American poet Wallace Stevens said “It is necessary to any originality to have the courage to be an amateur.”
Some might say that Stevens himself stayed an amateur till the day he died, as he spent his whole life as a full-time insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut.
Adam Grant of Wharton Business School would have approved. Grant celebrates inspired amateurs among other counterintuitive insights in his captivating new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. His book is huge, wonderful fun. I found myself laughing aloud several times reading it. (The book has a spiritual kinship to Outliers and other Malcolm Gladwell books.)
Grant defines originality simply as “introducing and advancing an idea that’s relatively unusual within a particular domain.” Though he never cites Wallace Stevens in Originals, he conveys that the great truths often come out of the work of impassioned amateurs and generalists. For example, he cites Galileo. One of Galileo’s discoveries was the mountains on the moon. Though many of Galileo’s contemporaries could see the same images he did, Galileo was able to recognize the images as mountains because of his practiced training and expertise in drawing. Grant points out that one thing that differentiates Nobel Prize-winning scientists form others is that they are very often committed to artistic hobbies. Originalists tend not to be blinkered-vision nerds, contrary to the popular cliche.
Another shibboleth that Grant challenges is the idea that successful entrepreneurs are enthusiastic risk-takers. Grant points to research that indicates original entrepreneurs are much more cautious than is commonly assumed. Successful entrepreneurs are more like investment managers. They don’t put all their bets on red. Indeed, he cites a study that shows originalist entrepreneurs are actually more risk averse than the average person. He tells compelling true-life tales about Steve Wozniak and Phil Knight, founders of Apple and Nike respectively, who cautiously kept their full-time jobs while developing their disruptive firms.
Speaking on NPR about his book, Grant tells Rachel Martin: “…successful entrepreneurs are much more likely to play it safe and have backup plans than failed entrepreneurs; and secondly, all of the time they spent working on other things was giving them the freedom to do something really original.”
Grant also has a lot to say about the pluses of negativity. Yes, negativity. This may seem counterintuitive to the popular trope of entrepreneurs as the most optimistic of business creatures, but Grant’s cited research indicates entrepreneurial dubiosity actually aids entrepreneurial success.
For example, Grant has studied Ray Dalio and his very successful hedge fund Bridgewater. Grant admires Dalio’s process of encouraging all employees to aggressively challenge his managers about what could go wrong with their investment decisions. In other words, he encourages his associates to think negatively. Or, from the sports world, Grant points to endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh, who claims to have helped himself break many records by rigorously visualizing failure–by constantly visualizing what can go wrong. (I especially liked Grant’s valuation of pessimism and wrote about it myself last year in “The Upside of Negativity for Entrepreneurs.”)
But my favorite chapter in Grant’s book is a discussion of procrastination. I’m a procrastinator. Mea culpa. In fact, I have put off today’s column till the last minute and am at this moment hurrying to get it out. But Grant claims procrastination is often a font of original ideas. He validates his intuition by adducing research stating that projects that begin early and finish efficiently and on time end up with conventional and constrained results. When you take longer, he found, you allow for more original thinking, and more synthesis from seemingly contradictory sources.
Grant notes Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech, which, despite King’s working on it in bits and snippets for weeks, was not finished till moments before King spoke on the Washington Mall.
So try Adam Grant’s Originals. It’s accessible, cogent, counterintuitive, yet science-based. And good fun to read.
German philosopher Martin Heidegger once said, “The great thinker is one who can hear what is greatest in the work of other ‘greats’ and who can transform it in an original manner.” I don’t think Adam Grant would disagree with that.