You 2.0: Originals

What does it mean to be an original? As part of our summer series, You 2.0, we talk with psychology professor Adam Grant about innovators and the challenges they face. Adam gives his take on what makes an original, how parents can nurture originality in their children, and the potential downsides of non-conformity.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.


Adam Grant was teaching his first class at the Wharton Business School when a student came up to him with an interesting proposition.

ADAM GRANT: He says, I've got this big idea. Three friends and I are going to start an online business, and we're going to disrupt an industry. Do you want to invest?

VEDANTAM: But from what Adam could see, this group of friends wasn't doing so well in getting their big idea off the ground.

GRANT: Six months go by. It's the day before launch. They still don't have a functioning website. The whole business is a website. That's literally all it is. And so I obviously passed on the investment.

VEDANTAM: The name of the company?

GRANT: Warby Parker. They were just named the most innovative company in the world by Fast Company. And they're worth over a billion dollars, which is why my wife handles all our investments now.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).


VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar Vedantam. And this week on HIDDEN BRAIN - originals, how to spot one, how to be one. We bring you my conversation with Adam Grant. He's a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. And he's the author of the new book "Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World." I asked Adam what the Warby Parker episode had taught him about the qualities of innovators...

GRANT: They often procrastinate, and that's how they incubate ideas.

VEDANTAM: ...What parents can do to nurture originality in their kids...

GRANT: Their parents focus more on values than rules.

VEDANTAM: ...And the downside of marching to the beat of your own drum.

GRANT: One of the risks is, you know, you have everybody marching in a different direction.

VEDANTAM: Well, looking back now, Adam, looking back - if you could go back and talk to the old Adam, what would you tell that Adam?

GRANT: I would say that I was totally wrong about what it takes to be original. I think of original people as the nonconformists who drive creativity and change in the world. And I would say they often procrastinate, and that's how they incubate ideas. They feel the same fears and doubts that the rest of us do. They just manage them differently. They hate taking risks. And they have lots of bad ideas, and that's how they get to the good ones.

VEDANTAM: I have to say though. It's possible that when someone sits on an idea for six months - and they're an online company, and they don't have a website ready to go the day before launch - it is also possible that they could turn out to be a gigantic failure.

GRANT: You're just trying to make me feel better about my decision, right? Would you have invested?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) I would not.

GRANT: Yeah, I mean, of course it's possible that they would fail. But what I should have paid attention to is they also met all these other characteristics that originals tend to bring to the table. So a lot of times you see that originals are not the people with the deepest expertise. They're people with the broadest experience. And what was so great about Neil's background is he had been selling glasses in the developing world and also giving them away to try to help people who couldn't see get their lives in a place where they could work.

And he had all sorts of exposure to the fact that you can make glasses a lot more cheaply than the monopolies here in the Western world were doing it. They were also really good at questioning the status quo. And this is a hallmark of being an original. A lot of people would just say, you know, glasses cost what they cost. You know, your doctor prescribes them, and that's the end of it. And they had 60 years of combined experience wearing glasses.

But suddenly one day, one of the founders Dave said why do they cost so much. Like, they've been around for 800 years, and they're still more than an iPhone. That doesn't make sense. And once they did research into it, they found out that they could do a lot to lower the price. And I think that was a sign that they were going to take off.

VEDANTAM: In your book, you find that the writer and poet T. S. Eliot, Google's co-founder Larry Page and the filmmaker Ava Duvernay all have something in common. When they have an opportunity to dive head-first into something, take a big risk, they actually hedge their bets and hesitate. So can you talk a little bit about that because it runs counter to the way we think that people who are true originals actually behave.

GRANT: It does. I think what happens is they are afraid of failing just like you and I might be. And at first, when they have a new idea, they're not sure if it's going to succeed. They have no idea whether they can support a livelihood based on it. So T. S. Eliot - you know, poetry is not the most lucrative career. He works as a bank clerk to cover his bills and give himself the freedom to do something original as a poet. And, you know, I think Larry Page and Sergey were both in the position of saying look - what we want to do is - we have lots of great ideas.

VEDANTAM: They were Ph.D. students at Stanford at the time they came up with the idea for Google.

