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What You Think You Know About Originality Is Holding You Back

Most of us have unfounded anxieties about might happen if were to step away from the crowd.

What You Think You Know About Originality Is Holding You Back
[Photo: Flickr user Kleist Berlin]

In just the first few weeks of this year, we said our goodbyes to three hugely imaginative nonconformists: David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Glenn Frey. Each made enormous impacts on the world, and their respective work will surely continue to influence the generations after them.

The deaths of famous people like these actually tend to weigh heavily on our individual psyches. Reflecting on how their work affected us personally, we grieve their loss much in the way we would a family member's or a close friend's.

But we also take things one big step further. Often unconsciously, we take stock of our own lives in the context of theirs. We wonder about our influence in the world, what our legacies will be. Many of us question whether the work we do has significance and come away feeling distressed by the comparison.

So the release of an inspiring new book this week by Wharton professor Adam Grant couldn’t be better timed. Author of the groundbreaking New York Times best seller Give and Take, Grant has now has written Originals, which upends the notion that ordinary people can’t make a meaningful mark in the world.

Drawing on exhaustive research, Grant shows us that people who move the world forward with original ideas are much more like the rest of us than we may otherwise have imagined. The book's fundamental encouragement is that we all can—and should—reach higher in our lives. None of us was put on earth to be small.

Roads Less Traveled

Psychologists have discovered that there are two paths of achievement in life: conformity or originality. Conformity means following the crowd down conventional paths and sustaining the status quo. "Originality," says Grant, "is taking the road less traveled, championing a set of novel ideas to go against the grain, but ultimately make things better."

Renowned business executive Mellody Hobson once observed that "there are so few originals in life, because people are afraid to speak up and stand out." But Originals proves that fear needlessly prevents us from maximizing our own potential.

In a conversation I had with Grant recently, he told me, "After spending years studying and interacting with truly original people, I am struck that their inner experience is not different from our own. What sets them apart is that, despite their fears, they take action anyway. They know in their hearts that failing would yield less regret than failing to try."

Universal Aspirations

"Most of us want to be more original." Grant says, "If you look at American culture, individuality, self-expression, and uniqueness are huge priorities." Yet despite these being our core cultural values, because of a sense of risk, many of us lean toward fitting in rather than standing out.

"We all have ideas that could improve the world around us—whether in our own workplace, community, or families," Grant told me, "and most of the time, we don’t speak up."

The fear of being squashed and the expectation that sharing our ideas will prove futile are two of the biggest reasons we lay low. But Grant says most of us have unfounded beliefs about the downsides of what would happen if we did step up.

"A lot of people walk around with the theory that if you speak your mind, you’re going to cut your boss’s throat, and you may suffer as a result," he says. "And most of the people who believe this have never seen this happen to anyone! Of course, challenges to the status quo should always be proposed thoughtfully and professionally. But the odds that things will go well are much higher than most of us think."

Original Thinkers Are Human, Too

Grant’s very clear intention is to show that originals pee and poop like everyone else. "People who move the world forward with original ideas are rarely paragons of conviction and commitment," he writes. "They grapple with fear, ambition, and self-doubt."

Interestingly, many of the most successful entrepreneurs in our society appear to dislike risk more than the rest of us. We’ve all heard that Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft. But Grant points out that he actually took a leave of absence from the university and didn’t withdraw until later—when he could be reasonably certain of the success of the software he’d created. Sara Blakely, the billionaire inventor of Spanx, also hedged her risk. For two years, she stayed in her full-time job selling fax machines until she fully refined the prototype that she ultimately brought to market.

"Most successful originals are not daredevils who leap before they look," Grant says. "They’re the ones who reluctantly tiptoe to the edge of a cliff, calculate the rate of descent, triple-check their parachutes, and set up a safety net at the bottom, just in case."

Regret Weighs Tons

Research shows that there are very few people who speak up, champion new ideas, and end up regretting it. Instead, it’s those who fail to take action in life who end up saying, "I wish I had given it a try. I should have taken a little more initiative. I should have gone out on a limb."

Grant believes that what really holds most people back from realizing their full potential is that they idolize people who appear to be larger-than-life originals. "I hear it from students all the time," he says. "'I’m never going to be a Steve Jobs, so why bother trying?'"

But the guidance Grant offers his students ultimately applies to just about everyone: "We overlook all the ways just adopting a little more originality in our day-to-day lives can make the world more interesting, if not better. There are just so many different opportunities to seize and say, ‘I’m going to see if there’s not a better way to do this.’"

Most of us will never sell 100 million records, act in a Hollywood movie, or perform before thousands of screaming fans, but we may not have to. The lesson of Originals—in the words of David Bowie—is that we still can be heroes.

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