WASHINGTON — Back in 2001, Adam Grant’s Harvard roommate dreamed up the idea for an internet platform that would allow people to connect with their friends and share updates on life’s events.
But he never did anything with that idea.
“And a few years later, Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in the dorm next door,” said Grant, a 35-year-old tenured professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “And that happens all the time. I know so many people who have great ideas who were just afraid to speak up or just thought that nobody would listen if they did.”
This example, and many like it, sparked Grant’s interest in studying the habits of those he’s come to call “originals” — nonconforming entrepreneurs, investors and artists who are comfortable standing out, speaking up and sharing their ideas.
“I thought that these people were just cut from a different cloth than the rest of us. And it turns out, many of them are surprisingly ordinary,” said Grant, author of “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.”
In writing his book, Grant’s research led him to one big question: How can we all become a little more original? Here are his best tips.
Start generating more ideas — even bad ideas
Creative people generate a lot of bad ideas, but Grant says those “throwaway thoughts” are an important part of the creative process.
“It takes a huge volume of ideas to stumble on something brand-new,” he added. “What distinguished the Einsteins and Shakespeares and Thomas Edisons of the world from their peers is they just produced a lot more work. And a lot of the stuff they came up with was not considered great.”
The key is to push past the bad ideas. If you’re working on a new solution, don’t limit yourself to 10 concepts; aim for hundreds, Grant said. This is because the ideas that come to mind first tend to be the most conventional.
“That moment when you feel like you’re out of ideas is the moment when you’re ready to start thinking differently,” he added.
There are a few ways to provoke more creative thoughts. Setting aside a few extra minutes of quiet time can help — so can working when you’re most tired.
“And which ideas do you stay most silent about? The ones that are most creative.”
— Adam Grant
“There’s evidence that people are more creative when they’re a little less alert,” Grant said, adding morning people may produce more creative ideas at night, and vice versa.
“When you’re most alert, that’s when your thinking is most structured and you tend to follow a very logical, straightforward path. Part of being creative is allowing yourself to think in nonlinear ways and have intuitive leaps.”
Once you have an idea, share it. Don’t keep it to yourself.
“If you ask people about the boldest idea they’ve ever had, across industries, 85 percent of people stayed silent and never told anybody about the idea,” Grant said.
“I think that’s a travesty. I think we have tons of great ideas in the world that nobody ends up acting on, and I’d like to see that change.”
Work in pairs, not in groups
If your job requires frequent brainstorming sessions and group work, Grant suggests pairing off with one co-worker, rather than several.
Generating ideas in a group can lead to “production blocking,” where some people’s voices go unheard, since not everyone can speak at once. There’s also “ego threat,” in which some might shy away from speaking up for fear of sounding foolish.
“And which ideas do you stay most silent about? The ones that are most creative,” Grant said.
“Practice does make perfect, but it doesn’t make new.”
— Adam Grant
Groups also face the basic conformity problem. This happens when an idea gets circulated among a group “and everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon,” Grant explained.
“As opposed to continuing with divergent thinking, they start to converge,” he said.
Working alone or with one other person is the best way to avoid these creative obstacles.
“I think, especially, if you can find someone whose skills and background is different from yours, but who might share some common interests or goals, then that’s a person who’s really great to connect with and collaborate with,” Grant said.
Procrastination isn’t all that bad
Grant is very clear about one thing: He doesn’t want to encourage people to become serious procrastinators. He does, however, want to re-frame its definition and normalize it.
A former student of his ran several studies which showed that people who procrastinate tend to be more creative than people who rarely postpone their work.
“Some of the procrastination that we all do is part of the creative process. Sometimes we just haven’t figured a problem out yet,” said Grant, adding that people often beat themselves up over delayed deadlines since procrastination is associated with laziness or a lack of motivation.
Instead, he likes to tell people, “Be quick to start but slow to finish.”
“You want to dive into a problem early, but you don’t want to foreclose too soon on what kinds of solutions you might consider,” Grant said.
Da Vinci, he points out, was often distracted from his work and spent years — sometimes decades — completing his masterpieces. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. finished their most famous speeches at the last minute.
“It wasn’t that they were lazy; it wasn’t that they didn’t care. They were working on the speeches much further in advance. But in both cases, they wanted to keep themselves open as long as possible to new ideas as opposed to just settling on those early ones.”
Grant says creative procrastination is all about making sure you give yourself enough time to incubate.
Encourage ‘renaissance,’ not perfection
As a parent and a social scientist, Grant has spent a lot of time reading and researching the influence parents can have on their children’s creativity and originality. He says rather than focusing on facilitating creativity, parents should concentrate on not undermining it.
One mistake parents make is that they often encourage their kids to practice a skill or craft until they become experts.
“Practice does make perfect, but it doesn’t make new. And if you force your kids to over-specialize and go too deep into one area, they might be able to play a great game of chess, but then they’ve never thought about what it means to create their own game with their own rules,” Grant said.
“They might be able to play a beautiful violin piece, but they don’t know how to compose their own scores and write their own music.”
His best piece of parenting advice is to give kids the time and space they need in order to think about doing things their own way, instead of learning from the way it’s been done by others.