Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg on the 3 Kinds of Originals

“I read in the paper once that someone was leaning into a taco. And I thought, ‘That’s terrific, I love tacos, too… not exactly what I meant though.’”

Adam Grant, Wharton psychology professor and author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, sat down with Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, founder of the Lean In Foundation, and author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. In this lively and insightful conversation, held at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, Adam and Sheryl discuss why we often go to the wrong people with our best ideas, what trait most Nobel-winning scientists share, and how parents can nurture originality in children.

Sheryl Sandberg: This is the perfect place to talk about your book, Originals, because Silicon Valley is about change and innovation, and each innovation is defined by what we think of as an “original” idea, or a new application of an old idea, that makes it different and creates something new in the world. What motivated you to write Originals?

Adam Grant: Early on, when I was just starting out, I saw a manager screaming at one of my colleagues. And I went over to try and defend him—and it was the first time I’d ever really spoken up—and I ended up getting dragged by my ear into the women’s bathroom by my boss’s boss.

Sheryl: Literally?

Adam: Literally by the ear.

Sheryl: It’s rough on the East Coast!

Adam: I thought this was actually normal treatment. I was told that if I ever spoke out of turn again, I would be fired.

Sheryl: This was as a professor at Wharton?

Adam: No, much, much earlier. It was a bit traumatizing in the moment. I walked away thinking, one, I never want a job where anyone could try to fire me—that’s why you get tenure. And two, I never wanted to be in a women’s bathroom again.

Sheryl: Excellent goals. How are you doing on those two?

Adam: Well, I got tenure. No more women’s bathrooms either.

But I was really interested in how you speak up effectively, and I was struck by the fact that tons of people have good ideas for how to change the world around them, but never say anything about them because they’re afraid of getting punished or because they don’t think anyone will listen, and I wanted to find out how to get better at that.

Sheryl: So how do you get better at that? What is an “original?”

Adam: An original for me is someone who has lots of creative ideas, but goes beyond brainstorming and says, “I’m going to try and make those a reality.” So, dreaming up a vision and taking initiative trying to improve the world around you.

Sheryl: Give us examples of influential originals.

Adam: There are three different types. One would be the creative visionaries and the Thomas Edisons of the world, the tech pioneers of the current era. Two would be social champions: the suffragists, the civil rights activists. Three would be the people who often don’t get the attention they deserve, the people working behind the scenes to create real change. So, the people who threw away, for example, the old system of shared information in the intelligence industry, and said, “We should use the internet for this.” I think organizational change is an overlooked form of originality.

Sheryl: And if you had to name just a couple of influential originals who are working now, who are they?

Adam: J.K. Rowling is one of the greatest. No children’s book is too long, apparently—I don’t know about you, but I wanted it to be longer. I think breaking that mold was pretty exciting. I’m a big fan of Seinfeld; it was a completely revolutionary TV show, and you can call any of its creators originals. You could run through the list of Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, Larry and Sergey, Mark, Sheryl… the list goes on and on.

Sheryl: What’s interesting about your list is the first two examples—J.K. Rowling and Seinfeld—were both very broadly rejected, right? Seinfeld wasn’t picked up because the characters were unlikeable, the show was about nothing, and no one’s going to watch it. And Harry Potter was too long and too complicated. So both of those creative works experienced a lot of failure before success. Do you have to have failure before success? How important is that?

Adam: I don’t think you have to have it before success, but it has to come at some point along the journey. If you look at the data, the people who succeed most and the ones who failed most, they’re the ones who try things! Edison is such a good example–everyone knows the light bulb story, but what about the talking doll he invented, that was so creepy it not only scared kids but adults, too?


I’ve had nightmares about this doll. It’s terrifying. And he created that around the same time he was working on the light bulb. He also tried to create a fruit preservation technique that failed.

You see this in every domain. Shakespeare created a bunch of plays that are considered duds, and he’s like, “Yeah, but I wrote Macbeth, so…I’m probably alright.”

If you look at the data, you just have to generate a lot of volume of ideas to create variety, and have a chance at creating something truly original.

