Highlights: Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant;Sheryl Sandberg
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friends insisted. People had to try them on first. Sure, Zappos had pulled the concept off with shoes, but there was a reason it hadn’t happened with eyewear. “If this were a good idea,” they heard repeatedly, “someone would have done it already.”
They called the company Warby Parker, combining the names of two characters created by the novelist Jack Kerouac, who inspired them to break free from the shackles of social pressure and embark on their adventure. They admired his rebellious spirit, infusing it into their culture. And it paid off.
We’re all vulnerable to “kleptomnesia”—accidentally remembering the ideas of others as our own. By my definition, originality involves introducing and advancing an idea that’s relatively unusual within a particular domain, and that has the potential to improve it.
When achievement motivation goes sky-high, it can crowd out originality: The more you value achievement, the more you come to dread failure. Instead of aiming for unique accomplishments, the intense desire to succeed leads us to strive for guaranteed success. As psychologists Todd Lubart and Robert Sternberg put it, “Once people pass an intermediate level in the need to achieve, there is evidence that they actually become less creative.”
became a professor because I was passionate about discovering new insights, sharing knowledge, and teaching the next generations of students. But in my most honest moments, I know that I was also drawn to the security of tenure. I would never have had the confidence to start a business in my twenties. If I had, I certainly would have stayed in school and lined up a job to cover my bases.
As they question traditions and challenge the status quo, they may appear bold and self-assured on the surface. But when you peel back the layers, the truth is that they, too, grapple with fear, ambivalence, and self-doubt. We view them as self-starters, but their efforts are often fueled and sometimes forced by others. And as much as
University of Michigan psychologist Clyde Coombs developed an innovative theory of risk. In the stock market, if you’re going to make a risky investment, you protect yourself by playing it safe in other investments. Coombs suggested that in their daily lives, successful people do the same thing with risks, balancing them out in a portfolio. When we embrace danger in one domain, we offset our overall level of risk by exercising caution in another domain. If you’re about to bet aggressively in blackjack, you might drive below the speed limit on your way to the casino.
As Polaroid founder Edwin Land remarked, “No person could possibly be original in one area unless he were possessed of the emotional and social stability that comes from fixed attitudes in all areas other than the one in which he is being original.”
marketplace was netting him more money than his job. “The best entrepreneurs are not risk maximizers,” Endeavor cofounder and CEO Linda Rottenberg observes based on decades of experience training many of the world’s great entrepreneurs. “They take the risk out of risk-taking.”
In one representative study of over eight hundred Americans, entrepreneurs and employed adults were asked to choose which of the following three ventures they would prefer to start: (a) One that made $5 million in profit with a 20 percent chance of success (b) One that made $2 million in profit with a 50 percent chance of success © One that made $1.25 million in profit with an 80 percent chance of success The entrepreneurs were significantly more likely to choose the last option, the safest one. This was true regardless of income, wealth, age, gender, entrepreneurial experience, marital status, education, household size, and expectations of how well other businesses would perform. “We find that
disregard for social approval doesn’t differentiate people who take original paths, either. In a comprehensive analysis of 60 studies covering more than 15,000 entrepreneurs, people who had little concern for pleasing others weren’t more likely to become entrepreneurs, nor did their firms perform any better. We see the same pattern in politics: When hundreds of historians, psychologists, and political scientists evaluated America’s presidents, they determined that the least effective leaders were those who followed the will of the people and the precedents set by their predecessors. The greatest presidents were those who challenged the status quo and brought about sweeping changes that improved the lot of the country. But these behaviors were completely unrelated to whether they cared deeply about public approval and social harmony.
When we bemoan the lack of originality in the world, we blame it on the absence of creativity. If only people could generate more novel ideas, we’d all be better off. But in reality, the biggest barrier to originality is not idea generation—it’s idea selection. In one analysis, when over two hundred people dreamed up more than a thousand ideas for new ventures and products, 87 percent were completely unique. Our companies, communities, and countries don’t necessarily suffer from a shortage of novel ideas. They’re constrained by a shortage of people who excel at choosing the right novel ideas. The
originals aren’t reliable judges of the quality of their ideas, how do they maximize their odds of creating a masterpiece? They come up with a large number of ideas. Simonton finds that on average, creative geniuses weren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers. They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality. “The odds of producing an influential or successful idea,” Simonton notes, are “a positive function of the total number of ideas generated.”
