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TED2016

Adam Grant: The surprising habits of original thinkers

February 16, 2016

How do creative people come up with great ideas? Organizational psychologist Adam Grant studies "originals": thinkers who dream up new ideas and take action to put them into the world. In this talk, learn three unexpected habits of originals -- including embracing failure. "The greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they're the ones who try the most," Grant says. "You need a lot of bad ideas in order to get a few good ones."

Adam Grant - Organizational psychologist
After years of studying the dynamics of success and productivity in the workplace, Adam Grant discovered a powerful and often overlooked motivator: helping others. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Seven years ago, a student came to me
and asked me to invest in his company.
00:12
He said, "I'm working with three friends,
00:17
and we're going to try to disrupt
an industry by selling stuff online."
00:19
And I said, "OK, you guys spent
the whole summer on this, right?"
00:23
"No, we all took internships
just in case it doesn't work out."
00:26
"All right, but you're going to
go in full time once you graduate."
00:29
"Not exactly. We've all
lined up backup jobs."
00:33
Six months go by,
00:37
it's the day before the company launches,
00:38
and there is still
not a functioning website.
00:40
"You guys realize,
the entire company is a website.
00:43
That's literally all it is."
00:45
So I obviously declined to invest.
00:48
And they ended up
naming the company Warby Parker.
00:53
(Laughter)
00:55
They sell glasses online.
00:57
They were recently recognized
as the world's most innovative company
01:00
and valued at over a billion dollars.
01:03
And now? My wife handles our investments.
01:05
Why was I so wrong?
01:10
To find out, I've been studying people
that I come to call "originals."
01:12
Originals are nonconformists,
01:17
people who not only have new ideas
01:18
but take action to champion them.
01:21
They are people
who stand out and speak up.
01:23
Originals drive creativity
and change in the world.
01:26
They're the people you want to bet on.
01:29
And they look nothing like I expected.
01:31
I want to show you today
three things I've learned
01:34
about recognizing originals
01:37
and becoming a little bit more like them.
01:39
So the first reason
that I passed on Warby Parker
01:42
was they were really slow
getting off the ground.
01:45
Now, you are all intimately familiar
with the mind of a procrastinator.
01:48
Well, I have a confession for you.
I'm the opposite. I'm a precrastinator.
01:54
Yes, that's an actual term.
01:59
You know that panic you feel
a few hours before a big deadline
02:01
when you haven't done anything yet.
02:04
I just feel that
a few months ahead of time.
02:06
(Laughter)
02:08
So this started early: when I was a kid,
I took Nintendo games very seriously.
02:11
I would wake up at 5am,
02:18
start playing and not stop
until I had mastered them.
02:20
Eventually it got so out of hand
that a local newspaper came
02:24
and did a story on the dark side
of Nintendo, starring me.
02:27
(Laughter)
02:31
(Applause)
02:34
Since then, I have traded hair for teeth.
02:41
(Laughter)
02:44
But this served me well in college,
02:48
because I finished my senior thesis
four months before the deadline.
02:51
And I was proud of that,
until a few years ago.
02:57
I had a student named Jihae,
who came to me and said,
03:01
"I have my most creative ideas
when I'm procrastinating."
03:05
And I was like, "That's cute,
where are the four papers you owe me?"
03:09
(Laughter)
03:12
No, she was one
of our most creative students,
03:13
and as an organizational psychologist,
this is the kind of idea that I test.
03:15
So I challenged her to get some data.
03:20
She goes into a bunch of companies.
03:22
She has people fill out surveys
about how often they procrastinate.
03:23
Then she gets their bosses to rate
how creative and innovative they are.
03:27
And sure enough,
the precrastinators like me,
03:30
who rush in and do everything early
03:33
are rated as less creative
03:35
than people who procrastinate moderately.
03:37
So I want to know what happens
to the chronic procrastinators.
03:40
She was like, "I don't know.
They didn't fill out my survey."
