We Can All Produce Creative, Original Work. Here’s What Holds People Back

“People think that to be original, you have to be first. You don’t. You just have to be different and better.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • Why procrastination is a creative entrepreneur’s best friend
  • Why you should be a “swooper”—and never a “basher”
  • Why true originals have so many bad ideas

Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist, the top-rated professor at Wharton, and the #1 bestselling author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. He recently sat down with Srinivas Rao on the Unmistakable Creative podcast to discuss why our assumptions about original thinkers are so wrong, and how we can avoid the common mistakes that prevent people from achieving their creative and professional goals.

Srini: [In Originals,] you shed light on some things that people might have misperceptions about. Is there a way we could look at the framework of the book, and then go into the impact-based actions?

Adam: I walked in thinking that to be an original person in the world, a non-conformist who drives creativity and change, you had to be four things: I thought you had to be a risk-taker; you had to be full of confidence; you had to have great ideas; and you had to be the first mover. I discovered that all those things were wrong.

Not only wrong, but backward. It turns out that most of the original people in the world, whether you’re looking at Nobel Prize-winning scientists, successful entrepreneurs, or creative musicians and artists, they have the opposite traits in common. They’re not daredevils—they’re pretty risk-averse. They’re cautious. They feel the same doubt and fear that the rest of us do—they just harness it as motivation, as opposed to being paralyzed by it.

They have bad ideas. In fact, they have more bad ideas than the rest of us. That’s how they get to true originality—they generate enough volume to get variety and stumble on something new. They’re not first movers—they’re procrastinators. They start things early, but they are deliberately slow to finish because they know that good ideas often take time to develop.

Those discoveries really turned upside down my understanding of what it took to be original. It made me realize that original people are not as different from the rest of us as I thought. Lots of people have original ideas—they just don’t generate enough variations on them to make them promising. They don’t know how to judge whether an idea is any good. They need insight on how to speak up effectively and get heard and gain allies. Everyone has the potential to do something original—the hard part is developing the knowledge and skills and confidence to give it a shot.

Srini: If you’ve ever seen an interview with [venture investor] Chris Sacca, he talks about this concept called the “inevitability of success.” He says that every person he’s invested in that has been a big success has believed that their success was inevitable.

Adam: The data I have don’t track perfectly with Chris’ experience, in the sense that more often, the people who do original things in the world had convinced themselves of the inevitability of effort. They say, “I feel like I have the capability to do something important. I don’t know whether I’m going to succeed or not, but I cannot live with myself as somebody who didn’t try.” That’s the way they overcome the paralyzing fear that freezes a lot of us.

“Everyone has the potential to do something original—the hard part is developing the knowledge and skills and confidence to give it a shot.”

Elon Musk told me that he was convinced that Tesla was not going to succeed. He was sure that the first few SpaceX launches would never get off the ground. I was struck. I asked him, “How did you find the motivation and the courage to do it anyway?” He said, “It was too important to not try.” There was no inevitability of success there. In fact, in his mind, it was much more an inevitability of failure. He just felt like the mission mattered so much. He has this tremendous desire to create a sustainable future for humanity, and space flight is a big part of that.

I would add that I think people have the relationship between confidence and success backward. You think you have to be one of these brash people, full of conviction, in order to achieve success. But confidence is actually won through success. A lot of the entrepreneurs who are doing crazy things in Silicon Valley are not different from you. They’re not smarter than you—they just tried when you sat still. Then you do try and you succeed, and you’re like, “Hey, maybe I can do this after all.” Your confidence grows in proportion to the things that you’ve accomplished.

Too many people are waiting around for that magic moment when all of a sudden, they feel like, “I can do this.” What they should do is charge forward anyway, with plenty of doubt, and know that if they achieve some success, that’s where their confidence is going to build.

Srini: We’ve talked extensively about the confidence piece. What are the misperceptions that we have about risk and success?

Adam: My favorite study on this looked at entrepreneurs who have a choice. When they have an idea for a business, they can either quit their jobs—which is what the risk-seeking entrepreneurs do—or they can play it safe, hang on to their day-to-day work and salary, and start the business as a hobby on the side. If you look at a nationally representative study of thousands of American entrepreneurs, it turns out that the second group is 33% less likely to fail than the first group.