GRANT: They were. And they thought search was bad. And they wrote an algorithm to do it better based on, you know, sort of pages linking to other pages being an indication that a page was popular. And they didn't see that as a career. They just, you know, kind of said, I know a better way to do this. And they built it. And they weren't ready to make the leap. They had visions of, you know, continuing to just create knowledge.

VEDANTAM: And finish their Ph.D.s, as doubtless their parents would have wanted them to do.

GRANT: Yeah, and maybe still want them to do.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GRANT: The great advantage of waiting to make that leap is you don't feel the pressure to rush it to market. If they were depending on this for their livelihood, they would have said, we need to get this search engine out there. We need to get it there now. And because they weren't doing that, it was much easier to say, you know, let's get this right.

VEDANTAM: And again, I mean, when you look at what people are doing in basements and in garages, this is what countless people do. I mean, they have a day job. They're working as an accountant. But they're playing in their garage or their basement and trying to build something new.

GRANT: Yeah, it worked out OK for Phil Knight, right? He sold shoes out of the trunk of his car for seven years, working a day job as an accountant, before he finally started Nike. And he learned a lot in those seven years that increased his chances to succeed.

VEDANTAM: So what makes the switch between the point at which you're sort of saying, I'm still tinkering, versus, I'm actually going? What happens to the people now who just procrastinate and think and plan and endlessly work in their garages and the people who say, I'm going to work in my garage for the first two, three, four, five, six years, but eventually I go out and test the waters?

GRANT: I think what happens is the fear of failing gets overtaken by the fear of failing to try. And so, you know, if you have a great search engine, or you believe that a film you're making is going to change the world, then at some point you shift from worrying about, you know, regretting making a fool of yourself to regretting never taking a chance. And as you know, that's what psychologists consistently find about regret - that a lot of people are afraid in the moment of taking the risk but that in the long run our biggest regrets are our inactions - the chances we didn't take. And they say, yeah, I might fail, but that's still better than failing to matter.

VEDANTAM: One of the things that you find in the book that I found very intriguing is that very often people who launch new ventures, or new careers or new social innovations, don't actually choose to do it themselves. But they are drafted by other people.

GRANT: Yeah, I was so surprised by this. Michelangelo got commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel. And he's looking up at this ceiling thinking, how in the world could I do that? And he's terrified, so he flees to Florence. And then he sort of gets coaxed back and talked into giving this a shot. Martin Luther King doesn't want to lead the civil rights revolution. His first dream is to be a pastor and then a college president. And he shows up at a meeting, and he's been voted unanimously to lead this movement and basically dragged into it.

VEDANTAM: And so what you find is often people then rising to the occasion when they're sort of placed in this position that's in some ways an unfamiliar position.

GRANT: It is. And, you know, I think this is sometimes what makes them so effective at, you know, these leadership roles or at innovating - that, you know, they've spent months or years stewing on these ideas. And they've hatched by the time that somebody pulls them into the spotlight.

VEDANTAM: And that leads to the question - when you have an organization, and you want to try and get the best talent, maybe the thing to do is not sort of to put a job ad out and see who applies for it but actually to be drafting people who might not on the surface seem like the ideal fit.

GRANT: I think there's something to be said for that - that, you know, originality is brewing in all sorts of unexpected places. And so often as leaders what we do is we stifle that, as opposed to trying to unleash it. And, you know, there's a lot that can be done to try to figure out, OK, who are the people that, you know, are in a position to bring really new ideas into this organization. And why aren't we hearing from them? Susan Cain, the "Quiet" author, is fond of saying that there's zero correlation between who's the best talker and who has the best ideas. And that's a widely supported empirical finding. And, you know, I'd love to do a better job identifying that silent minority and giving them the floor.

VEDANTAM: You have to ask how this reflects on our ongoing presidential campaign right now, where the ability to speak and to win public debates is seen, in some ways, as one of the major criteria to be president.

GRANT: Yeah, you know, what I would love to see is a political system that's based more on skill in leading than it is on speaking. What I want to know is what politicians are going to be the most effective decision-makers. Who is going to come up with the best strategic vision? Who has expertise in handling conflict? We don't see that right now.

