Keeping It Original: A Conversation with Adam Grant

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Adam Grant needs no introduction. One of Wharton’s most highly rated professors, Grant is on record as an advocate for women in business. Grant’s latest book and New York Times bestseller, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, analyzes the habits of creative, original thinkers. I connected with Grant last week to discuss overarching themes in Originals.

DM: You’ve spoken about two different kinds of doubt: self doubt (which can be paralyzing) and idea doubt (which can be energizing). How can one move from self-doubt to idea doubt?

AG: My favorite advice on this comes from [Stanford psychology professor] Carol Dweck. She finds that people who attribute failure to effort rather than ability end up working harder, longer, and smarter – and end up with better ideas. The place to start is to think of times when you struggled and doubted yourself but ultimately succeeded, which helps to reinforce a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. It’s irrelevant to ask “Can I do this?” Instead, you ask, “Have I put in enough effort yet to develop the knowledge, skills, and connections I need?” Or, to borrow a phrase that [LinkedIn co-founder] Reid Hoffman gave me: have confidence in yourself as a learner. Your ideas may suck today, but they can get better tomorrow.

DM: You’ve written about the dreaded middle of mediocrity or what you call middle status conservatism, which is how middle managers tend to be less open to new ideas than people at the top or the bottom. How do you recommend Wharton MBAs counter this entrenchment?  

AG: Familiarity reducing creativity is entrenchment. If you want to avoid entrenchment, the best thing you can do is diversify your experience. Take on a rotation outside your core function.  Take a job in a culture that’s unfamiliar to you. Start seeking feedback on your work from people who have very different expertise. As Steve Jobs said back in 1982, “you have to not have the same bag of experiences as everyone else does.”

DM: How would you recommend Wharton MBAs find the “sweet spot” between precrastination (what you say you tend to do) and procrastination (what we know we tend to do) that results in the most creativity?

AG: Be quick to start but slow to finish. Dive into idea generation early, and then delay completion so you don’t foreclose. My favorite way to do that when I’m writing is to send my drafts to people who give excellent constructive criticism, but often take weeks to get back to me. It forces me to leave my work unfinished and stay open to new ideas.

Key takeaways from Originals:

  • To be original, you don’t have to be first – you just have to be different and better.
  • Take the initiative to doubt the default and look for a better option.
  • Originals do fear failing, but they are more afraid of failure to try.
  • The greatest originals are those who fail the most, because they try the most.

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