Many people fail to achieve originality because they generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection. At Upworthy, the company that makes good content go viral, two different staff members wrote headlines for a video of monkeys reacting to receiving cucumbers or grapes as rewards. Eight thousand people watched it when the headline was “Remember Planet of the Apes? It’s Closer to Reality than You Think.” A different headline led to fifty-nine times more views, enticing nearly half a million people to watch the same video: “2 Monkeys Were Paid Unequally; See What Happens Next.” Upworthy’s rule is that you need to generate at least twenty-five headline ideas to strike
generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection. At Upworthy, the company that makes
In the face of uncertainty, our first instinct is often to reject novelty, looking for reasons why unfamiliar concepts might fail. When managers vet novel ideas, they’re in an evaluative mindset. To protect themselves against the risks of a bad bet, they compare the new notion on the table to templates of ideas that have succeeded in the past. When publishing executives passed on Harry Potter, they said it was too long for a children’s book; when Brandon Tartikoff saw the Seinfeld pilot, he felt it was “too Jewish” and “too New York” to appeal to a wide audience.
Justin Berg finds that test audiences are no better than managers at predicting the success of new ideas: focus groups are effectively set up to make the same mistakes as managers.
When you watch a show in your living room, you get absorbed in the plot. If you find yourself laughing throughout, you’ll end up pronouncing it funny. When you watch it in a focus group, however, you don’t engage with the program in the same way. You’re conscious of the fact that you’re there to evaluate it, not experience it, so you’re judging it from the start. Because you’re trying to figure out whether people will watch it, you naturally assess it against established ideas of how such a show ought to work. When test audiences viewed the Seinfeld pilot, they thought it lacked the community of Cheers, the family dynamics of The Cosby Show, and the relatability of ALF. It was all too easy to find flaws in a show that was ostensibly about nothing.
fellow creators evaluating one another’s ideas. In Berg’s study of circus acts, the most accurate predictors of whether a video would get liked, shared, and funded were peers evaluating one another.
Instead of attempting to assess our own originality or seeking feedback from managers, we ought to turn more often to our colleagues. They lack the risk-aversion of managers and test audiences; they’re open to seeing the potential in unusual possibilities, which guards against false negatives. At the same time, they have no particular investment in our ideas, which gives them enough distance to offer an honest appraisal and protects against false positives.
From these findings you might think that we can improve idea selection simply by making sure that managers have some experience as creators. But in Berg’s circus data, former artists who become managers aren’t significantly better in their evaluations than regular managers; pure artists are still the best forecasters. Once you take on a managerial role, it’s hard to avoid letting an evaluative mindset creep in to cause false negatives. Berg demonstrated this in an experiment by asking people to generate product ideas and then come up with a list of evaluation criteria, and subsequently measured the success of the ideas with an actual audience. Thinking like creators and then donning the manager hat dropped their forecasting accuracy to 41 percent.
Interest in the arts among entrepreneurs, inventors, and eminent scientists obviously reflects their curiosity and aptitude. People who are open to new ways of looking at science and business also tend to be fascinated by the expression of ideas and emotions through images, sounds, and words.* But it’s not just that a certain kind of original person seeks out exposure to the arts. The arts also
People are smart, and it’ll happen.” As Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman
As Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and decision expert Gary Klein explain, intuitions are only trustworthy when people build up experience making judgments in a predictable environment. If you’re confronting a patient’s symptoms as a doctor or entering a burning building as a firefighter, experience will make your intuitions more accurate. There’s a stable, robust relationship between the patterns you’ve seen before and what you encounter today. But if you’re a stockbroker or political forecaster, the events of the past don’t have reliable implications for the present. Kahneman and Klein review evidence that experience helps physicists, accountants, insurance analysts, and chess masters—they all work in fields where cause-and-effect relationships are fairly consistent. But admissions officers, court judges, intelligence analysts, psychiatrists, and stockbrokers didn’t benefit much from experience. In a rapidly changing world, the lessons of experience can easily point us in the wrong direction. And because the pace of change is accelerating, our environments are becoming ever more unpredictable. This makes intuition less reliable as a source of insight about new ideas and places a growing premium on analysis.
These urban centers were going to become clogged with cars, which are bad for our environment; the Segway could solve this problem. “He’s a force of nature,” Aileen Lee remembers. “He’s technical, experienced, and superpassionate about these issues, so he is transfixing.”
When assessing the prospects of a novel idea, it’s all too easy to be seduced by the enthusiasm of the people behind it. In the words of Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, “Passionate people don’t wear their passion on their sleeves; they have it in their hearts.” The passion to see an idea to fruition isn’t visible in the emotion people express. The enthusiasm we inject into our words, tone of voice, and body language isn’t a clue to the internal passion we experience, but merely a reflection of our presentation skills and our personalities.
but lacked respect, others perceived them as difficult, coercive, and self-serving. Since they haven’t earned our admiration, we don’t feel they have the right to tell us what to do, and we push back. This is what happened to Carmen Medina; her years overseas left her with little status. She hadn’t had the opportunity to prove her worth to her colleagues, so they didn’t give her ideas any credence. As people dismissed her concerns, she felt her frustration mounting.
