Q&A with Adam Grant: Creativity, Innovation, and Standing Out When We’re Trained to Conform
Magazine / Q&A with Adam Grant: Creativity, Innovation, and Standing Out When We’re Trained to Conform

Q&A with Adam Grant: Creativity, Innovation, and Standing Out When We’re Trained to Conform

Q&A with Adam Grant: Creativity, Innovation, and Standing Out When We’re Trained to Conform

Last week, two Heleo Thought Leaders, Adam Grant and Susan Cain, paired up for a Facebook Q&A in celebration of Grant’s latest book, Originals. Grant has incredible advice for people aspiring to cultivate originality and creativity in their lives. His book covers the fears and anxieties of creative expression, why he tried to procrastinate, how education can better promote originality in students, and more. With Facebook users’ questions and Grant’s insightful answers, the world can become a more colorful and individualistic place.


Q: “Adam, I would love for you to talk about the role of anxiety in the creative process — and the difference between ‘strategic optimists’ and ‘defensive pessimists.’ Among the many fascinating bits in your book, that one stood out, and will I think resonate for this group.”

Adam Grant: “About a week before a big presentation, strategic optimists envision it going perfectly, and that energizes them to prepare and ace it. Defensive pessimists have a different approach: they wake up in a cold sweat panicked that they’ll forget all their lines and trip on stage. That anxiety about the worst-case scenario motivates them to prepare, and they perform just as well as optimists… unless you make them happy, which robs them of the anxiety that propels them into action. Even though they give a stellar presentation, the next time around, they convince themselves all over again that they’re going to fail, and that motivates them to succeed. A healthy dose of anxiety about things going poorly is a key part of how many people champion their original ideas and find the courage to take risks.”


Q: “Adam, So much of U.S. public education is about conformity to predetermined outcomes. How do you think schools need to change to encourage creative thinking? (I’m asking both as a parent of three elementary-age boys and as a music educator.)”

Adam Grant: “I love the George Lucas [idea] for college admissions to include a creative portfolio. Imagine how much less conformity we’d see if students had a chance to focus on music, art, poetry, writing, films, or other creative projects to the same degree that they often do rote learning and sports. As a small step in this direction, two years ago I started assigning my students to work in pairs to create their own mini-TED talks. I was stunned by the originality of the ideas themselves and the ways they delivered them.”


Q: “I’m curious for your thoughts on why folks tend to think originality is so hard to come by.”

Adam Grant: “I think people often have grandiose beliefs about what it means to be original. They say “there’s nothing new under the sun,” and of course they’re right in a sense– every idea we have is influenced by what we’ve seen, learned, and experienced. (I love the term “kleptomnesia,” borrowing an idea from others but accidentally remembering it as our own.) But that doesn’t prevent us from finding new ways to solve old problems or applying old ways to new problems. You don’t have to be first to be an original; you just have to be different and better. I think we need to redefine originality as looking for ways to improve a situation and taking action to make it happen. When you look at it that way, we can all be more original.”


Q: “Were you always ‘original’ or was there a moment in your life that sparked a change?”

Adam Grant:  “I was a rule-follower growing up. In elementary school, the one time I got sent to the principal’s office, I cried– even though I wasn’t in trouble. The moment that changed was when I was working as a manager, and a leader in our organization threatened to fire a friend of mine who was behind on a deadline. I didn’t even stop to think about it: I went to my boss’s boss to protest. She walked me to the women’s bathroom — the only room on the floor with no windows — and told me that if I ever spoke out of turn again, I would be $%&@ing fired. At that moment I made three commitments. One, to study how to make organizations safer places for people to challenge authority and speak up. Two, to learn how to champion ideas more effectively. And three, to never again enter a women’s bathroom.”

Susan Cain: “That is a great story, Adam. Question — it sounds as if it was easier for you to find rule-breaking courage on behalf of someone else than it would have been to do for your own sake. Do you think that’s a common dynamic? And if so, how do you think people can harness this insight?”

Adam Grant: “Susan, yes! So often, originality comes out of righteous indignation. When we’re afraid to go against the grain, it’s worth asking ourselves “Who else might benefit from this idea?” or sometimes more powerfully, ‘Who will I be letting down if I don’t act?'”


Q: “While pursuing the quest of making this book a reality, what was your biggest fear? Now that it is published, what is your greatest source of pride about the effort?”

Adam Grant: “I normally get things done early, but while writing a chapter on procrastinating, I decided to try procrastinating. I guess you could call it meta-procrastinating. I literally stopped in mid-sentence one day and put it aside, and didn’t come back to it for six months. I was terrified I wouldn’t finish it in time. It was agony. But it became a great source of pride, because I ended up with all sorts of new ideas that I didn’t initially think to cover on the benefits of waiting, including the myth of the first-mover advantage (most great originals are fashionably late to the party) and the two life cycles of creativity (young geniuses have Eureka moments, but often burn out quickly, and it’s never too late to learn to be an old master).”


Q: “As a preview to your book in your newsletter you shared: ‘We think common goals draw people together, but in reality they often drive us apart. Your best allies might be people who share your methods, not your objectives.’ Could you please share insight into defining/diagnosing the alignment of our methods in order to find our best allies?”

Adam Grant: “This is from research on coalitions in chapter 5. I think you can start by looking at how you go about achieving your goals. What practices does your group typically follow? Then, you can look broadly for other groups that use similar techniques. Oftentimes, unexpected alliances between movements (gay rights activists and environmentalists, or a marine base and a Native America tribe) started because they had common tactics like protests or marches.”


Q: “I’m curious to hear your thoughts on encouraging originals while still maintaining a strong brand identity and culture.”

Adam Grant: “I think we need to move away from evaluating people on cultural fit and start paying more attention to cultural contribution. Culture fit breeds groupthink; cultural contribution is about asking what’s missing from your culture, and then hiring, rewarding, and promoting people who will enrich it.”


For more about how to stand out and harness your individuality, check out Originals, by Adam Grant.

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