The surprising habits of original thinkers | Adam Grant

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

100 thoughts on “The surprising habits of original thinkers | Adam Grant

  • My dad told me that there is almost NEVER an idea that can't be improved upon. And that's true. I'm not saying look for good ideas to rip off, but there is always a way to improve.

  • "You don't have to be first, you just have to be different and better"… that's not being original, that's stealing ideas from originals. The whole debate about Creativity and Innovation and what's more important is relevant to me; it's crystal clear CREATIVITY wins. To pretend otherwise is delusional!

  • I usually do tasks at the last moment, or later even thought I could have done them earlier, because I wait for my mind to be ready to do the assignment or when I feel motivated to do it. And they always turn out amazing, even if I did it the day before at 1 am.

    Never knew it was because of this reason, nice speech.

  • So what if I downloaded Chrome but after a few days deleted it and kept using safari as it is more convenient for me? Lol

  • For people with an extreme fear of failure, like myself, it's very difficult to get over the whole "the first ideas are always crap" thing. Often, I doubt my own intelligence and worth when i'm first starting out on something. A lot of films depict success as an immediate guarantee for the hero, and it's important to understand that that's never realistic. It takes bravery to get over the fear of not being good enough, and getting over fear is most of the battle to success.

  • I don't think creativity is a result of procrastinating, but rather the other way around. Inspiration cannot be summoned on demand, it has to come to you.

  • Totally agree, creative people are thinking all the time ahead of the task but they give their best under pressure, last minute- incubation & creativity boost. Finally someone who understands us!

  • It's probably precastinators who call the latter procastinators, we could call ourselves the divergent thinkers, multidimensional perspective thinkers and positive procastinators 😊😊
    Rather than calling it procastination I would call it a wait and watch game for some better insight that would be the best ways to describe an original thinker

  • I started learning Chinese, the basics and a bit of vocabulary, then stopped at the point of needing to learn a long list of words. During this period I have been examining the nature of the Chinese characters themselves, why they are how they are, and how they can represent both meaning and pronunciation, and seeing many patterns of pronunciations and meanings. So when I finally get around to learning a whole bunch of vocabulary, it will be so much easier, even being able to guess the meaning and pronunciation of words the very first time I see them. By not rushing into study, my understanding of the subject increases and study becomes easier.

  • the message is a double sided weapon, not only for procrastinating you will get more ideas, perhaps you have the goofy mind and in the end you will get anything but anxiety

  • It's not the procrastination it's just knowing that the solution could be made better and the confidence they had in themselves to make it better.

  • I don't think it's a good idea to use a bunch of 'me too'/last mile companies, to talk about "originals". I know that's only a small part of this talk but I really think it's better to put a very strong distinction between innovation and polish. I think there's certainly a lot for innovators to learn from those who take existing ideas and put a finishing touch to them but let's not kid ourselves, these are certainly not the same people, for the most part. I'd say the exact opposite is true and the conflation of them is disingenuous.

  • Step 1. They don't watch pithy tripe like this (and the tens of thousands of other dilettante 'pundits' dishing up similarly superficial, undisciplined 'research' based 'insights'.)
    Step 2. See step 1.

  • In YouTube original thinking boiled down to starting a new business, something so many people are talking about that it can be hardly original.

  • People regret more the things they didn't do (should have dones) then failures.

  • Linus Pauling has also been quoted on the many bad ideas for a few good ones (I am paraphrasing the quote here). However, this idea also presents danger to people who might believe that simply trying a vast number of times is a guarantor of success (My son walked away from the lake crying yesterday after not catching a fish, even though he did all of his casting, waiting, and listening to instructions almost perfectly. He is six. And he tried all day long.)

  • as an art teacher I had to come up with a simple formula so my students would know what makes 'good' art. My 3 rules were: 1. well made (neat,good craftsmanship) 2. UNIQUE (your own idea) and 3. INTERESTING (not boring or confusing). Which one is the creative piece? you guessed it, your own idea.

  • The presenter has been procrastinating his suicide, his high strung voice and obviously small penis is why his wife manages investments of the household,
    One of the least original and most high pitch ted talks ever

  • In film school at USC Lucas had finished three short films while fellow students were still talking, and being a waiter at the restaurent, where they met me, and still were "talking" about directing films. Big lesson early in life.

  • US welcomes Greta Thunberg to Rally for Greta 8/31/19 SFGG Park Peacock Meadow 12pm. Sat.
    ❤️YouTube: paul8kangas.
    ‪As Prez. I will create a Federal Program to hire HS grads 20 hours a week to build 4-plex homes #1 solution to Stop Climate Emergency: Order Army build a Million 4-plex homes each with 100 solar panels & a battery funded from the Military Budget. ‬This generates money from solar to pay the mortgage. Hire HS grads to build a 4-plex house. Federal 20 hour work wk Job. Jobs end racism

  • Kind of a bogus TEDTalk. Procrastination itself has nothing to do with promoting creativity or original thinking; it’s merely a behavioral byproduct typical of non-conformists—people who don’t like to be tied down, adhere to rules, or relinquish control of how they spend their time. He’s simply inverting the cause-effect relationship. Intrinsic procrastinators will generate more original ideas than “precrastinators” regardless of whether or not they’re actually procrastinating.

