Adam Grant and Malcolm Gladwell on What It Means to Be Original

“Conformity is a dangerous thing. Conformity is about saying, ‘I don’t agree with your ideas or your values, but I’m going to follow you anyway…'”

Malcolm Gladwell, known for his deep inquiries into how the social sciences impact our day-to-day lives, recently sat down with Adam Grant, a Wharton psychology professor whose latest book, Originals, deals with the character traits that foster creative success. In this conversation, at 92nd Street Y, Gladwell and Grant delve into entrepreneurship, college admissions, and what makes a good president. Read on to find out what these great minds have to say about ideas old and new and why we process them the way we do.

Malcolm Gladwell: Originals is essentially an argument about character. There is an ideal temperament for dealing productively with the world of ideas. It’s a book in which the word intelligence barely appears.

You’re in this very interesting tradition of trying to reorient our thinking away from the IQ fundamentalists. If you’re right — what truly distinguishes people in complex environments is our matters of temperament — what does that mean for the various institutions that we have created in our world?

For example, you teach at Penn, an Ivy League school, which selects people largely on the basis of their SAT score. Is there any correlation between your SAT score and the kinds of questions of temperament and character you’re talking about in this book?

Adam Grant: No.

Malcolm: Does that suggest that your own school goes about choosing students all wrong?

Adam: Yes. Don’t lead the witness or anything.

Malcolm: If I made you Admissions Director at Penn tomorrow, what happens?

Adam: The school would implode, first of all. After that, I would go back to the drawing board and say, “What are we even trying to select on?”

I’m a big fan of Barry Schwartz‘s view that the college admissions process is largely a smokescreen, and that there are at least five times as many students academically similar to each other who could get in that don’t.

We might as well just say, “Here’s our bar and let’s either do a lottery or let’s treat it like the medical residency matching program, where students have to rank and prioritize and then you can only get into one place that also chooses you.” That would make people spend their time probably in more valuable ways in high school.

I’d put a lot more emphasis on originality. I really like the George Lucas proposal for this. He wants every child to go through school thinking about a creative portfolio and at the end of high school, submit that with a college application.

Malcolm: What do you mean by a creative portfolio?

Adam: You submit something that’s your own original work. It could be a film that you made, a story that you wrote, a song that you created, something original that’s an act of creative self expression. I would love to see that added to the admissions process along with the standard SAT, essays, grades.

Malcolm: That’s about selection. It strikes me that your ideas have perhaps even more implications for what happens at the school.

Adam: You only put me in charge of Admissions. You want me to do the rest too?

Malcolm: Now I’d like you to be dean. If you are Dean of Adam Grant U, do we care more about looking for these kinds of kids at the point of admissions, or creating these kinds of kids over the course of the four years?

Adam: That seems like a false dichotomy, doesn’t it? We want both. It’s easier to influence the selection process than to know how to socialize students in college.

Malcolm: Social psychologists are telling me that they don’t know how to socialize students in college?

Adam: Yes. I don’t know that we have as much influence on the socialization process as peers do. We can control the selection process completely.

Malcolm: Wait, hold on. A teacher at a college is saying that the best way to socialize a student is at the point of admission and not what actually goes on? For your 65 grand, you’re not actually getting any experience that could be controlled by the faculty? Is that what you’re saying?

Adam: Maybe 63 grand of that is uncontrolled by the faculty.

Malcolm: Are you suggesting you’ve become highly disillusioned with the efficacy of higher education?

Adam: That assumes I was illusioned to begin with. I’m actually serious. By the time people come to college, they make a lot of their own choices. It’s a little bit like the Judith Rich Harris arguments about parents not mattering, how preschoolers supposedly pay more attention to what their peers do, than what their parents do.

When you get to college, there are very few people who say, “I’m going to find out what professors think is important, and then I’m going to go follow that.” Peers have a much bigger influence.

Malcolm: Does your creative portfolio run the risk of simply creating a new kind of admissions tyranny that favors the arty kid? One reaction I had to your book was that you’re describing a kind of person, but we can’t all be originals. Or can we?

“There are lots of ways that people could think for themselves and be original, that still involves saying, ‘I believe this person’s leadership is compelling and I want to follow.'”

