I was very excited about that prospect. But we devoted a class session to talking about what we could do about it. Like any good social scientist I did a content analysis of all the comments and said, “Look, there are five categories of issues that I think you all want to improve, here are a few proposals, what do you guys think?”

They basically became co-creators of the class and helped me redesign it. It became less awful and I learned a lot. There’s a lot of value in getting negative feedback in public, because in private I could have just ignored it, but standing in front of the whole class I was getting evaluated not just on how good the class was, but on how responsive I was. It forced me to listen and be less defensive, so I recommend having everyone you know hurl horrible feedback at you in front of as many people as possible.

Dan: Fascinating. Let’s talk about kids. You’re a father of three. You want to raise kids who are original thinkers, what’s some advice?

Adam: Teach values, not rules. If you study the parents of creative architects, and you compare them to technically skilled but unoriginal peers, the creative architects’ parents were constantly engaging them in dialogue about their core principles and who they want to be. They had conversations like, “Excellence really matters in this family. What does success mean to you?” This is such an interesting contrast from how most of us approach parenting, where I catch myself, the moment our five year-old misbehaves, saying “New rule!” And then I never enforce it.

Instead of “don’t get up from your seat because I said so,” I would love to be in the habit of saying, “one of the reasons we stay at the table together is because we care about having a family dinner, and respect for other people is important.”

Dan: This idea of rules and principles with kids is quite fascinating. We always want to resort to rules, to set limits, and you’re saying that might be a mistake.

Adam: When you focus on rules, kids don’t get to take ownership over them.

Dan: Is that what’s driving this?

Adam: I think it’s most of the effect. If you look at the kids rated in the top 5% of creativity in their schools, compared with those who are considered more ordinary, they have an average six rules in the ordinary family, and less than one rule in the creative family.

When you focus on values and principles, kids actually think about them, and they decide how they want to live by them and they feel a sense of commitment to them because they chose them. There’s intrinsic motivation.

Dan: Are originals more likely to be first borns, later born, somewhere in between?

Adam: I am a first born. I hate these results because later borns tend to be more original.

Dan: Why is that, and how do we know?

Adam: Birth order research is probably the most controversial area of social science that I’ve ever looked into. But there are a number of [studies] suggesting that first borns tend to be more conventional high achievers—more likely to be Nobel Prize winning scientists, presidents, astronauts—whereas later borns tend to do more original things. They’re more likely to challenge the status quo. There’s some evidence that if you look at all the brothers who have ever played Major League Baseball, the younger siblings actually try to steal more bases.

Dan: The top eight or nine base stealers, almost all of them are later borns, and the other ones are only children.

Adam: Yeah, only children are almost impossible to predict. There are a couple of explanations for it. One is “niche-picking”: it’s hard to be smarter or stronger than your older siblings, but you can be more creative and stand out by going against the grain. I think the more compelling explanation is that parental freedom increases with each child.

We’ve all lived this. Our first daughter was the female version of a bubble boy, not allowed to have any contact with anything that could possibly contaminate her. Whereas with our son, our third, it’s like, “You could eat my shoe if you want, I just hope it doesn’t taste that bad.” You take more risk, you realize it doesn’t always go badly, and you’re more comfortable rocking the boat a little bit.

Dan: Is it possible to be original in government?

Adam: Of course it is. Originals are people who just [look] at the world and ask, “How could it be better and what can I do to change it?” You don’t have to be a creative genius. It’s about making suggestions, rethinking outdated practices. Carmen Medina is a good example. She’s CIA, an analyst in the 1990s, and starts to worry about a lack of information sharing among intelligence agencies. People pulled her behind closed doors and said, “Carmen, stop this. This is career suicide.” But she keeps speaking up, and it does torpedo her career, and then she realizes she needs her own status before exercising power.

“When you try to exercise power before you’ve earned respect, people don’t want to hear it.”

Dan: This is a really important concept—the difference between status and power and how they work together.

Adam: Yes. Power is authority. It’s the ability to tell other people what to do because of your position or resources and influence.

Status is respect. It’s what people think of you, not your position or possessions. If you separate these two, one of the biggest problems you can run into—especially if you’re a woman or a member of a minority group—is when you try to exercise power before you’ve earned respect, people don’t want to hear it. What she learned was she needed to earn status first. She took the most conservative job she could think of. She got a position protecting the CIA against security leaks, which she was not very excited about.

