‘Originals’: How Anyone Can Become A Trailblazer

Adam Grant discusses his new book, ‘Originals

A new book by Wharton management professor Adam Grant challenges our assumptions about what it takes to generate and champion original ideas in ourselves and others. In Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Grant reveals what we can learn from entrepreneurs and other trailblazers to help us think differently and to make our voices heard.

[email protected]harton recently sat down to speak with Grant about why he wrote his new book.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

[email protected]: You often interview authors in the [email protected] series for [email protected], so I’m going to start with a question that you usually ask them: What inspired you to write this book?…

Grant: The inspiration for writing this book was twofold. One, I worked as a manager for a while before I came into academia. The one time I worked up the courage to speak up, I was actually dragged by my boss’s boss into the bathroom. I ended up being threatened that I would be fired if I ever spoke my mind again. I really wanted to know, how could I have done that more effectively?

Then more recently, since my first book, Give and Take, came out, people have been constantly asking, “If I am in a culture where people are constantly selfish, or toxic, how do I change that? If I’m facing undesirable circumstances anywhere, what do I do about them?” I didn’t feel like I had good answers for them. So I started doing a lot of research, and here we are.

[email protected]: Great. So, you talk about entrepreneurship right at the beginning of the book, especially the company Warby Parker, which came out of the efforts of some Wharton students. Typically, when people think about entrepreneurs, they see them as the ultimate risk-takers, who are willing to bet the farm on their dreams. What is your view of entrepreneurship and the relationship between entrepreneurship and risk-taking?

Grant: That’s what I thought, too, initially. When I thought of an entrepreneur, I thought of a swashbuckling pirate or a daredevil, the kind of person who would basically leap before he or she looked. The data tell a completely different story: Entrepreneurs are not necessarily more risk-taking than the rest of us. In fact, they may even be more risk-averse.

“When I thought of an entrepreneur, I thought of a swashbuckling pirate or a daredevil, the kind of person who would basically leap before he or she looked. The data tell a completely different story…What a lot of them are doing is … managing risk portfolios.”

Most entrepreneurs hate gambling. What they really enjoy is the opportunity to try something new. They’re typically driven not by this craving for risk, but rather, this desire to say, “Can I pursue a passion? Can I work independently? Can I do something where I’m really going to have an impact?”

What mystifies a lot of us is we look at entrepreneurs, and we see them taking risks, and we assume they’re risk-takers. What a lot of them are doing is … managing risk portfolios. Think about it like a stock portfolio, right? If you’re going to make a risky investment in one realm, you’re supposed to offset that with a safer bet in a different stock. Entrepreneurs actually do the same thing with risk. At least the successful ones do. When they have to go out on a limb in one domain, they will actually be more cautious in another to cover their bases.

[email protected]: You also have so many interesting stories in the book. One that I especially liked was about the internet browsers that people use. Does that say anything about the people who use them, and about their originality?

Grant: It says more than I initially expected. This economist, Michael Housman, was tracking data on customer service reps and call center employees. He found that employees who use Chrome or Firefox actually outperformed Internet Explorer and Safari users. They also stayed in their jobs significantly longer.

So I started stalking him, of course, to find out why. What’s going on? What does Chrome and Firefox do for you? It turned out it wasn’t a technical advantage. It was not that they were faster at typing. They didn’t have more computer knowledge. It was about how you got the browser. If you’re going to use Internet Explorer or Safari, it comes preinstalled on your computer. Right? Whereas Chrome and Firefox, if you want them, you have to take a little bit of initiative, and download a different browser.

That’s a signal, a window around what you do at work. The kinds of people who had that instinct, to say, “You know what? I wonder if there’s a better browser out there,” they were also the kinds of people who looked for ways to improve their own jobs. Ultimately, they were able to create a job where they were more effective and more satisfied.

Now, people hear about these data, and sometimes they say, “Well, wait. If I want to get better at my job, all I have to do is upgrade to Chrome or Firefox?” It’s about the kind of thinking that underlies that choice. Not just accepting the default that’s handed to you, but asking, “Is there a different or better option available?”

“We could all rely more on peer feedback and do a better job saying, ‘When I’ve got a new idea, I’m not necessarily going to trust my own judgment…. I’m going to go to people who are fellow creators.’”

[email protected]: In thinking about originality, you said the biggest barrier to your originality is not the ability to generate ideas, but to select them. How can people avoid making bad bets when it comes to idea selection?

Grant: We’re all actually pretty terrible at this when it comes to our own ideas. The evidence is overwhelming. It’s hard to find an entrepreneur who doesn’t think his or her idea is a winner….

It’s really other people’s feedback that turns out to be important. There’s this brilliant research by Justin Berg, one of our former doctoral students who’s now on the Stanford faculty. Justin got circus artists to try to gauge how likely their performances were to succeed with audiences. They were terrible. They overestimated the success of their own performances by a lot. So then he went to managers, and he showed a bunch of videos. So you get to see some jugglers, you get to see a few clowns. By the way, nobody likes clowns, it turns out. Universally hated. You may get to watch a few aerial acrobatics performances. Then the managers make judgments. The managers are not very accurate, either. You tend to be too positive on your own ideas. Managers tend to be more negative on other people’s ideas because they have a prototype about what a great circus performance looks like. They are evaluating all the ideas that come onto the table in terms of, “Does that fit or not?” The group that was much more effective than either people themselves or managers was peers: fellow circus artists. So you might not be able to judge your own ideas, but you’re great at forecasting the success of other people’s

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