VEDANTAM: And I think we also look for people who want to step forward. We look for the person who puts up their hand. We look for the person who says, I'm the most qualified person. And of course, it's nice to hear initiative. It's nice to hear drive. But that might not actually be the best person for the job.

GRANT: Yeah, the people that I'm most excited to vote for are the ones who have no interest in the job whatsoever.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GRANT: I don't know how we get them on the stage.

VEDANTAM: Right - because, of course, having the most compelling speech doesn't necessarily qualify you to know what to do when there's a civil war in Syria.

GRANT: I want to vote for the candidate who is willing to contradict him or herself - right? - and admit to being wrong because, you know, some people call that flip-flopping - I think of it as enlightenment.

VEDANTAM: I mean, of the people in your book who you look at, how many of them have that kind of evolution if you will - where they sort of try something. It doesn't work. They try something else. It doesn't work. And they're not actually rigid in their thinking, but they're actually open to being adaptable?

GRANT: I think that's one of the hallmarks of being original - is being flexible enough in your thinking to admit, you know, this was wrong or this was a bad idea, right? Abraham Lincoln, when he came into the presidency, he was initially not going to abolish slavery. He was afraid that it would destroy the union. And he agonized for six months over that decision before he finally signed the Emancipation Proclamation. He's a flip-flopper. That's one of the most important acts in history of this country. Thomas Edison, to go to the innovative domain - Edison worked on all sorts of failed inventions while he was trying to pioneer the lightbulb. He invented a talking doll so creepy that it scared not only kids but adults too.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) A talking doll?

GRANT: A talking doll - I've had nightmares looking at the picture of this. And...

VEDANTAM: So it actually moved its mouth and words came out?

GRANT: It did, yeah. This was a very early sort of pre-robot. But he tried to, you know - he tried to mine iron with magnets. He tried to preserve fruit with failing techniques. And he had to be willing to admit that these ideas were not working out to move on to the ones that did.

VEDANTAM: But one of the things that this implies is that what distinguishes the great from the ordinary is not necessarily that the great only have great ideas but that the great simply have many more ideas than the ordinary.

GRANT: I think that's exactly the story, right? The greatest originals are the people who failed the most because they're the ones who tried the most. If you study this across lots of different domains, it's not that originals have higher hit rates than their peers. It's just they generate more volume, which gives them more variety and a better shot at something new. So Bach, Beethoven, Mozart - they were not, on average in a typical composition, better than their peers. But they generated over 600 each - in some cases over 1,000 different compositions - and a few of those were true masterpieces.

VEDANTAM: When you looked at the works of Shakespeare, you also found that at the very same time Shakespeare was writing some of his greatest masterpieces, he was also writing some of his greatest duds.

GRANT: Yeah, have you heard of "The Merry Wives Of Windsor"? What about the "Timon Of Athens"? If Shakespeare were here today, he'd want us to know that around that time he also wrote "Hamlet" and "Macbeth."

VEDANTAM: So what explains this? When the same person is sitting down and writing plays, or the same person is sitting down and doing inventions, how is it they're producing genius and crap at the same time?

GRANT: One - because a lot of us fall in love with our first ideas, and those are the most conventional. Often, you have to weed out the familiar in order to get to the unusual. But a lot of people never get to those later ideas. The second thing is it's just really hard to judge your own ideas. Most of us are way too positive on the ideas we come up with. And oftentimes, they need to put a bunch of ideas out in the world to get feedback and find out what actually made sense.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if the same thing is true of Shakespeare. If we actually sat Shakespeare down the year after he wrote "The Merry Wives Of Windsor" and "Macbeth," is it possible that he might have told us, you know, "Macbeth," it's OK, but "The Merry Wives Of Windsor," that's the masterpiece?

GRANT: You know, this is so common among originals. I can't tell you what Shakespeare would have said, obviously, because he didn't answer my interview request.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GRANT: But, you know, you see this with scientists all the time - that frequently their least cited works are the ones that they think are the greatest. And Beethoven - Beethoven was known as a great self-critic, and yet he was pretty far off the mark in predicting which of his pieces were going to be his biggest hits and his biggest flops.


VEDANTAM: My guest today is Adam Grant. He's a professor at the Wharton School. Coming up, we talk about who gets the chance to be original and how parents can foster this quality in their kids. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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