She ends up getting promoted to deputy director of intelligence. She becomes part of the system before double crossing it, and she ends up greenlighting the first Wikipedia technology, to share information across agencies. It’s prevented a few terrorist attacks.

Dan: So the takeaway is establish status before exercising power?

Adam: Yes.

Dan: Especially if you’re a person of color or a woman?

Adam: Yeah, or a number of any non-dominant group. If you’re a marketing person in an organization you can’t go near, same thing.

Dan: Let’s go out of government into politics, because it’s political season. Is it hard for a politician to be an original? Does politics prize conformity over originality?

Adam: Remember Occupy Wall Street? It fizzled out. I was puzzled by that, because you had a numerical advantage, 99 versus one. Occupy Wall Street made a naming mistake.

You don’t name a movement after a tactic. It’s like, “Hey guys we’re going to occupy Wall Street. All right we’re there, now what? We don’t know where to go from here. We’re done, we’ve occupied.”

You need to organize the movement around the goal a majority group could get passionate about. You should call it the 99% and people will say, “I’m not an occupier, but yeah I belong to that group.”

“I always thought common goals bring people together, but more often they drive people apart. The more extreme group usually looks down its nose at the more moderate group.”

Dan: It’s a naming mistake, I see that. It’s somewhat exclusionary, doesn’t reach out to enough people. But you’ve also said, in fostering movements, that sometimes counter-intuitive tactics matter more than values.

Adam: Yeah. I always thought common goals bring people together. If we share a purpose or an objective then we should want to work together, but more often they drive people apart. Freud called it the narcissism of small differences. The more extreme group usually looks down its nose at the more moderate group. So vegans hate vegetarians even more than they dislike meat eaters.

Dan: Exactly.

Adam: Because they’re sell-outs, they’re not purists. There’s also data which shows that if you’re an Orthodox Jew you dislike Reform Jews more than you dislike atheists. You can’t often align with people who share your goals, because they start to see these little differences that lead them to say, “You’re not like me.” It’s the common tactics or methods that often enable people to work together.

Dan: Okay. I want to know, how do you structure your day? Do you get up insanely early, stay up extremely late? Does it involve oceans of Red Bull? You’re so unbelievably productive.

Adam: I don’t feel productive, I feel like I’m constantly wasting time. As a psychologist, I can’t help but pay attention to the fluctuations of my own productivity. What do I do? Sit down at the computer before doing anything else, as soon as our kids are off to school. I will sit down until I’m done with a thought. My college roommates once threw a party while I was working. I didn’t notice.

Dan: It’s a matter of figuring out that one important thing you have to do, focusing on that, and not stopping until you’re done?

Adam: Yeah. When I have things that I’m intrinsically interested in, what I usually do is I treat those as rewards. First, I have to get done in order to get to the reward of creative thinking. I’ll say, “If I finish this project a few hours early, I’ll let myself have some creative thinking time.”

Dan: Great suggestions. Now let’s open this up for questions from the audience.

Audience: In your New York Times piece, you wrote practice makes perfect, but it does not make new. Could you expand on that?

“You have kids who can play these beautiful Mozart sonatas, but they’ve never learned how to compose a single original note of their own. Most of the people who do original things are much more likely to have broad interests and curiosities.”

Adam: I wrote a piece on raising a creative child, with no awareness that every single reader of the New York Times has a gifted child. Literally every email, every comment, was “My daughter is gifted.”

I was trying to speak to the tiger moms and also the Lombardi dads out there, who are drilling their kids to try to master one thing. I was thinking about poor Andre Agassi, with his father giving him a ping pong ball when he was a year old, and forcing him to play tennis. When kids practice the same thing over and over, they learn to master stuff that is already known, but they don’t learn to think for themselves.

You have kids who can play these beautiful Mozart sonatas, but they’ve never learned how to compose a single original note of their own. Most of the people who do original things are only moderate experts in one area where they practice. They’re much more likely to have broad interests and curiosities outside.

Audience: What are the secrets of procrastinating and pre-crastinating?