As iconic filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola observed, “The way to come to power is not always to merely challenge the Establishment, but first make a place in it and then challenge and double-cross the Establishment.” When Medina made the risky choice to present her idea again, she stabilized her risk portfolio by applying for a job that focused on information security. Her primary role was to keep knowledge safe. “That’s not something I would have normally gone for—it was a very conservative thing,” she remembers.
In both situations, Griscom was presenting ideas to people who had more power than he had, and trying to convince them to commit their resources. Most of us assume that to be persuasive, we ought to emphasize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. That kind of powerful communication makes sense if the audience is supportive. But when you’re pitching a novel idea or speaking up with a suggestion for change, your audience is likely to be skeptical. Investors are looking to poke holes in your arguments; managers are hunting for reasons why your suggestion won’t work. Under those circumstances, for at least four reasons, it’s actually more effective to adopt Griscom’s form of powerless communication by accentuating the flaws in your idea.
This is the second benefit of leading with the limitations of an idea: it makes you look smart.* Rufus Griscom first discovered this early in his career, which started in publishing. “There’s nothing more shameful than writing a review that’s too positive,” he learned. Even if reviewers loved a book, they felt an obligation to add a paragraph at the end noting where it fell short. According to Griscom, it’s their way of saying, “I’m not a chump; I was not totally snowed by this author. I am discerning.” When he told investors about the problems with Babble, he demonstrated that he wasn’t snowed by his own ideas or trying to snow them; he was a shrewd judge of his shortcomings. He was smart enough to do his homework and anticipate some of the problems that they would
Psychologist Norbert Schwarz has shown that the easier it is to think of something, the more common and important we assume it is. We use ease of retrieval as information. It’s a cinch for executives to come up with three good things about their lives.
This is what happened to investors when Rufus Griscom cited Babble’s weaknesses. By acknowledging its most serious problems, he made it harder for investors to generate their own ideas about what was wrong with the company. And as they found
This is the core challenge of speaking up with an original idea. When you present a new suggestion, you’re not only hearing the tune in your head. You wrote the song.
This explains why we often undercommunicate our ideas. They’re already so familiar to us that we underestimate how much exposure an audience needs to comprehend and buy into them. When Harvard professor John Kotter studied change agents years ago, he found that they typically undercommunicated their visions by a factor of ten. On average, they spoke about the direction of the change ten times less often than their stakeholders needed to hear
There is no such thing as the Sarick Effect, and there was no social scientist named Leslie Sarick. I made them up to demonstrate the mere exposure effect. (For the record, Rufus Griscom is a real person, as is every other person in this book.)
up, people rarely oversaturate their audiences. Overall, the evidence suggests that liking continues to increase as people are exposed to an idea between ten and twenty times, with additional exposure still useful for more complex ideas. Interestingly, exposures are more effective when they’re short and mixed in with other ideas, to help maintain the audience’s curiosity. It’s also best to introduce a delay between the presentation of the idea and the evaluation
Soon, the CIA’s technology experts developed a platform on the intranet that allowed individual employees to set up their own blogs, and familiarity spread further. People began crediting Medina for their courage to blog.* Due in no small part to her efforts, the intelligence community gained a vibrant blogging scene where analysts across different agencies informally share knowledge.
decades of research show that you have a choice between exit, voice, persistence, and neglect. Exit means removing yourself from the situation altogether: quitting a miserable job, ending an abusive marriage, or leaving an oppressive country. Voice involves actively trying to improve the situation: approaching your boss with ideas for enriching your job, encouraging your spouse to seek counseling, or becoming a political activist to elect a less corrupt government. Persistence is gritting your teeth and bearing it: working hard even though your job is stifling, sticking by your spouse, or supporting your government even though you disagree with it. Neglect entails staying in the current situation but reducing your effort: doing just enough at work not to get fired, choosing new hobbies that keep you away from your spouse, or refusing to vote.
At work, our sense of commitment and control depends more on our direct boss than on anyone else. When we have a supportive boss, our bond with the organization strengthens and we feel a greater span of influence.
Disagreeable managers are typically the last people we seek when we’re going to go out on a limb, but they are sometimes our best advocates.
“Because agreeable people value cooperation and conform to norms, they should not be inclined to make waves and upset interpersonal relationships,”
Agreeable people were happiest in the moments when they doled out compliments and praise, smiled and laughed with others, expressed affection, reassured others, and compromised or made concessions to please others. Disagreeable people, in contrast, experienced the greatest joy when they were criticizing, confronting, or challenging others.
Social scientists have long demonstrated this middle-status conformity effect. If you’re perched at the top, you’re expected to be different and therefore have the license to deviate. Likewise, if you’re still at the bottom of a status hierarchy, you have little to lose and everything to gain by being original. But the middle segment of that hierarchy—where the majority of people in an organization are found—is dominated by insecurity.