Sheryl: And how do we do that? If we go back to our offices, our schools, our homes tomorrow, and say, “I want to generate a whole bunch of original ideas, in the hopes that one of them is—if not Macbeth—something truly original.” What advice do you have? How do we generate more—and more original—ideas?

“If you want to see the world differently, you have to go through experiences that other people haven’t.”

Adam: The starting point is to diversify your experiences. Everyone thinks you have to be an expert, that you need 10,000 hours of practice in order to be original, but it’s not those people who do the most, it’s the people with the broadest knowledge. Steve Jobs said, three decades ago, that if you wanted to be original, then you needed to have a different bag of experiences than everyone else. Now, the bag of experiences he chose is illegal in most states… But there is a point there, which is: if you want to see the world differently, you have to go through experiences that other people haven’t.

So, if you look at the world’s most innovative fashion designers, what distinguishes them is that they have more years traveling abroad—not living abroad, but working abroad—in countries different from their own.

Sheryl: And does it have to be working in fashion? Or working in anything?

Adam: It can be working in anything, it’s just learning new cultural assumptions, new world views. Nobel-winning scientists, compared to their peers, are twice as likely to play a musical instrument, seven times as likely to draw or paint, twelve times as likely to write fiction or poetry, and twenty-two times as likely to perform as an actor, dancer, or magician.

Sheryl: Generating a lot of ideas is the first step. The second step is actually picking the right ones. What advice do you have—after we all learn to write plays, travel to different countries, and be musicians—for how to pick the right ideas?

Adam: I’m going to borrow something I learned from an extraordinary former student. Justin is a professor at Stanford, and he did this brilliant research on idea development: He got circus artists, like in Cirque du Soleil, to submit videos of their performances, and then try to predict which ones were going to take off.

The circus artists are terrible at this. They think their own acts are way better than they really are. Especially the clowns. Everyone hated clowns, it turns out—even other clowns. So, Justin turns to another group, managers, and sees that they aren’t too good either, because they’re too negative—they’re looking at all the reasons that new ideas might fail, instead of looking for reasons they’re going to succeed.

Who is good at this? Turns out it’s peers, fellow creators, other circus performers. They have enough distance to say, “This act is really bad,” but unlike managers, they’re also motivated to see the potential in new ideas. So I think we can all seek more feedback from our peers.

Sheryl: Once we generate lots of ideas with our various backgrounds and then judge and find the right ones, we have to communicate them. And that’s obviously a big challenge, because challenging the status quo means we’re challenging things. What advice do you have about how you challenge the status quo?

“When it comes to bringing ideas to the table, sometimes your enemies are better supporters than your friends.”

Adam: One of the mistakes that a lot of people make is that when we have an idea, we go to our most agreeable friends—the people who are polite and welcoming and nice, and we expect them to cheerlead for us. And they will. But they also don’t really like rocking the boat. So they’re pretty conflict averse—they’re like, “Yeah! Great idea!” and that’s the end of the conversation.

The more disagreeable people—the critical, skeptical, challenging people we know—are much more likely to tear our ideas apart in the spirit of trying to make it better. But if they believe in it, they’ll actually then stand up for it—they’ll run through walls for our idea. There’s a Google programmer who said, “A disagreeable person who will support you is a great ally. It’s someone with a bad user interface but a great operating system.” Those are the people you want to go to with your ideas.

When it comes to bringing ideas to the table, sometimes your enemies are better supporters than your friends. Everyone knows that your friends are in your court and that they’re going to support you no matter what. If you get someone who hates your guts to say, “I really don’t like you, but this is a decent idea anyway,” that person is a totally credible supporter.

There’s a third group that a lot of us look to more often than our enemies: frenemies. Those people who are sometimes really friendly to your face and then stab you in the back. It turns out the more of those you have in your life, the worse your physical health is. It’s literally physically unhealthy to maintain ties with your frenemies. You’re always wondering, “Are you going to have my back? Or are you going to stab me? I don’t really know.” And you spend a tremendous amount of emotion trying to predict where they are—I think we’re just better off not going to them with our ideas.

Sheryl: It’s interesting because in Give and Take you have a lot to say about the role that, if you’re a giver, having takers in your life plays, and conversely, if you are a taker, having givers in your life plays… and being more thoughtful about how we select the people around us.

