How to Be an Original

How to Be an Original

Adam Grant explores the relationship between originality and creativity, and how to make them work inside organizations.

Respected Wharton School professor, consultant and best-selling author Adam Grant raises fascinating questions about originality and creativity in the workplace. The primary theme he explores through studies, anecdotal evidence and business histories is how someone original can perform effectively within an organization.

Even the most fluid, forward-thinking companies – or at least those self-described as forward thinking – can systematically resist originality. Your success depends on how you present your original ideas, especially if they don’t fit the type of originality your particular firm endorses. Grant depicts illustrative examples of creative thinkers who turned their original ideas into functioning reality. He shows a rare understanding of how organizations squelch originality and how deft, tactical and strategic the original thinker must be to thrive.

Warby Parker

Grant begins by citing the extraordinary success of online eyeglass marketer Warby Parker. He admires the originality of the company’s four founders, all Wharton students, in no small part because he taught one of them. The founders offered Grant a chance to invest before their launch. He turned them down on the grounds that Luxottica controlled more than 80% of the eyeglass market, and he didn’t feel that a bunch of student upstarts who weren’t committed to fulltime involvement could earn back an investment. 

Originality itself starts with creativity: generating a concept that is both novel and useful.Adam Grant

Warby Parker took an original path: Buy glasses online and, if you don’t like them, send them back. Its launch was an amazing success. The founders thought they’d sell three pairs a day, but they sold a year’s worth in less than a month and had to create a 20,000-person waiting list. Grant candidly sees his failure to invest as his “worst financial decision” ever. This book sprang from his desire to comprehend his inability to embrace originality when it was right in front of him

“Two Routes”

In Grant’s analysis, two roads lead to success: “conformity and originality.” Conformity means being like everyone else. You might think originality means having a new idea, but that’s only half the struggle. Originals embrace the battle of making their ideas come alive.

Conformity means following the crowd down conventional paths and maintaining the status quo. Originality is taking the road less traveled, championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better.Adam Grant

Many authors discuss drive and ambition as if they arise in the heart and mind like stand-alone flavors in an ice-cream shop. Grant shows unusual sensitivity in discussing how the “drive to succeed” can arrive hand-in-hand with the “fear of failure,” one magnifying the other in a cycle that can paralyze original thinkers.

Embrace Your Flaws

Grant prepares entrepreneurs to expect that venture capitalists will greet their pitches with cynicism, aloofness and willingness to go on the attack. They won’t encourage you. Instead, they’ll hunt down every flaw in your presentation and throw it in your face. Grant counsels that one original way to sidestep this trap is to describe the flaws in your idea yourself, before anyone else can.

Rufus Griscom, co-founder with Alisa Volkman of the Babble parenting website, used this strategy to great effect when Disney entered discussions about possibly buying the site. He created a slide for his pitch that read, “Here’s Why You Should Not Buy Babble.” He listed its low page-view count, its irrelevant posts and its need for “retooling.”

Grant reports that this seize-the-offense tactic disarmed Disney’s people. They told Griscom that they could surmount all of these issues. Then, they bought Babble for $40 million. Griscom understood that emphasizing only his site’s positive aspects to powerful people just brought out their skepticism. Being as honest as possible worked, and using that tactic in any situation usually makes people respect you more. Any endeavor can run into problems. People tire quickly of those who pretend everything is perfect. Admitting your idea’s possible pitfalls makes you seem smart and forthright.

Lucy Stone

Grant discusses the fragility of coalitions and demonstrates that an alliance of enemies can endure longer than one of “frenemies.” He uses the history of the American suffragette movement as emblematic of the way enemies can admit their enmity but may be willing to join in common purpose – at least for a time.

Suffragette Lucy Stone (1818-1893) published Woman’s Journal, the “country’s foremost women’s newspaper,” which endured for 50 years. For 15 years beginning in 1853, Stone worked with famous early feminists, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1869, Stone went through a bitter split from Anthony and Stanton. They created rival organizations and newspapers, virulently opposing each other. Over time, Anthony and Stanton “wrote Stone out” of their coverage of the history of women’s quest for the vote.

Advocating for new systems often requires demolishing the old way of doing things, and we hold back for fear of rocking the boat.Adam Grant

Grant tells this story to show that coalitions backing radical causes, however worthy, are “inherently unstable.” He laments how much sooner the suffragettes might have attained their goals if their leaders had cooperated. “Common goals” can unite people, but the methods advocates use to achieve such goals often ensure that their associations can’t last. Discussing this seeming contradiction in human nature, he says the more you support an “extreme group,” the more you will try to show you aren’t like the people in more moderate groups that support the same issues.

Remarkably, Grant reports, the issue that sundered Anthony and Stanton from Stone was African-American suffrage. Anthony and Stanton thought it would be unfair to let Black men vote when white women couldn’t, so they opposed suffrage for Black men. Anthony saw Stone’s support for granting Black men the vote as a “betrayal of the women’s cause.” They fought until the end of their days. Grant uses their history to show why you must know your supposed allies well and perhaps trust them less than your enemies, who, at least, will be consistent. He warns that common goals are not enough to keep a group or partnership together, especially in business. Shared values are fine, but you also must agree on strategies and tactics.

Take Action

Many business authors provide workbooks at the end of each chapter or offer synopses of steps to take to actualize a book’s lessons. Grant’s “Actions for Impact” section is, appropriately enough, an original approach to this feature. His suggestions offer surprising, direct, workable guidance for clearing the hurdles he discusses. Grant recognizes that psychological realties can be complex and self-contradictory. He understands that the more you want something, the likelier you are to impede your own progress. Only truly original thinkers avoid this trap, and they need tools, like those he offers, to do so.

The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists…the starting point is curiosity.Adam Grant

Grant’s many worthwhile suggestions include never being bound by the status quo. Ignore the rules, create as you think best and tell your peers you’ve found a new approach. Never be underhanded about being original. No matter how many ideas you devise, create more. The most prolific writers, composers and artists are usually the most successful. You may be shocked to realize, as Grant promises, that thinking up new solutions will help you think up even more new solutions.

To spur your creativity, try an entirely fresh field, like learning a language or working in a foreign country. As you create new solutions, stop when one of your best ideas is only half-finished. If you break off your thinking, note-taking or brainstorming, you will come up with even more ideas before you finish. When your idea is ready, share it with your peers – not your manager or staff. No matter what their feedback is, listen carefully and consider what you might apply productively to bring your original concept to fruition.


Grant writes in a relaxed, conversational style. His work reads like a cross between a popular business book and an academic business school text. His best-selling success shows that he’s touched a nerve. Although his style is plain vanilla, his huge audience understands the core issue he raises.

The last time you had an original idea, what did you do with it?Adam Grant

Even now, when every author preaches the end of command-and-control, top-down management, Grant finds that being original in business is difficult. Many original people present their ideas or themselves in ways that undermine how others regard them. They don’t realize that most of the people they’ll approach – as when Warby Parker’s founders pitched Grant – will default to skepticism. Original thinkers must prepare for that skepticism and be ready to dispel it.

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