Even though Wharton School management and psychology professor Adam Grant once worked as a professional magician, he doesn’t like surprises. A self-proclaimed “rule follower,“ he chose a career in academia for job security and tenure, and runs mental models when making decisions to minimize risk. But when Grant declined an invitation to invest in an eyewear startup because the founders weren’t all-in risk takers—his perceived model for successful entrepreneurs—he learned things aren’t always what they seem.
A year later, Warby Parker, the brainchild of four Wharton School students, was called the “Netflix of eyewear” by GQ, and the company hit its first-year sales goal in just one month. Grant’s decision turned out to be a bad one financially, but it inspired him to discover where he went wrong, and why some ideas succeed when others fail. He shares what he learned in his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, including the science behind creative thinking and the formula for innovation.
Fast Company: Your new book is about creative thinkers. What’s your creative process for writing?
Adam Grant: I start by identifying what people believe to be true about a topic, then I imagine what would happen if the opposite were true. A big part of my idea generation process is looking at things others take for granted, and asking, “What would the world look like if we looked at it differently?” For example, for years, students were coming into my office asking for career advice. They wanted to find a job that would let them make as much money as possible, so in 35 years they could give back. That led me to the question, “What if you could do that in reverse?” Give first, and find a path to success later? And that was the idea behind my first book, Give and Take. [/interview]
How can you tell a good idea from a bad one?
The great originals of the world have more bad ideas than their peers because they simply have more ideas, and that’s how they stumble onto the good ones. One of my favorite things to do is to pay attention to the questions I get asked over and over again, especially when there is convergence; when students and leaders care about the same topics. I also keep an idea journal. I write everything down, and then once a month I review it. I look for ideas that keep appearing in my idea journal, and if I’m still curious about it. Very rarely is an idea exciting the third time you read it.
Fast Company: You call Warby Parker an example of “vuja de,” what does that mean?
So much of creativity comes from what [management scholar] Karl Weick used to call “putting old things in new combination and new things in old combinations.” Déjà vu is when we encounter something new but it feels as if we’ve seen it before. Vuja de is facing something familiar and seeing it with fresh eyes. Think of standing in line waiting for a taxi. How many times did that happen before one person noticed that all of the passing cars had empty seats? That’s how Uber started. Warby Parker was to eyewear what Zappos was to shoes. So much of the innovation we see in the world is simply a creative breakthrough on an old topic. It’s asking yourself, “What do people already believe to be true about it?” and “When would the opposite be true?”
What does it take to be an original?
Being original is doing things that are not only novel, but also useful. You can’t just be weird. You have to do something new that has quality other people recognize. I used to think I was not original. I’m pretty risk averse; it’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to education, because of the job security and tenure. I’ve learned over time that originality and creativity are much more about varied interests instead of wild ideas. I’ve always been curious about things that weren’t very conventional, like springboard diving and magic. The involvement gave me new exposure and perspective on the world.
Some people are more naturally disposed to originality, but everyone has the propensity. Being original is simply about coming up with ideas for how the world can become better. Whether it’s from frustration or righteous indignation, everybody has those insights. Then it’s having the courage to act on it.