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Gratitude and Giving: We Revisit Adam Grant’s Conversation with Fast Co. in Preparation for Thanksgiving   

With Thanksgiving on the horizon we’re feel grateful, especially for all of our wonderful collaborators and friends who’ve shared their passion and knowledge with us over the past year. So we’re throwing it back to How Original, when organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant stopped by for an inspiring chat.

Adam wrote the book on originality. Literally. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World is a New York Times bestseller exploring the lives and habits of innovators. Adam and Fast Company’s Editor in Chief Stephanie Mehta stopped by STORY for a conversation about originality. Read on for a little food for thought…

On originals and productivity…

Almost any field where you can study creativity, the most original people were the ones who produced the most work. You can see it with playwrights. Has anybody here read Timon of Athens or the Merry Wives of Windsor? Those were Shakespeare. They’re not considered particularly great. It baffles some critics that Shakespeare even wrote them, and yet he was working on those around the same time as Hamlet and some of his other classics. And what you see is that highly original thinkers generate huge variety, because they themselves cannot judge their ideas. They don’t know which ones are good and which ones are bad. They’re too close to them. The best shot you often have is to just generate many possibilities in the hopes that one or two will work.

Surprising traits of originals…

One of the big surprises for me, is that the most original thinkers are often not the deepest experts in their fields. In psychology there’s this idea called ‘cognitive entrenchment ‘where the more you know about a domain the more you take for granted assumptions that need to be questioned. For example if you study expert bridge players and just change the rules up a little bit, they actually play worse than novices because they have a hard time even remembering what the rules were. It requires a lot of remembering and reset and questioning things that they’ve largely just done on autopilot. You see with accountants too. When they change tax laws, the expert accounts make more errors than the novices do. You want to be in a position where you know enough about your field to be able to add something new, but you don’t want to know so much that you can’t possibly think in ways that are different from everyone else in your field. There’s real value in breadth of experience rather than depth. We see evidence that the most creative fashion designers have spent more time abroad. Not just traveling abroad, not just living abroad but actually working abroad. Where they have to internalize different norms and values and blend different cultures in their artwork. And I think that quality of breadth, of broad experience, is under appreciated.

Can originality be taught…

I don’t think it needs to be taught. We all have, at least have the propensity to be original.

On the best way to work with originals, who notorious non-conformists…

I don’t think it’s always easy. We say, “I’d rather hire a bunch of people who are excited to follow orders. Who are thrilled to contribute to the mission in the way that I decide they should.” I think in many cases, the best non-conformists in our workplaces are actually weeded out. They either don’t get hired, or they end up rocking too many boats. I think that if want to try the hardest to challenge them, one of the best examples I’ve seen was Google a few years ago. [Google] made this fateful decision to move performance reviews [from Fall to Spring]…there was a near mutiny. They couldn’t figure out why, it was a relatively minor change. The people who pushed back hardest were the non-conformists. [These people] revealed themselves to be canaries in the coal mine. [Google] created a group called the Canaries, and every time they had a seemingly minor change they were going to roll out, they would float it to the Canaries. They would say “Hey, were thinking about this change, what do you see happening with it?” Instead of being oppositional or adversarial, they would be in charge of [figuring out] “What would make the change better” or “How would you explain the change to people like you?” So they ended up turning some of their biggest adversaries into their strongest allies.

On originals that he admires…

Hands down, J.K. Rowling. As a writer, it’s not hard to appreciate the fact that she got a whole generation of kids (and college students) to read books. I think much more than that, if you look at the impact of the kind of writing that she’s done, there’s some classic research dating back more than half a century that one of the ways that you can predict the patent rates for your country—you can actually predict a countries patent rates forty years later—by the children’s literature that’s popular at that time. The patent rate will go up in 25-40 years on average after kids read books highlighting original achievement themes, where the dominant storylines in a book are about people who are challenging the status quo and achieving excellence in a way that’s different from how things have always been done. And that’s what the Harry Potter books are all about.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity, if you want to check out the whole thing, head to our Facebook page.