Adam: We can. We can do it in our own domains. I do worry about this. I wrote this op-ed about raising a creative child. I was quite taken aback to discover that every single reader of the New York Times has a gifted child. You start to see the comments and the emails come in and you realize that the question is, how can I create a formula for not only raising a super smart, overly gritty child but now my kid has to be an original too and I want to program that as much as I can from fetus stage?

Conformity is a dangerous thing. Conformity is about saying, “I don’t agree with your ideas or your values, but I’m going to follow you anyway because something bad is going to happen to me if I stand out instead of fitting in.”

There are lots of ways that people could think for themselves and be original, that still involves saying, “I believe this person’s leadership is compelling and I want to follow.” We should see people being original in different domains of their lives.

Malcolm: This last year has been marked by an extraordinary amount of unrest on college campuses, particularly elite college campuses. Through the prism of this book, how you would like to see students think and act? Are you cheered or dismayed by what’s been going on?

Adam: It’s a little bit of both. I want to see students standing up for their beliefs and challenging systems and rules that don’t make sense to them, biases and sources of prejudice that they see.

On the other hand, some of the expressions of that have been less than constructive. I had a colleague once who used to say, “If you’re going to point out that the emperor has no clothes, you’d better be a good tailor.” There’s variance in how much preparation for tailoring was done in these situations.

Malcolm: You’re raising the bar awfully high for 19 year olds. If you’re saying that you like nonconformity, but only nonconformity that conforms to a rational constructive set of principles, then you’re not really interested in nonconformity, are you? You’ve got to take the bad part with the good part.

Adam: This is one of the problems with encouraging nonconformity: you don’t get to decide where it goes. It can be very easily taken in all sorts of directions that we might not agree with.

“One of my favorite scholars always talks about this idea that you should argue like you’re right, and listen like you’re wrong.”

One of my favorite scholars always talks about this idea that you should argue like you’re right, and listen like you’re wrong. That is a fantastic model for nonconformity. What we see in a lot of these college campuses is people are only arguing as if they’re right, and not being willing to change their minds or admit that they’re wrong.

Malcolm: That’s precisely what dismayed me about the reaction, now that you say it that way. That was a failure on the part of the adults in the room, not the students. At Yale it struck me, for example, as opposed to using this as an opportunity to say exactly that — “Now, let’s listen to the other side,” they just rolled over and said, “The paying customer gets what the paying customer wants,” which struck me as being a bit of a sham.

Along these same lines, when you were talking about nonconformity as being messy, you have a really fascinating chapter about Bridgewater Associates, the hedge fund run by Ray Dalio. Since your book has come out, Ray Dalio has been in the news for precisely the thing that you were talking about in your book.

Adam: It’s a culture unlike any I’ve ever seen before. They have a lot of very clear, strong principles that Ray has articulated, my favorite of which is that no one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it.

That means that if you see something that you disagree with, you are expected to share it. In fact, you could be fired for not doing that. Even though they have a strong culture around these values and their socialization process, one of the things you’re asked about every single principle is, “Do you agree? If not, why not?”

You can go into an interview and you might be taken aback by how strong this culture is. You might make an offhand comment to your interviewer, “Gosh, that was intense.” You will get dragged right back into the people you were just speaking with to share it with them directly because they don’t believe in backstabbing there. They want you to frontstep. It’s an actual term they use there.

They’re like, “Look, this political behavior is essentially gossiping and being a slimy weasel. You might as well say it to people’s faces so they can learn from it.” As a result, they videotape or audiotape every meeting and they want to make sure that people are radically transparent so that they can build, instead of a democracy, an idea meritocracy where the best information, as opposed to the most popular perspective, wins.

Malcolm: I know you have some qualms about that, but in the main, do you think that that culture is part of what contributes to making a successful firm?

“The only way that you beat the market is you think differently from everyone else.”

Adam: I do. They’ve done a phenomenal job avoiding group-think. They’ve been arguably the most successful hedge fund ever, in the last 40 years. They were one of the few to anticipate the financial crisis and start warning clients about it in 2007. The only way that you beat the market is you think differently from everyone else. They’ve really created a culture where people are expected to dissent. I would love to see more organizations operate that way.