In Originals, you write about a song tapping exercise that reveals something important about communicating original ideas.

Adam: This was a study done at Stanford. One person had to think of a song and, without saying the name, tap it for another person. The other person would then try to recognize and guess the song. Before doing it, the tappers were asked to estimate how many people they thought would get it right. They said one in two—50%. But then when they tapped, one in forty got it right—2.5%.

The tappers are all over-confident. Why? Because when you’re tapping, it’s impossible to do your song without hearing the rhythm in your head. Try it! You can’t do it. It’s impossible to imagine what your disjointed tapping sounds like for someone who is not doing it in their head.

I think this is a great metaphor for communicating original ideas, because when you are pitching the idea to someone, you’re not only hearing the song in your head, you wrote the song. You spent weeks or months hearing that tune over and over again, and it’s hard to imagine what it sounds like to someone who is not hearing it. So you have to repeat it a lot.

And now I’m going to turn this around on you, Sheryl, because this is a thing you do beautifully—you’re a big fan of repeating your message, even to the point where people will say, “We get it.” Does that bother you?

“Success is when you’ve put an idea out into the world and people are quoting it without quoting you, because they’ve adopted it and think it’s theirs.”

Sheryl: It’s funny, I read in the paper once that someone was leaning into a taco. And I thought, “That’s terrific, I love tacos, too… not exactly what I meant though.”

“Lean in” has a specific meaning, but the truth is that if you want other ideas out there, that is success. Success is when you’ve put an idea out into the world and people are quoting it without quoting you, because they’ve adopted it and think it’s theirs. Success in communication is not being identified with the ideas anymore, it’s when those ideas have become so widely accepted that they’re everyone’s.

You’ve taken a stand lately against a lot of popular ideas. Emotional intelligence. Myers-Briggs. Why? What’s wrong with emotional intelligence and what’s wrong with Myers-Briggs?

Adam: The Myers-Briggs should never have been invented. It’s about halfway between a horoscope and a heart monitor. The ideas for it were seeded back in the 1920s. Carl Jung invented these three categories for understanding differences between people. And then Isabel Myers and Katharine Briggs got together and said, we’re going to try to make an assessment to help people understand themselves. They added a fourth category because they knew someone who didn’t fit in the first three, essentially, and then they went commercial with this in the 1950s.

We have a half-century of evidence of how to look at personality now which basically says that the way you do science is, instead of making words up, you broaden the room—you figure out what are the differences between people that matter, and then you build your frameworks from the ground up. We have other frameworks that work that way: the Big 5, Hogan’s… there are many there that are much more valid. So Brian Lowe, my favorite psychologist, is fond of saying, “Look, it’s not that the Myers-Briggs is fatally flawed, it’s just why would we go and try to turn a Dodge Caravan into a Rolls Royce?”

Sheryl: And emotional intelligence?

Adam: Emotional intelligence is a really important idea—it’s one of the things that separates great leaders from good leaders. But if you look at the evidence, it matters about four times less than cognitive intelligence. In fact, a lot of people will say that if you’re not a brilliant intellectual, you’ll get emotional intelligence as a substitute—actually, they’re positively correlated. So if you’re good at using your brain to reason and do math and solve logic problems, you’re also good at using your brain to read people’s feelings, and to manage your own emotions. So I think we put the cart before the horse a little bit with the data.

Sheryl: One of the things you talk about in Originals is leadership in culture, and I’ll share—because I think that it’s really important, particularly with a lot that’s going on in our companies and potentially in politics: “When a group becomes that cohesive, it develops a strong culture—people share the same values and norms, and they believe in them intensely. And there’s a fine line between having a strong culture and operating like a cult. For nearly half a century, leaders, policymakers, and journalists have accepted the Janis theory of groupthink: Cohesion is dangerous, and deadly. To solve problems and make wise decisions, groups need original ideas and dissenting views, so we need to make sure that their members don’t get too chummy. There’s just one tiny problem with the cohesion theory: It isn’t true.”

If cohesion doesn’t cause groupthink, then what does, and how do we stop it?

“Overconfidence is deadly. When you’re sure you’re going to succeed you don’t question yourself anymore.”