03:43
(Laughter)
03:46
No, here are our results.
03:48
You actually do see that the people
who wait until the last minute
03:51
are so busy goofing off
that they don't have any new ideas.
03:55
And on the flip side,
the people who race in
04:00
are in such a frenzy of anxiety that they
don't have original thoughts either.
04:03
There's a sweet spot
where originals seem to live.
04:09
Why is this?
04:13
Maybe original people
just have bad work habits.
04:15
Maybe procrastinating
does not cause creativity.
04:18
To find out, we designed some experiments.
04:22
We asked people
to generate new business ideas,
04:25
and then we get independent readers
04:28
to evaluate how creative
and useful they are.
04:29
And some of them are asked
to do the task right away.
04:33
Others we randomly assign
to procrastinate
04:36
by dangling Minesweeper in front of them
04:39
for either five or 10 minutes.
04:41
And sure enough,
the moderate procrastinators
04:43
are 16 percent more creative
than the other two groups.
04:46
Now, Minesweeper is awesome,
but it's not the driver of the effect,
04:51
because if you play the game first
before you learn about the task,
04:54
there's no creativity boost.
04:57
It's only when you're told that you're
going to be working on this problem,
04:59
and then you start procrastinating,
05:03
but the task is still active
in the back of your mind,
05:04
that you start to incubate.
05:07
Procrastination gives you time
to consider divergent ideas,
05:08
to think in nonlinear ways,
to make unexpected leaps.
05:12
So just as we were finishing
these experiments,
05:16
I was starting to write
a book about originals,
05:18
and I thought, "This is the perfect time
to teach myself to procrastinate,
05:21
while writing a chapter
on procrastination."
05:25
So I metaprocrastinated,
05:28
and like any self-respecting
precrastinator,
05:31
I woke up early the next morning
05:35
and I made a to-do list
with steps on how to procrastinate.
05:36
(Laughter)
05:39
And then I worked diligently
05:43
toward my goal of not making
progress toward my goal.
05:46
I started writing
the procrastination chapter,
05:51
and one day -- I was halfway through --
05:54
I literally put it away in mid-sentence
05:56
for months.
05:58
It was agony.
05:59
But when I came back to it,
I had all sorts of new ideas.
06:02
As Aaron Sorkin put it,
06:06
"You call it procrastinating.
I call it thinking."
06:07
And along the way I discovered
06:12
that a lot of great originals
in history were procrastinators.
06:13
Take Leonardo da Vinci.
06:17
He toiled on and off for 16 years
06:19
on the Mona Lisa.
06:22
He felt like a failure.
06:24
He wrote as much in his journal.
06:26
But some of the diversions
he took in optics
06:30
transformed the way that he modeled light
06:32
and made him into a much better painter.
06:34
What about Martin Luther King, Jr.?
06:37
The night before
the biggest speech of his life,
06:40
the March on Washington,
06:42
he was up past 3am, rewriting it.
06:43
He's sitting in the audience
waiting for his turn to go onstage,
06:46
and he is still scribbling notes
and crossing out lines.
06:50
When he gets onstage, 11 minutes in,
06:54
he leaves his prepared remarks
06:56
to utter four words
that changed the course of history:
06:58
"I have a dream."
07:01
That was not in the script.
07:03
By delaying the task of finalizing
the speech until the very last minute,
07:06
he left himself open
to the widest range of possible ideas.
07:11
And because the text wasn't set in stone,
07:15
he had freedom to improvise.
07:17
Procrastinating is a vice
when it comes to productivity,
07:20
but it can be a virtue for creativity.
07:23
What you see with a lot of great originals
07:27
is that they are quick to start
but they're slow to finish.
07:29
And this is what I missed
with Warby Parker.
07:32
When they were dragging
their heels for six months,
07:35
I looked at them and said,
07:38
"You know, a lot of other companies
are starting to sell glasses online."
07:39
They missed the first-mover advantage.
07:43
But what I didn't realize was
they were spending all that time
07:46
trying to figure out how to get people
07:48
to be comfortable ordering glasses online.
07:50
And it turns out the first-mover
advantage is mostly a myth.
07:52
Look at a classic study
of over 50 product categories,