There are lots of entrepreneurs who are swashbuckling pirates, but those are the ones who screw up a lot. The ones who make smarter choices say, “You know, I’m going to walk the edge of a cliff. I’m going to triple check my parachute, and then have a safety net at the bottom.” Also, instead of feeling rushed because they’ve made a full-time leap to get a product to market and start bringing in revenue, they feel like they bought themselves the time and the freedom to really do it right.

Srini: I have to have you talk about the Warby Parker story. What are the lessons you took from that?

Adam: At my first class at Wharton, Neil Blumenthal came to me, and he said, “I’m thinking about starting this company with three friends, to sell glasses online.” I thought it was just insane. Who would ever buy glasses online? You have to go into the store and try them on!

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One of the things that they did really cleverly was change their pitch over time. They had so many people tell them, “Look, if this was a good idea, someone would have already done it.” They had to show them how many domains were really slow for that to happen, so they went and said, “We’re going to do for glasses what Zappos did for shoes.” All of a sudden, people are like, “Oh yeah, I didn’t use to order shoes online, but now I don’t even think twice about it. Maybe the same thing could happen for glasses.” GQ even called them “Netflix for eyewear.”

I overlooked the power of taking an original idea that was unfamiliar, and making it familiar by connecting it to a concept that people already understood. One of the big mistakes that I made was that I thought it made them sound derivative.

Srini: Let’s talk about the myth that is the first-mover advantage. There’s so much interesting research you came up with that dispels that.

Adam: The day before Warby Parker launched—actually the night before the company launched—they still did not have a functioning website. It’s like, “You guys, you realize this whole business is just a website. That’s literally all it is!” I thought they were toast, because they had spent six months dragging their heels, just trying to name the company and build the brand in a creative way. Meanwhile, they had all these competitors [arriving on the scene]. They missed their first-mover advantage—they’re screwed.

Then you look at all the research, and you see that most of the time, first movers have a disadvantage, not an advantage. You see this in almost every domain—in 50 different product categories, in over 500 companies. People think that to be original, you have to be first. You don’t. You just have to be different and better.

It’s much easier to improve on someone else’s idea than it is to create a market from scratch. You’re the first mover; you have to get people used to the idea of doing something completely new. Somebody else can swoop in and say, “Hey, you just created a market for me. I can dramatically improve on your technology—we’re making the product far more user-friendly.” I think it’s one of the reasons that Facebook succeeded where Friendster and MySpace failed. It’s one of the ways that Google was able to enter after AltaVista and Ask Jeeves and Yahoo.

I’m not saying [you should] wait to be the last mover—that’s not smart either. But don’t rush to go first; that’s not what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.

“People think that to be original, you have to be first. You don’t. You just have to be different and better.”

Srini: Awesome. Let’s look at the actions for impact that you talk about at the end of the book, so that people can start thinking about how they might apply this in their own work.

Adam: When I work with entrepreneurs, leaders, and students, they just do not have enough ideas. So the first and most important application here is to triple your output. They’ll say, “But I’ve run out of steam. I already love my third idea.” I will come back and say, “I’ve yet to meet an original person who only had three ideas.” I think that a lot of people feel like, “After I’ve generated a few ideas, I just run out of possibilities!” But that’s the moment when you are ready to be original, because you’ve freed yourself from the most conventional ideas that came to mind first. So when you’re trying to solve a problem or come up with a creative insight, whatever your normal target [number of ideas] would be, I would say triple it.

It’s going to be harder—you may have to procrastinate for a few days, or at least a few hours, and work on something that’s a little bit mindless, to let some unconscious processing happening. That’s where you’ll often improve your ability to do something truly new.

Srini: That’s interesting to me, because I write a thousand words every morning. I was just thinking about 2013, which was the most prolific year I ever had, and I realized it was entirely due to output, not quality. In fact, 90% of what I write is unusable. But in that period, I self-published two books, produced a conference, and produced more than 100 episodes of a podcast.

Adam: Kurt Vonnegut had this great distinction between “bashers” and “swoopers.” Bashers are the people who write perfect sentences one at a time—they don’t move on until they’ve nailed each one. Swoopers churn out a bunch of thoughts, and then they go back, and they treat editing and revising as a separate process from generating.

