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The Billion-dollar Idea: 5 Tips for Originality

April 08, 2016

Adam Grant, Wharton’s youngest tenured professor, TEDtalk phenomenon, and general wunderkind, has built his career examining human motivation. In his 2013 bestseller, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Success, he explored why people who were generous with their expertise became, in turn, even more knowledgeable in their fields. In his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Grant digs into the age-old mystery of creativity. Put simply, what goes into the special sauce of major innovation?

Like many great ideas, the book was born from a mistake. In 2009, Grant was offered the opportunity to invest in new startup, the now-ubiquitous Warby Parker—whose business plan, to donate a pair of eyeglasses for every pair sold online (for only $95, compared to the going rate of $500 in-store), has since become a blueprint for innovative retail. Grant declined to invest, believing the founders, who were students of his at the time, weren’t totally committed. It took them six months to decide on a name; they were simultaneously pursuing other job opportunities; and who would buy eyeglasses on a computer, anyway? Fast forward five years, to Warby Parker’s $1 billion valuation. His instincts shaken, Grant needed to understand “the worst financial decision [he] ever made.”

The resulting book—a dense, enlightening read of the unconventional thinking behind big breakthroughs—is loaded with counterintuitive lessons gleaned from companies and individuals as diverse as Spanx, Segway, T.S. Eliot, and Stephen King. Below, five quick takeaways to get your creative juices flowing.

1. Seek out what hasn’t been done.

We’re not born creative or original; it’s an act of conscious will. Still, it takes more than just discipline. After years of hard work, a violin prodigy might master Bach, but that’s already been done. “Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new,” Grant emphasizes. Talent and grit aren’t enough on their own; originality requires you to reject the instinct to chase knowable goals—to go out on a limb, so to speak. Donna Dubinsky did exactly that in 1985, when she was a sales and distribution manager at Apple. Steve Jobs wanted to eliminate the company’s inventory warehouses and rely instead on just-in-time computer assembly, but Dubinsky thought she could come up with something better, and boldly requested 30 days to create an alternative—or she’d admit defeat and quit. Her resulting solution was revolutionary, not only because she was smart and dedicated, but because she had the bravery to look for it.

2. Don’t quit your day job just yet.

As Grant writes, “To become original you have to try something new, which means accepting some measure of risk.” But despite many blustery claims, it’s actually better not to “risk it all.” In fact, having a backup plan actually bodes well for success—entrepreneurs who stay at their jobs while starting a new business, for example, are 33% less likely to fail. Pierre Omidyar continued working his day job for nine months after launching eBay, and even Bill Gates opted for a leave of absence from Harvard rather than joining Paul Allen full-time in the venture that would become Microsoft. Risk mitigation can provide everything from a financial safety net to an emotional well of courage. According to Grant, “Having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another.”


A lightbulb moment, plus the Etsuko dress in crackle.

3. Produce, produce, produce some more.

What sets originals apart is that they take action—the more, the better. “Many people fail to achieve originality because they generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection,” says Grant. Picasso, Shakespeare, Edison, Mozart—they all produced vast amounts of work compared to the relatively few pieces they’re celebrated for. Stephen King writes a minimum of 2,000 words per day, no exceptions. The more prolific you are, the more variety you produce, which gives you a higher chance of producing something wholly new.

4. But wait—procrastination can be good.

As important as it is to keep generating ideas, it’s also beneficial to take time to think. In one of Grant’s studies, he tasked two groups with coming up with an original business idea. While the first group was told to get right to it, the second group played computer games first. Surprisingly, the second group’s ideas were 28% more creative. Grant concluded that, when brainstorming, one’s initial thoughts are often more conventional. Having mental space over time provides opportunity for original ideas to surface. Indeed, some of mankind’s greatest works are the product of procrastination—Dr. Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln wrote their most famous speeches at the last minute, and Leonardo da Vinci put off finishing the Mona Lisa for 16 years after he started it.

5. Find the prickly pear.

Once you have ideas, solicit feedback—and embrace criticism. When CIA analyst Carmen Medina needed support to address the agency’s limited information sharing, she turned to her boss not because he was encouraging, but because he was “mercurial” and “prone to cynicism.” That is, Medina knew he would be honest with her. Agreeable people, on the other hand, don’t like making waves or risking conflict, so they seldom ask difficult questions. Tough-to-please people can be your best advocates by being skeptical and challenging—and ultimately making your ideas stronger.

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Amy Thomas is a New York-based writer who, in addition to working as a creative director in advertising, writes about food and travel for publications such as The New York Times and National Geographic Traveler. Amy is a new mom and lifelong sweet freak. Read more of Amy's posts.

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