  • It only looks like procrastination. In reality its mental preparation and making time work for you. In essence giving ideas time to happen.

  • The biggest reason someone has to jump to the conclusion of ‘I am crap’ is because of the negative remarks that they get from society. These remarks cripple their confidence and in turn, stop speaking up altogether. Finding that courage to speak up again is hard and that is the only way to actually jump from the 3rd to the 5th step of the steps of creative processes.

  • yeah thinking, because everything is very easy and effortless once its figured out.

    Heres an easy one im sure many have already faced. A big closed box of say a 12 pack of books. Trying to put it into the plastic bag does not work time after time in the cashier line. The bag just folds up and the books need to be lifted up again to try. I got a bit tired of waiting for the customer 3 steps ahead to be done and solved it. How?
    In the box principle it should fit into the plastic bag.

  • Fail all the time at first because you test the tool in the beginning by going from the silliest setting to the other, try it in between and see how it differs. Its a process of playing with it. Yes it includes performing way worse almost on purpose than average for those trial runs. Like flying jets in simulators hanging upside down as its easier to concentrate that way.
    And i absolutely hate being observed in this. Mostly due to "no this is not how its…" yes, I know already its precisely how its not supposed to be done. But that is how you develop a intuitive feel for it.

    It takes a while with unsupervised playing but in the end official learning process times are halved or even shorter.

  • I use to do that in college. I use to procrastinate on papers just to feel that bit of pressure. Those are when my best ideas come to fruition. It’s crazy how jobs will set tight deadlines for their workers. Isn’t that stifling creativity a bit?

  • 13:59 Originality and musical masterpiece are not synonymous.

    Bach combined the polyphony of Palestrina with the harmonic range of smaller composers his own day and an overall style feeling for music from Lutheran chorale (think Schütz).

    Mozart and Haydn stuck much closer to the prescriptions of Riepel, and when they didn't were followed by Koch, very standard Viennese Classical theoricians, than more original and less masterly composers than Wagenseil or Galuppi.

    If Beethoven (who was behind Czerny's redefinition of Sonata form in relation to Riepel and Koch) didn't quite do so, it is because he went back to some of the earlier harmonic, like Riepel and Koch had made exposition part about two tonalities – Tonic Major and its Major Dominant for Major keys, Tonic Minor and its Major relative for Minor keys – but Beethoven went back to ideas of a third inbetween, which was more baroque, like, if second part of Sonata form descended from Major Dominant over Minor Third to Major Tonic, it has first part, aka exposition go up from Major Tonic over Minor Third to Major Dominant : and Beethoven went back to that.

    Nor can one say Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or Bach had any high rate of failures.

    Their masterpieces are not rare nuggets on a lot of sand, pick up any minor piece of them, it is also good.

  • 15:05 "you need a lot of bad ideas in order to get a few good ones"

    Music examples don't seem to carry this out.

    You have failed to produce even one bad idea from Mozart, Beethoven, Bach or Wagner. Let alone many.

    They had ideas that were brilliant and have never been off stage, always being played somewhere, and they had ideas that were less brilliant and can be discovered anew by someone looking into them, as in literature is also the case with Chesterton and the two main Inklings, and nearly with Belloc as well (I'm no fan of his novels).

  • I am exactly he described, when in high school my scores were A+ in all subjects. Took me weeks to make a simple assignment, but I made it until reach perfection. In college I have only 24 hours to make a report, 48 hours. In the end it not motovates me and my scores are trash, however I can honestly say that I understand better than my A+ colleagues, they live like robots and only do it without haveing a clue what it is. Our education system has to literally change because is killing creativity and creating robots.

  • true originals procrastinate to the last minute. often they create their own deadline or dont care for your deadline. moderate procrastination might be better for your metric/deadline, but for the truly original you go for the last minuters. this is what universities get wrong (except for online ones like Coursera).

  • Do you know who is the composer dude, who is almost as great as Bach, but created so little compositions? 14:00

  • The Dr King reference is off. You can hear people yelling, "tell em about the dream"
    It was a speech he'd given before

  • Video summary:

    They're procrastinators. Quick to start but slow to finish.
    They're full of doubts and constantly revising their ideas.
    They have lots of ideas. 99% bad 1% world changing. They fail more than anyone. Because they try more than anyone!

  • Yes, because you see, original thinkers all have these same habits. They all live their lives this exact same way, and if you follow this recipe, you too can be an original thinker!

  • I don't doubt I'm an original thinker – would be nice to find a way of making a career out of it. The annoying part is I work at a place where they say it's encouraged but in reality it's one of the least open to change. I've taken a crazy number of risks, have half written novel drafts. My first business lasted two years – a big problem with business is once you get going a concept becomes static and it's about how to keep within a framework – my second attempt would need to redefine that, now gone back to the traditional working environment to clear my debts before I try again. I have reimagined the novel I started – concept change with the same storyline, change of perspective as it would change it from being full on to more foreshadowing and will come back to it— soon. Already have one work but only in academic journals, fiction is something new to me.

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