Malcolm: There’s a big Wall Street Journal article about them. One video shows Mr. Dalio standing at a dry erase board and demonstrating how the marker ink won’t fully rub out with an eraser, according to people familiar with the video. Mr. Dalio prods Bridgewater employees at length about why they bought the dry erase board, why it doesn’t work and how the bad decision could have been avoided.

This is the side effect of radical openness. You end up with the founder and CEO of a multibillion dollar operation talking at length, castigating his employees about their choice of dry erase boards.

Adam: No, it’s not a side effect. It’s an active ingredient.

Malcolm: This is in a quote that I wanted to read on the same matter. “One former Bridgewater employee recalls debating with other employees for as long as an hour, whether a misused apostrophe in one of Mr. Dalio’s research reports was intentional or not.” The first and perhaps not terribly productive response I have to that is that they have a lot of time on their hands.

These cultures saying, “We are willing to devote a good deal more of our energy to the social management of dissent and honesty” are only possible under certain kinds of idealized circumstances. A firm that has algorithms doing its trading in 40% margins is a place where you can do that. Can you do this if you are making cars in Detroit?

Adam: You have to do this, at least a version of it. You look at a situation like this on its face and you’re like, “Wow, these people are wasting a lot of time.”

When you see a problem happen, most of life in organizations and life in general is just situations repeating themselves over and over again. There are only so many different kinds of situations you can run into. The question is, if we ended up with a marker that doesn’t work, is that revealing of something fundamentally problematic about our decision-making process? Could we use this as an instance to learn from a minor mistake, so that then we can avoid the major one? Bridgewater is looking for those needles in haystacks that suggest, “We have a deeper problem and we need to understand it.”

Malcolm: It’s very generous reading that.

Adam: I don’t actually think so. They hire a lot of very bright people who spend a lot of time thinking about how to navigate their culture. If this was just complete time wasted, they would have had a debate about that, and resolved it in favor of, “Let’s not talk about whiteboards and markers anymore.”

The fact that it continues to happen leads me to think that people see value in it, and at minimum that they’re learning to dissent in areas that probably aren’t ego-threatening, so that then you have the patterns built up for the time when you really need to challenge them.

Malcolm: You’re saying that those kinds of esoteric debates on relatively trivial matters are almost a rehearsal for more serious debates on questions of substance.

“Most of us don’t ever practice. We’re always playing the game.”

Adam: They’re like practice before the game. Most of us don’t ever practice. We’re always playing the game.

Malcolm: Here’s my question. Are they practicing before the game or do they so exhaust us that we have no energy left for the game?

Adam: They have a very high turnover rate in the first 18 months. It’s not a place for everyone. After that, turnover is pretty rare. What I heard from a lot of people is, “Look, I can make lots of money anywhere. What’s unique about this place is people tell me the truth and they give me critical feedback and I get better. After living in this environment, I can’t imagine going back somewhere where people are constantly saying nice things to my face and then stabbing me in the back. I just don’t want to live that way.”

Malcolm: Do you try and live your own life that way?

Adam: I do as much as I can. When I taught my first class ever, I collected feedback forms about a month in to find out how it was going. Then I decided I wanted to have a discussion with the class about how to improve it. I had a bunch of colleagues who said, “Don’t do this because if every one individually finds out that their complaints are shared, then there’s going to be a mutiny.”

I said, “Yeah, that’s possible, but I want to learn and I want to engage the class in helping me become a better teacher.” I typed up all the comments verbatim. I emailed them to the whole class. It was especially fun to send out a comment that said, “You remind us of a Muppet.” I was like, “Why didn’t you tell me which one? I still want to know to this day.”

Malcolm: That’s radical openness.

Adam: When I then had a class session devoted to discussing the feedback, I said, “Like any good organizational psychologist, I did a content analysis of all of the critical comments. Here are the five major categories of concerns. Here are some idea for how to address them. What do you think?” Then we discussed it. I learned a huge amount from it.

Criticism in public was actually helpful. I thought it would be more vulnerable and more embarrassing. But being on stage, I wasn’t just getting evaluated on the quality of my class. I was also getting evaluated on how well I took the feedback. Being there in public forced me to be receptive and listen, as opposed to defensive.