Making a recommendation to sell a stock can anger corporate executives and investors who value the stock. Analysts with poor track records at minor banks have nowhere to fall by taking this risk, and star analysts at elite banks have a safety net.
Senior leaders saw her as one of the rare employees who believed there were things wrong with the agency, and also believed it could change. Her credibility was further bolstered by a growing following of junior colleagues.
“What got me heard,” Dubinsky explains, “was output and impact. People saw me as somebody who could make things happen. If you become known as someone who delivers, you do your job and do it well, you build respect.” She had earned status before exercising power, so she had idiosyncrasy credits to cash in.
Comparing Carmen Medina’s and Donna Dubinsky’s experiences raises fundamental questions about the best way to handle dissatisfaction. In the quest for originality, neglect isn’t an option. Persistence is a temporary route to earning the right to speak up. But in the long run, like neglect, persistence maintains the status quo and falls short of resolving your dissatisfaction. To change the situation, exit and voice are the only viable alternatives.
It was the impossibility of exit that led Carmen Medina to move national security forward; it was the possibility of exit that enabled Donna Dubinsky to pioneer the smartphone revolution. The lesson here is that voice isn’t inherently superior to exit. In some circumstances, leaving a stifling organization can be a better path to originality. The best we can do is voice our opinions and secure our risk portfolios, preparing for exit if necessary. If our bosses evolve, as Jobs did, there’s a case to be made for sticking around and speaking up. But if they don’t, and our audiences lack the openness to consider a shift in direction, we may find better opportunities elsewhere.
the long run, research shows that the mistakes we regret are not errors of commission, but errors of omission. If we could do things over, most of us would censor ourselves less and express our ideas more. That’s exactly what Carmen Medina and Donna Dubinsky did, and it left them with few regrets.
needed to be particularly careful in choosing his words. Great thinkers throughout history—from Benjamin Franklin to Henry David Thoreau to King’s namesake Martin Luther—have observed that it takes longer to write a short speech than a long one. “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it,” said President Woodrow Wilson; “if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all.” But King did not begin writing out
I’ll discuss why procrastination can be as much of a virtue as a vice, how first-mover entrepreneurs frequently face an uphill battle, why older innovators sometimes outdo younger ones, and why the leaders who drive change effectively are those who wait patiently for the right moment. Although it can be risky to delay, you’ll see that waiting can also reduce risk by preventing you from putting all your eggs in one basket. You don’t have to be first to be an original, and the most successful originals don’t always arrive on schedule. They are fashionably late to the party.
Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it can be a resource for creativity. Long before the modern obsession with efficiency precipitated by the Industrial Revolution and the Protestant work ethic, civilizations recognized the benefits of procrastination. In ancient Egypt, there were two different verbs for procrastination: one denoted laziness; the other meant waiting for the right time.
productive mediocrity . . . could fault him for it. Productive mediocrity requires discipline of an ordinary kind. It is safe and threatens no one. Nothing will be changed by mediocrity. . . . But genius is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. You cannot produce a work of genius according to a schedule or an outline.
More than 68 percent admitted procrastinating
More than 68 percent admitted procrastinating in at least two of the four domains. Procrastination proved especially fruitful for creative work. The science stars “used procrastination as a form of incubation to stave
allowed Jones to benefit from the Zeigarnik effect. In 1927, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik demonstrated that people have a better memory for incomplete than complete tasks. Once a task is finished, we stop thinking about it. But when it is interrupted and left undone, it stays active in our minds. As Jones was comparing
etched into the stone tablets of our collective memory: “I have a dream.” It remains one of the most recognizable phrases in the history of human rhetoric, as it painted a vivid portrait of a better future. But I was stunned to find that the “dream” idea was not written into the speech at all. It didn’t appear in the draft by Jones, nor did King include it in his script.
were run by executives who admitted that they often wasted time before settling down to work and sometimes
In both cases, the most successful organizations were run by executives who admitted that they often wasted time before settling down to work and sometimes failed to pace themselves to get things done on time. Although these habits could impede progress on tasks, they opened leaders up to being more strategically flexible.
Great originals are great procrastinators, but they don’t skip planning altogether. They procrastinate strategically, making gradual progress by testing and refining different possibilities. Although the memorable lines about the dream were improvised, King had rehearsed variations of them in earlier speeches. He had spoken of his dream nearly a year earlier, in November 1962 in Albany, and in the ensuing months he referred to it frequently, from Birmingham to Detroit. During the year of his “dream” speech alone, it is estimated that he traveled over 275,000 miles and delivered over 350 speeches.
Hansen explains. “King did not so much write his speeches as assemble them, by rearranging and adapting material he had used many times before. . . . It gave King the flexibility to alter his addresses as he was speaking. . . . Had King not decided to leave his written text, it is doubtful that his speech at the march would be remembered