I don’t think anyone should ever be a basher. If you look at all the evidence that’s come out in the past few decades on what it takes to be original, it consistently says that quantity is the best path to quality. As a basher, yes, you would churn out maybe a few things that are perfectly done, but their odds of being novel are lower, and you generate a lot less output. As a swooper, you can get a lot more done and be every bit as original. Why not go that route?

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Another thing that is important for the practical perspective is that so many entrepreneurs and creative people only talk about the positives of their ideas. I loved the example of Rufus Griscom, who pitched his startup by telling investors, “Here are the three reasons you should not back my company.” That approach ended up being wildly successful. We were trained to address arguments in debate class, but we forget to do it when it comes to pitching new ideas because we just get so excited about them. We’re worried that other people are going to see the holes, and we don’t want to make that any easier. But if you’re pitching it to anyone who is interested and knowledgeable, they’re going to see all the flaws that you do. You can show that you’re balanced and honest and self-critical by saying, “Look, I have this idea. Here’s why I think it’s promising. I do have two or three big concerns about it, and I would love to chat about how you would go about addressing them.”

If you ask for the advice of your audience, you can actually engage them in a joint problem-solving dialogue, which is a much better way to present your ideas than this adversarial, “No, all of your objections are wrong” approach that a lot of entrepreneurs and creators get stuck in.

We’ve learned so much from high-reliability organizations on this. If you look at space flight organizations, nuclear power plants, hospitals, airlines—anybody who has to maintain consistent performance where the costs of errors are devastating—what you see is a tremendous preoccupation with failure. You want an environment where it’s unsafe to not speak up about problems and issues and flaws that you see. It would be really great if more organizations worked that way.

Srini: In terms of communicating your original ideas to another group of people, how do you enroll people in what you believe?

Adam: Try to get more exposure for your idea. The evidence suggests that most of the time, it takes 10 to 20 exposures to an idea before people are really comfortable with it. And the more original it is, the more they need to get their minds around it. So when your boss goes and shoots down your idea, [go back a few days later and] say, “You know that idea that you shot down on Tuesday? I’ve been thinking a lot about your feedback—you gave me some great advice. Here’s a different way of thinking about it. What’s your take on this?”

Another thing is that sometimes, you have to hide what you’re really after. Elon Musk had been thinking about Mars for a while, but when he recruited engineers to join him at SpaceX, he didn’t mention Mars, because people thought it was crazy: “What’s this guy from PayPal going to do to get us into space, let alone colonize another planet?” He became what researchers call a “tempered radical,” somebody who has an extreme idea but couches it in more moderate language. He says, “Look, I want to get a private commercial vehicle into space, and then eventually get it back.” Once they prove they can do that, now Mars does not sound so far-fetched.

“I’ve yet to meet an original person who only had three ideas.”

I think that kind of tempered radicalism is what a lot of originals have to master. Because if you have a wildly creative idea, the more transparent you are about what your ultimate vision is, the more people are going to think that you’re ridiculous. If you can [set up] some more moderate milestones along the way, then as you [make] progress, you can start to unveil what’s really in the Trojan horse.

Srini: If we all have the capacity to do original work, why do you think we see such a wide spectrum of achievement when it comes to human performance?

Adam: I think a lot of it comes down to a combination of fear and futility. The fear part is being worried that you’re going to look stupid or embarrass yourself in some way, and not realizing that in the long run, the regrets you have are the chances not taken—those are the things you wish you could do over the most. Then futility being, “I don’t believe that anybody is really going to hear me or take this seriously.”

Elizabeth Gilbert had a great observation about this. She said, “All these people are going around saying, ‘I’m not creative’—but that’s a bad sentence, an irrational thought. Because every person is unique in one way or another. Imagine substituting ‘I’m not creative’ with ‘I’m not curious.’ You would laugh at that statement.”

Even if you feel like you’re not curious, you can wake up tomorrow morning and ask questions that you’ve never asked before, or wonder about something that’s always intrigued you, but you never pursued. Once you realize that curiosity is a starting point to being creative and doing something original, you realize that we could all do a little bit more of that.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. Click here to listen to the full version on the Unmistakable Creative podcast.