Adam: When you look at the evidence, cohesive groups are not more likely to fall into the trap of groupthink—if anything, they’re in slightly better shape, because when people trust each other and respect each other, they’re willing to listen even if they disagree.

Groupthink seems to be caused by two major things: one is overconfidence, when people get too convinced of their own ideas. We saw this in the Bay of Pigs invasion; we saw this in the NASA Challenger decision. Overconfidence is really deadly. When you’re sure you’re going to succeed you don’t question yourself anymore. The other factor is reputational concerns: is it safe to speak up? Groups end up not hearing dissenting views when they think they’re going to get shut down.

I know that this is a big priority for you—you go out of your way to make sure everyone can speak their mind and tell you the truth. How?

Sheryl: It’s really important at Facebook, and it’s been really important to me because what I’ve seen is that as people get more senior, people will tell you exactly what you want to hear. So if you want them not to, you have to work hard at it.

Let’s talk about gender. You and I have written about gender together, and we know that people respond very differently to men and women who speak up with new ideas. If you’re going to be an original, it means you’re going to have to convince people of new ideas, so what advice do you have for women? If it needs to be different.

Adam: Having never been a woman, I’m reluctant to give this advice.

Sheryl: But you’re a researcher, and have looked at the data.

Adam: Thanks to you. About a year ago, I remember you asking me about what my data showed about women and men speaking up, and I had never run the gender analysis. So I spent a bunch of hours reanalyzing the data and what I found was deeply disturbing, which was—consistently, this is true of banks, of pharmaceutical companies—when men spoke up, they got rewarded for it. When women spoke up, either they were rarely heard, and somebody else got credit for the idea, or they were judged as too aggressive.

And I was stunned that this still happens in the 21st century, in professional organizations. Hands down, the best advice that I picked up about this is from you, which is when you’re going to present your ideas, it’s really important to not seem self-serving. To say, “Here’s this suggestion that I really think is going to serve the group in some way.” I haven’t heard anything more powerful than that.

Sheryl: There’s an incredible amount of insight on parenting in Originals. You argue that if parents pressure our children to be high achievers, we actually hurt their success. You have a great quote, “Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.” And you write that teachers often stifle originality, too, because creative children are least likely to become the teacher’s pet. What advice do you have so that we nurture our children to think differently and be originals?

Adam: I think this is hard. The first thing is: it’s more about teaching values than teaching rules. If you look at the data on parents who raise really creative children, they focus not on, “Here are the things you need to do or you’re going to be punished,” but, “Here are the principles that we stand for, and let’s have a dialogue about why that’s important.” That’s not to say that no rules is a good idea, but when you have rules, you have to explain the why behind them.

The other thing I learned is the way that we praise our kids is often backwards. This was eye-opening to me. Let’s say that you want your kids to be really generous. I always said, “Wow, thank you for sharing,” after our kids shared their toys. It turns out you gain more generous behavior for saying, “Thank you for being a sharer.” Or not, “Thank you for giving,” but “Thank you for being a giver.” Because you start to internalize that as part of their identity, and next time they have the chance to do that they’re like, “Oh, I’m a giving person who would be helpful.”

It works for cheating, too. Instead of saying, “Don’t cheat,” you say, “Don’t be a cheater.” Instead of saying, “Don’t lie,” you say, “Don’t be a liar.” And now their behavior casts a shadow, and that makes the children feel guilty. And we all know that guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.

So, thinking in the domain of originality, instead of praising creative artwork, you say, “Wow, you are a creative person.” When you have teenagers, instead of saying, “You don’t have to follow a crowd,” you say, “You are a nonconformist.” And they’re much more likely to stand up and say it’s okay to not be a sheep.

Sheryl: Okay, lightning round. These are fast answers.

Better to be a first mover or late entrant?

Adam: Late entrant.

Sheryl: Givers or takers?

Adam: Givers.

Sheryl: Most original thing you’ve ever done?

Adam: Not this answer!

Sheryl: What did you do last time you got writer’s block?

Adam: I wrote about something else.

Sheryl: First thing you do in the morning?

Adam: Have our kids trample on me, usually.

Sheryl: Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Adam: “Don’t make the right decision, make the decision right.”

This conversation has been edited and condensed.