07:55
comparing the first movers
who created the market
07:59
with the improvers who introduced
something different and better.
08:02
What you see is that the first movers
had a failure rate of 47 percent,
08:06
compared with only 8 percent
for the improvers.
08:10
Look at Facebook,
waiting to build a social network
08:14
until after Myspace and Friendster.
08:17
Look at Google, waiting for years
after Altavista and Yahoo.
08:20
It's much easier to improve
on somebody else's idea
08:24
than it is to create
something new from scratch.
08:27
So the lesson I learned is that
to be original you don't have to be first.
08:30
You just have to be different and better.
08:34
But that wasn't the only reason
I passed on Warby Parker.
08:38
They were also full of doubts.
08:41
They had backup plans lined up,
08:43
and that made me doubt
that they had the courage to be original,
08:45
because I expected that originals
would look something like this.
08:48
(Laughter)
08:54
Now, on the surface,
08:58
a lot of original people look confident,
09:00
but behind the scenes,
09:02
they feel the same fear and doubt
that the rest of us do.
09:03
They just manage it differently.
09:06
Let me show you: this is a depiction
09:08
of how the creative process
works for most of us.
09:10
(Laughter)
09:15
Now, in my research, I discovered
there are two different kinds of doubt.
09:19
There's self-doubt and idea doubt.
09:23
Self-doubt is paralyzing.
09:25
It leads you to freeze.
09:26
But idea doubt is energizing.
09:28
It motivates you to test,
to experiment, to refine,
09:30
just like MLK did.
09:32
And so the key to being original
09:34
is just a simple thing
09:38
of avoiding the leap
from step three to step four.
09:40
Instead of saying, "I'm crap,"
09:43
you say, "The first few drafts
are always crap,
09:45
and I'm just not there yet."
09:48
So how do you get there?
09:50
Well, there's a clue, it turns out,
09:52
in the Internet browser that you use.
09:54
We can predict your job performance
and your commitment
09:56
just by knowing what web browser you use.
09:59
Now, some of you are not
going to like the results of this study --
10:03
(Laughter)
10:06
But there is good evidence
that Firefox and Chrome users
10:07
significantly outperform
Internet Explorer and Safari users.
10:11
Yes.
10:15
(Applause)
10:17
They also stay in their jobs
15 percent longer, by the way.
10:19
Why? It's not a technical advantage.
10:22
The four browser groups
on average have similar typing speed
10:25
and they also have similar levels
of computer knowledge.
10:28
It's about how you got the browser.
10:31
Because if you use
Internet Explorer or Safari,
10:33
those came preinstalled on your computer,
10:36
and you accepted the default option
that was handed to you.
10:38
If you wanted Firefox or Chrome,
you had to doubt the default
10:42
and ask, is there
a different option out there,
10:45
and then be a little resourceful
and download a new browser.
10:47
So people hear about this study
and they're like,
10:51
"Great, if I want to get better at my job,
I just need to upgrade my browser?"
10:53
(Laughter)
10:57
No, it's about being the kind of person
10:58
who takes the initiative
to doubt the default
11:00
and look for a better option.
11:03
And if you do that well,
11:05
you will open yourself up
to the opposite of déjà vu.
11:06
There's a name for it.
It's called vuja de.
11:10
(Laughter)
11:13
Vuja de is when you look at something
you've seen many times before
11:16
and all of a sudden
see it with fresh eyes.
11:19
It's a screenwriter
who looks at a movie script
11:23
that can't get the green light
for more than half a century.
11:26
In every past version,
the main character has been an evil queen.
11:29
But Jennifer Lee starts to question
whether that makes sense.
11:34
She rewrites the first act,
11:37
reinvents the villain as a tortured hero
11:38
and Frozen becomes
the most successful animated movie ever.
11:41
So there's a simple message
from this story.
11:45
When you feel doubt, don't let it go.
11:47
(Laughter)
11:50
What about fear?
11:53
Originals feel fear, too.
11:54
They're afraid of failing,
11:57
but what sets them apart
from the rest of us
11:59
is that they're even more
afraid of failing to try.
12:01
They know you can fail
by starting a business that goes bankrupt
12:04