I’ve done that every year since and I feel like I learned something valuable and new every year.

Malcolm: I have to go back 10 minutes, to when we started talking about how this way of looking at the world ought to change the job of letting people into college. Let’s move on to another institution. How should this change the way we pick presidents?

First of all, it’s unbelievable that we have an election process that’s basically a popularity contest, instead of a competence contest.

Adam: Wow. We are not supposed to talk about any Wharton alums in public. I’m going to speak in generalities here. [Ed. Note: Donald Trump is a Wharton alum.] First of all, it’s unbelievable that we have an election process that’s basically a popularity contest, instead of a competence contest. I would be willing to vote for anyone who demonstrates effective leadership skills, decision making, forecasting, visioning, conflict resolution, various points on the ideology spectrum.

If they show me they can lead effectively, I want that person in charge of the country. If you look at research on American presidents, the most effective ones consistently were the ones who were willing to challenge the status quo. Look at Lincoln, for example. Lincoln was widely unpopular in his time for making some decisions that a lot of people disagreed with and yet, probably the most important thing that’s happened in this country to date.

I would love to see a process where we could figure out, “Who’s able to take an original, nonconforming vision and get other people behind it?” I would also explode the two-party system. It’s a disaster.

Malcolm: One of the great curiosities about the American electoral process, and I say this as a Canadian, is that it’s essentially structured around a series of debates. You’re selected on your debating skills. Then the minute you get into the office, you stop debating. It’s very odd. We might as well see if they are good at playing golf.

Adam: We actually do a fair amount of that too.

Malcolm: Then as I thought about it, when you give your character template that you think is so useful for original thinking, which has to do with self-reflection, humility, willingness to accept criticism, thoughtfulness, et cetera, all of those things are on display in a debate. Maybe the problem isn’t the debate. Maybe the problem is the way in which we’re interpreting behavior in a debate.

“Debates end up largely rewarding the person who is most successfully aggressive, as opposed to the person who is able to bring a new perspective to the table, or make us think differently.”

Adam: Debates end up largely rewarding the person who is most successfully aggressive, as opposed to the person who is able to bring a new perspective to the table, or make us think differently. Philip Tetlock‘s work on foxes and hedgehogs is so relevant here.

Hedgehogs know one thing well. They see the world black and white. Foxes know many things and are constantly looking at shades of gray. What Philip is always pointing out is that the candidates who are getting elected are the ones who speak like a hedgehog and who use very simple language, and are very clear about their one or two or three policies. That’s exactly the opposite of the people who are good at predicting the future and making decisions.

The candidate I want to vote for is the one who flip-flops all the time, the one who has sentences that don’t end necessarily in any clear direction, who’s grappling through complex ideas, but we don’t really want to vote for those people because we don’t trust them to steer the country.

Malcolm: You have a chapter that deals in part with Segway and Dean Kamen. You’re really quite hard on him. You talk about the reasons why so many smart people were wrong about the Segway. Lots of brilliant people in Silicon Valley said, “This is a game-changing, extraordinary piece of technology.” It did not live up to expectations in the marketplace. Why are you holding it against Dean Kamen?

Adam: I didn’t mean to be hard on Dean. I mean to be hard, actually, on the investors who bet on the Segway. That chapter was about false positives and false negatives, and how we have lots of original ideas in the world. The problem isn’t getting more of them, but rather betting on the right ones. We need to stop rejecting Harry Potter and stop saying that Segway is going to change the world.

Malcolm: Don’t you like the spirit in which people thought? I object to calling the Segway a false positive. The spirit in which the kind of thinking that leads you to believe in the Segway, leads you to believe in lots of other things that maybe do turn out well. In other words, you can’t turn off enthusiasm for the Segway without turning off enthusiasm for lots of other really fascinating longshots.

Adam: You can still have the enthusiasm. You can still fund the technology. You don’t have to go and say, “This is going to change the world of transportation.” You can bet on the invention without betting on the company.

