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Wallace_StevensAmerican 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.

maxresdefaultSpeaking 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.

urlGrant 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.

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Amidst all the encomiums and panegyrics to Steve Jobs over the last week, the most notable thing to me was a celebration of Steve Jobs as an almost religious artistic entrepreneur.

While Jobs is certainly a great and seminal American businessman, very much the equal of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford , or Bill Gates, he also clearly thought of himself as an artist.  Bob Rice, General Managing Partner of Tangent Capital Partners, in an interview on Bloomberg (10/6/11), speaks of Jobs as “living at the intersection of art and technology.”  Indeed, Jobs defined himself specifically in terms of art.  At his speech introducing the iPad in 2010, Jobs defined Apple’s success in the following words:  “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough.  It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”  That very verbiage is the language of the poet.  His lifework is as much that of the auteur as of the entrepreneur.

An artist illuminates and helps us understand the truth of existence in a way not unlike that of a religious thinker.  l think great entrepreneurs are imbued with this sense, even if not explicitly acknowledging it, as Jobs has done.

On August 26, 2011, after Jobs resigned as CEO of Apple, Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. wrote the following in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal.

“What comes to mind now is a forgotten PBS show in the 1980s that tried to explain what was then known as the ‘quality revolution’ in business.  Interviewed was some wise old MIT professor who said, ‘Quality is love.’  Mr. Jobs determination to make superb products was, one likes to think, an expression of love for the world, life and possibility.”

Perhaps I am especially sensitive to these qualities in Steve Jobs, since I personally come out of an explicit background in the arts and in religion.  It seems to me entrepreneurs who are unattached to the deeper values that make a meaningful, truthful existence are that much lessened in the value of their business life.  Steve Job’s lived a uniquely successful business life that inculcated art, truth, ethics and also lucre.  He was a uniquely integrated entrepreneur and an elegantly realized human being.

My favorite tribute to Steve Jobs this week came in a tweet from Michael Yang, CEO of Become.com, who says, “Steve Jobs will be remembered in the same vein as Einstein, Ford, and John Lennon.”  That seems just right to me.  Thank you, Michael Yang.

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