Adam: Okay, this is a confession: I am a pre-crastinator. That panic you feel when you have something that’s due in a couple of hours and you haven’t even started it? Imagine if you felt that eight months ahead of schedule—that’s me. I have found that this is really useful for getting things done. I tend to start things early and finish them early, but I had a student who came to me and said, “I have my most creative ideas when I’m procrastinating.”

I challenged her to go out and test it, and she went into a bunch of companies and surveyed people, about how often they procrastinate, and then got the bosses to rate how creative they were. Sure enough, moderate procrastinators were rated as more creative than pre-crastinators like me, who always did things early. I asked what happened to the chronic procrastinators. She said, “I don’t know, nobody filled out my survey.” We actually did find they were less creative too, because they had to rush forward with their first idea or the easiest, as opposed to the most novel one.

We did a bunch of experiments and showed that there was causal effect. This happened while I was working on Originals, and so I thought what better time to try procrastinating, than in the chapter of procrastination. It was agonizing. I put this chapter away and I worked on all the others first, and I hated myself the whole way. I made a to do list for how to procrastinate.

It literally said Step One: Do not make progress toward your goals. Step Two: make progress toward the goal of not making progress. I left sentences unfinished, so instead of completing a thought I would literally leave them hanging, and I found that they stayed active in the back of my mind, and gave me access to a bunch of ideas I never would have thought of. My editor doesn’t like the idea that I procrastinate now, but it makes me more creative if less productive.

Audience: Is there anything you learned in writing the second book that causes you to correct or improve the first book?

Adam: Yes. One of the big misconceptions about Give and Take was, I wrote this whole book about how helping others could either sink your career or accelerate it. All these people said, “This book is about how nice guys finish first.” No. Being a giver is not about being nice. This is often confused. There’s a personality trait called agreeableness, which is about being warm, friendly, polite and welcoming.

Disagreeable people are critical, skeptical and challenging, and most people assume that agreeable people are generous givers, and disagreeable people are selfish takers, but there is no correspondence between those axes. Because agreeable and disagreeable, that’s your outer veneer. How pleasant is it to interact with you? Whereas giving and taking are your inner motives, what are your intentions towards others? We’ve stereotyped a lot of givers as nice people, when in fact they’re quite disagreeable, and we‘ve also taken a lot of agreeable people, and think they’re givers when in fact they are going to throw us under the bus.

What I would redo going back is to say, “The most valuable givers in our lives are the disagreeable givers, because they’re the ones who challenge the status quo, who are nonconformists, who will give you the critical feedback you need to hear.”

Audience: Organization leaders focus on employee engagement from the standpoint of getting employees’ input, feedback, voice—and then your chapter contradicts it, saying they really don’t want that. How do you be authentic with employees going forward?

“I think engagement is the wrong outcome. What I care about is meaning.”

Adam: It’s really hard. I find the employee engagement movement problematic, because it’s basically a manipulation tool. It’s about saying, “If only we could get you to bring your whole self to work, all of your thoughts and your energies and your family, too. Then we could get more out of you,” and we’ll try to convince you this is a win-win. More often it’s a managerial manipulation technique.

I think engagement is the wrong outcome. What I care about is meaning. People need to find their work meaningful. That means they need to have tasks that they think matter, and they need to have relationships with people that they care about. If you step aside for people to work on things that have consequences for other people, then a lot of engagement follows, but engagement is not the focus.

Audience: What is it about creativity that still puzzles you?

Dan: There’s never any doubt about the creativity of a three year-old—what I want to know is, what happens? Is there a logic behind that, that you have to inhibit a certain amount of creativity in order for people to do other things, or is there something like a pollution in our system that somehow suffocates that? That’s my question.

Adam: We know a ton about how to come up with new ideas. We know that you need to be broad enough, not just deep. We know that you need to come up with lots of ideas. What we know almost nothing about is idea selection. How do you get people to avoid false positives and false negatives? Why did so many Silicon Valley visionaries think the Segway was going to revolutionize personal transportation? On the flip side, why did so many so-called knowledgeable people reject Seinfeld and Harry Potter?

We need to know way more about the idea evaluation process, why are middle managers so risk averse, and how do you get them to open their minds to new ideas? If you can solve that, you will be employed for many, many lifetimes.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.