Malcolm: Elsewhere you point out the incredibly insightful observation from Dean Simonton, that what distinguishes the genius from the rest of us is not that they have a higher hit rate, but that they have more ideas than we do. In other words, a genius by definition has more misses than we do. We have three ideas, and they have 100. They’re going to get 25 right and we’re going to get one right.

Why isn’t the Segway just an example of geniuses missing?

Adam: It is if you look at Dean Kamen’s career. He basically stopped everything else he was working on and spent several years on the Segway. I would have much rather had his brilliant brain turn toward multiple innovations. That’s where it’s a failure, because we lose his time.

“It’s like if Shakespeare said, ‘Instead of also working on this thing called Macbeth and Hamlet, I’m just going to put everything in The Merry Wives of Windsor.’ That would be such a travesty.”

Once he’s perfected the technology, he shouldn’t be spending years trying to figure out how to commercialize it. That’s not his strength. There are lots of other people who can do that. Let him do what he does best, which is inventing. It halted his idea-generation process. Nobody thinks it’s a great masterpiece. It’s like if Shakespeare said, “Instead of also working on this thing called Macbeth and Hamlet, I’m just going to put everything in The Merry Wives of Windsor.” That would be such a travesty.

I want to ask you a question though, because this whole idea of generating lots of ideas, you’ve been at this now for two decades plus. Talk about being an original. You created this whole original genre where you took social science and made it interesting and accessible to people. You used it to help them turn their own beliefs upside down, and also explain the world that they live in.

Can you talk about your idea-generation process and how you know when you’re onto something good, versus bad?

Malcolm: There’s no system. Someone reminds you of something you said a few years ago. I think, “Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t have an answer to that question.” It’s not that hard.

Adam: How do you know when something is worth writing about, versus this is a fun conversation to have at a dinner party?

Malcolm: You don’t. That’s why you write bad articles, the ones that don’t work, which is fine. The hostility people have to the things that don’t work is out-of-place for this precise reason.

To go back to that Dean Simonton insight, which is so brilliant, I need to expand it properly. Simonton says, “Suppose you and I look at all our ideas and we realize that 25% of the ideas that I have are good, and 75% are terrible. Then we compare me to Einstein. The difference between me and Einstein is not that Einstein has a 50% good idea, 50% bad idea. Einstein might have 10% good ideas and 90% bad ideas, but I have five ideas in the year and Einstein has 500.”

That’s what makes him Einstein. Well, that’s not all that makes him Einstein. Einstein both has really amazing ideas, but also a huge number of terrible ones.

When you run into something bad from someone who you thought was good, as opposed to using that as evidence that denies their greatness, genius, talent, you ought to at least entertain the possibility that the miss is proof of big talent. That is such a fantastically interesting idea to me.

It’s why when you critique someone’s work, you have to critique it with a certain amount of gentleness and consideration because you don’t know which category it’s in. Either they’ve gone crazy, and they’re not any good anymore, or this is terrible precisely because they’re geniuses and they’re turning out lots of bad stuff in addition to the great stuff.

You make this point in your book that we spend precious little time dwelling on all the bad plays Shakespeare wrote, or the terrible forgettable melodies that Mozart composed. Why don’t we dwell on their bad stuff?

“If they were ordinary, if they were more mere mortals, what’s my excuse?”

Adam: Because it destroys this myth that we carry about what a genius is. Their talent is so much greater than the rest of us, that they’re able to do near-perfect work every single time. When we start to see them churn out bad ideas, we start to wonder were we wrong about them. Were they really any good?

We look at these people and we expect them to be great. What that forces us to do is say, “Look, I can never be one of them,” and that gives us an out. We don’t have to try because they were so much better than the rest of us. If they were ordinary, if they were more mere mortals, what’s my excuse?

Malcolm: Is there some other element of geniuses that they manage to artfully conceal? Do they consciously market their achievements, such that they recognize when something’s a stinker and make sure no one sees it?

Adam: I don’t think that’s true for most of them. There’s this great study of Beethoven. Beethoven was known as a pretty perceptive self-critic. For 70 of his compositions, he wrote letters evaluating them to his friends and saying, “This one’s a dud. This one I’m really proud of.” He wrote a lot of them after he had audience feedback.

