by Ed Maguire
Do you believe that some people are just born creative, and others just aren’t? That there are some people that are born to lead and the rest of us are destined to follow? Is there some rare quality that makes some people have an impact, while others can’t? A new book by Adam Grant, The Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World blows the lid of these assumptions. Yes, you can be creative in ways you never thought, you can even change the world – you just have to have faith in your own ideas and be willing to learn the right way to bring them to success.
Adam Grant is a professor of business at the University of Pennsylvania, who’s known for being accessible and really people smart. A friend of mine gave me his prior book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success as a gift (appropriately). The premise of the book is that success is not just a matter of hard work, talent and luck, it’s increasingly about interactions with other people. He looks at people along three types – Givers, Takers and Matchers. He looked at how different types of people became successful in life and in their careers. Takers are those that that often get the most credit for accomplishments, building on the contributions of others that may not get recognized. Takers tend to be more calculating about the returns they get for their efforts. Givers often donate their time and resources without expecting specific payback. In some circumstances, this doesn’t always work to their benefit. Matchers tend to network between the two types. What Grant found was that Givers often see indirect payoffs over the longer term because of the goodwill and trust they build up over time.Adam Grant’s analysis is inspiring, because he lays out how you can do well by doing good. There is a method to the madness.
In Originals, Adam Grant makes an important point – that you should not be overly concerned with following conventional wisdom if you have an idea you feel passionately about. He uses an example that hit painfully close to home: Warby Parker, the successful eyewear startup named as the most innovative company in the world in 2015 by Fast Company. He was approached by the co-founders of Warby Parker in 2009 to be an early investor in the company – and he passed on the opportunity. It was the worst financial decision he ever made, so he decided to understand what went wrong.
The co-founders of Warby Parker found their idea by asking why eyeglasses had to be so expensive? They did some research and found an industry that was 80% dominated by one company – Luxxotica – that charged high prices because they had so little competition. None of the founders had a background in eyewear, or fashion, or e-commerce – but they started up the company because they saw they realized there was another way to do things. They were all students at the time, and they worked on the idea in their spare time while working at internships. To Grant, they seemed unwilling to take the big risks typically associated with startup founders – quitting to go all in with guns blazing. This was enough to convince him not to invest. But what he found later, after doing more research, was that many successful startup founders hedge their bets and proceed cautiously – because what they are actually doing is reducing risk!
One of the key insights from Originals is that experts – and related experience are not always the best source of original ideas. The most innovative ideas often come from people with skills and experience from different areas. He tells the story of Rick Ludwin, a television executive who had experience in variety shows and specials and his unlikely experience creating new kind of sitcom. Ludwin had experience writing jokes and selling them to Bob Hope, but he had never written a sitcom or developed one. He pushed an unconventional idea through, hiring writers who had not worked in sitcoms before and his project ended up being the most successful comedy of all time: Seinfeld.
It does help to be get familiar with failure - the more ideas you try out, you’ll have a better chance of success. Composers like Beethoven and painters like Picasso owed their success in large part to the fact that they were prolific enough that even a small proportion if their output were masterpieces.
But don’t feel bad if you don’t wake up every day and attack your deadlines. Timing is important, and procrastination can also be an invaluable technique when you’re trying to collect your ideas. Coretta Scott King tells the story about Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. King worked on it the whole night before without sleeping a wink and he knew it was going to be important. After months of preparation and a written speech – what happened? During the address, the singer Mahalia Jackson shouted from behind him “Tell em about the dream Martin” – and he pushed aside his notes and launched into his vision for the future. In front of all those people and cameras – he winged it.
What Adam Grant has found is that there is not one road to happiness or success, and there are as often exceptions as rules to conventional wisdom. Early movers don’t always win, and you don’t have to take the biggest risks. There are a plenty of ways you can hack your own creativity, and sometimes the best
opportunities come from what looks like failure. You can be a pioneer – or you can be a settler. You can be a young genius – or an old master. You can be a lone wolf – or you can be a social animal and still succeed. The key is to always think twice about whatever you do – and it never hurts to get a second opinion.
There are a few things that anyone can do to stimulate their own creativity:
1) Have a hobby. A study of Nobel Prize winning scientists by a team of 15 University of Michigan researchers found that winners were 2X more likely than average scientists to play a musical instrument; 7X greater than average to be involved in arts or crafts; 12X more likely to be a writer and 22X more likely to be a performer.
2) Get your peers involved in evaluating your ideas. The best ideas can be vetted and improved by soliciting feedback and ideas from peers.
3) Immerse yourself in a new culture: Living overseas for a while can change your perspective and give you new touchstones for creative ideas.
So the conclusion here is that you should never be too hard on yourself if you don’t think you’re cut out to be creative or for success. There’s always a path, and each person’s path looks different. To be an Original is not as difficult as it sounds – after all there are over 7 billion of us on the world, and no two will ever be alike. Embrace it.
Ed Maguire has worked as an equity analyst covering the technology sector since 1999 for a variety of firms including CLSA Americas, Merrill Lynch and CIBC. Previously he led sales for independent music distributor Twinbrook Music while working as professional musician performing on bass, violin and keyboards, composing, arranging and producing a variety of styles of music. Ed holds a B.A. in Music from Columbia and an M.B.A. from Rutgers in Finance and Management Information Systems. He lives in Millburn, NJ with his wife Lily, their two kids and the dog Spock.
Read more from the May Issue