or by failing to start a business at all.
12:07
They know that in the long run,
our biggest regrets are not our actions
12:10
but our inactions.
12:13
The things we wish we could redo,
if you look at the science,
12:15
are the chances not taken.
12:18
Elon Musk told me recently,
he didn't expect Tesla to succeed.
12:21
He was sure the first few SpaceX launches
12:25
would fail to make it to orbit,
let alone get back,
12:27
but it was too important not to try.
12:31
And for so many of us,
when we have an important idea,
12:34
we don't bother to try.
12:36
But I have some good news for you.
12:38
You are not going to get judged
on your bad ideas.
12:40
A lot of people think they will.
12:43
If you look across industries
12:45
and ask people about their biggest idea,
their most important suggestion,
12:46
85 percent of them stayed silent
instead of speaking up.
12:50
They were afraid of embarrassing
themselves, of looking stupid.
12:55
But guess what? Originals
have lots and lots of bad ideas,
12:58
tons of them, in fact.
13:01
Take the guy who invented this.
13:04
Do you care that he came up
with a talking doll so creepy
13:07
that it scared not only kids
but adults, too?
13:09
No. You celebrate Thomas Edison
for pioneering the light bulb.
13:13
(Laughter)
13:18
If you look across fields,
13:20
the greatest originals
are the ones who fail the most,
13:22
because they're the ones who try the most.
13:25
Take classical composers,
the best of the best.
13:28
Why do some of them get more pages
in encyclopedias than others
13:31
and also have their compositions
rerecorded more times?
13:34
One of the best predictors
13:37
is the sheer volume
of compositions that they generate.
13:39
The more output you churn out,
the more variety you get
13:43
and the better your chances
of stumbling on something truly original.
13:46
Even the three icons of classical music --
Bach, Beethoven, Mozart --
13:49
had to generate hundreds
and hundreds of compositions
13:54
to come up with a much smaller
number of masterpieces.
13:57
Now, you may be wondering,
14:01
how did this guy become great
without doing a whole lot?
14:03
I don't know how Wagner pulled that off.
14:07
But for most of us,
if we want to be more original,
14:10
we have to generate more ideas.
14:13
The Warby Parker founders, when they
were trying to name their company,
14:16
they needed something sophisticated,
unique, with no negative associations
14:19
to build a retail brand,
14:23
and they tested over 2,000 possibilities
14:24
before they finally put together
14:27
Warby and Parker.
14:29
So if you put all this together,
what you see is that originals
14:31
are not that different
from the rest of us.
14:34
They feel fear and doubt.
They procrastinate.
14:37
They have bad ideas.
14:40
And sometimes, it's not in spite
of those qualities but because of them
14:42
that they succeed.
14:46
So when you see those things,
don't make the same mistake I did.
14:47
Don't write them off.
14:50
And when that's you,
don't count yourself out either.
14:52
Know that being quick to start
but slow to finish
14:55
can boost your creativity,
14:57
that you can motivate yourself
by doubting your ideas
14:59
and embracing the fear of failing to try,
15:01
and that you need a lot of bad ideas
in order to get a few good ones.
15:04
Look, being original is not easy,
15:08
but I have no doubt about this:
15:11
it's the best way
to improve the world around us.
15:13
Thank you.
15:15
(Applause)
15:17

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Adam Grant - Organizational psychologist
After years of studying the dynamics of success and productivity in the workplace, Adam Grant discovered a powerful and often overlooked motivator: helping others.

Why you should listen

In his groundbreaking book Give and Take, top-rated Wharton professor Adam Grant upended decades of conventional motivational thinking with the thesis that giving unselfishly to colleagues or clients can lead to one’s own long-term success. Grant’s research has led hundreds of advice seekers (and HR departments) to his doorstep, and it’s changing the way leaders view their workforces.

Grant’s new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World examines how unconventional thinkers overturn the status quo and champion game-changing ideas.

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