His error rate was 33%. He committed 15 false positives, thinking that pieces were going to be extraordinary, when they were pretty ordinary relative to his peers. He had eight that he thought were bad, that turned out to be great. He didn’t even know which ones to hide. A lot of us don’t.

Malcolm: Doesn’t that just mean that his criteria for evaluating what he found meaningful in his own work was different than ours?

Adam: Maybe. Certainly as centuries pass, you can’t fault him for not knowing what we appreciate about his music today. He was even off in his own time. You could say he was looking for a certain musical achievement that was independent of taste.

Let’s take someone like Thomas Edison. He was trying to commercialize innovation after innovation. Of his 1,093 patents, six or seven turned out to have a real impact. That was not his goal. If he could have concealed it, he probably would have, if only he’d known.

Malcolm: I was interviewing some music producer. Guy was a big music producer in the ’80s of all the New Wave bands. I asked him of his whole career what accomplishment he was proudest of. He named the sixth Madness album, which is an album that no one either bought or listened to.

I realized that his definition of accomplishment was just different. It wasn’t the album that people loved or the album that people bought, or the album that showed Madness at their best. It was the album that showed him at his best. Where he did the most creative work in making something acceptable out of something that was unacceptable. He traveled the greatest distance with the material.

I’ve often thought that when it comes to critical evaluation of work of all kinds, degree of difficulty is the one that particularly non-insiders don’t appreciate. Sometimes I’ll read something, and because I was a reporter for so many years, I understand that what that writer did was insanely hard. Maybe the outcome reads as mediocre or not that interesting, but because you know how insanely difficult the task was, you’re in awe of the accomplishment.

You have a chapter on Edwin Land. Edwin Land is founder of Polaroid, legendary figure in the history of photography. Polaroid was an extraordinarily influential, profitable, successful company for many years, but it didn’t last forever. Is it fair to fault companies because they don’t last forever?

Adam: No, we shouldn’t fault a company for not lasting forever. We should fault a company for being in a position to continue bringing original ideas and products into the world and failing.

Polaroid had very early access to digital technology. They could have pioneered the digital camera. Instead of saying, “Look, we want to enrich what Polaroid stands for,” they said, “We’re all about cultural fit. We’re going to hire people who think the same way as us, which means they know silver highlight and chemicals, as opposed to zeros and ones in the digital world. We’re going to ignore this innovation, because why would anyone ever want to take a picture without printing it? It’s the print that you value, which is why we sell the film and basically give away the camera.”

“I’m not faulting the company for not surviving forever. I’m saying they had a chance to continue the greatness that they had and they blew it.”

If they had let go of that earlier, it’s possible they could have done a lot of continued great things. It’s a really unfortunate outcome for the world, because Polaroid was an innovation factory. We lost a lot of originality when they went bankrupt. I’m not faulting the company for not surviving forever. I’m saying they had a chance to continue the greatness that they had and they blew it.

Malcolm: You’re using as your unit of measurement the company. Why wouldn’t you use as your unit of measurement the economy and say, “The fact that Polaroid persists in its dogged pursuit of physical film opened the door for upstarts to come along and do digital.”

In other words, why can’t we just accept the fact that innovation occurs when people have a fantastic commitment to a set of ideas and pursue them until they’re no longer useful and someone else takes their place? That strikes me as being a much more realistic depiction of the way human beings operate, as opposed to saying, “The leopard has to change its spots at the age of …”

Adam: If you take that life cycle perspective, that’s exactly what happens. It falls short of what Edwin Land was creating with Polaroid. This was not an ordinary original guy. He was literally Steve Jobs’s role model. If you look at the number of patents, the diversity of innovation — he solved many problems that were thought to be impossible. He also created an organization that was able to do that at scale, which very few are.

We should aspire to create more of those because when you do it well, it’s a fragile thing. If that goes away, maybe a lot of these startups are not going to be as great and originality is going to falter. That’s what I worry about.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. It was originally recorded at 92nd Street Y — the New York cultural center that convenes influencers and innovators who inspire a world of ideas. From the arts to business to politics to science, it’s where tomorrow’s most important issues are revealed, and today’s most intriguing conversations begin.