Martin Luther King Jr., Picasso, and Steve Jobs are household names because they refused to be trapped by society's rules and instead bent reality to their vision of what's possible. They stood for something that seemed crazy at the time but was exactly what the world needed. They went against the grain when everyone else accepted the status quo. In a word, they were originals.
The rules and systems governing our lives feel set in stone, but they're not. They were made up by people, just like you and me. Understanding the impermanence of these rules, we can look for ways to make them better. Originality comes down to questioning man-made defaults and discovering whether better options exist. An original is made when a person takes the initiative to enact change based on these discoveries.
In this summary of Adam Grant's book Originals, I will discuss the barriers to becoming original, how to become more original, how to communicate original ideas, how to deal with the emotional turmoil of standing out, and finally how to instill originality when raising kids. By pulling out the main points from Grant's book, I hope to debunk the myth that originality is reserved for a destined few and show you it is indeed available to all of us. Further, I hope to equip you with some tools and strategies to get become an original.
What stops originality?
If our culture praises originals as heroes, why aren't there more of them? More importantly, what stops everyday people like you and me from becoming one? Why do some people become originals, considered creative geniuses, whereas others never transcend mediocrity? As I hope you'll soon realize, originality is fortunately not an inborn trait. It's a choice available to all of us. Ultimately the things that stop us from going out on a limb, questioning the way things have always been done, or taking the initiative to make something better stem from fear. The change-makers we look up to were not immune to this fear. They, like us, just had to learn to overcome it.
Myth 1: Originals Have a Greater Risk Tolerance
There's a pervasive myth in our culture that to be an original, you must take radical risks. This is especially true in the business world. We idolize the story of the entrepreneur who quit her corporate job and cashed out her 401k to fund her startup.
It's easy to buy into the cultural narrative telling us it takes a special kind of courage to succeed in business. After all, entrepreneurs are the very people we would expect to have a propensity for risk-taking. In reality, research suggests the opposite: entrepreneurs are more risk-averse than the general population. They don't like taking risks any more than the rest of us. One study showed that businesses started by entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs while starting their business were 33% less likely to fail than those who quit their jobs to chase their dream. The originals we admire are far more ordinary and less risk-taking than we give them credit for.
Risk-aversion turns out to be a useful attribute in business because it makes you more skeptical of even your own ideas and plans. When you're more doubtful of the feasibility of ideas, you're more likely to find flaws that would otherwise harm or at least slow your business.
"...the most successful originals are not the daredevils who leap before they look. They are the ones who reluctantly tiptoe to the edge of a cliff, calculate the rate of descent, triple-check their parachutes, and set up a safety net at the bottom just in case."
The entrepreneur who bets the farm isn't the one who builds the lasting businesses. That makes for a sexy but unrealistic story. In the end, it's the people who hedge their bets, mitigate risk, and identify all the reasons their plans won't work that usually end up succeeding.
- Nike founder Phil Knight started selling shoes out of his car in 1964 but didn't quit his job as an accountant until 1969.
- Steve Wozniak didn't quit his engineering job at HP until a year after inventing the Apple I computer.
- Larry Page and Sergey Brin almost didn't start Google because they were worried about dropping out of their Stanford PhD program.
- John Legend continued working as a management consultant two years after releasing his first album.
- Stephen King worked several low-paying jobs for seven years after writing his first story. He only quit a year after Carrie, his first novel, was published.
- Brian May of Queen was in doctoral studies for astrophysics when he started playing guitar in the band and didn't drop out of school until several years later.
Myth 2: Originals Don't Fear Rocking the Boat
Originals may seem unphased by social (dis)approval. In the face of opposition, we imagine them forging ahead, running on nothing but vision and sheer will. However, that's rarely true.
Abraham Lincoln is largely regarded as one of the United States' greatest presidents. Yet, historians also consider him to be one of the most conflict-avoidant men to hold that office. He had a strong desire to please others and was quite sensitive to external opinions.
Before signing the Emancipation Proclamation, a decision we now largely brush over as an obvious one, Lincoln agonized for months over whether or not to free slaves at all. The president was hardly a paragon of conviction and he certainly wasn't immune to social pressure. Nonetheless, he was able to accomplish an incredible amount of good for the world. In a haunting quote, W.E.B. DuBois sums up why we admire him so much today: "He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln."
Economist Joseph Schumpeter famously observed originality is an act of creative destruction. Proposing a disruption that may or may not work can be scary, so it's soothing (for yourself and others) to justify the status quo. After all, "if the world is supposed to be this way, we don’t need to be dissatisfied with it." It's natural to not want to rock the boat for the sake of something that may not work.
Disrupting the default system is uncomfortable. Unfortunately, when we let comfort become more important than progress, we lose the necessary "moral outrage to stand against injustice and the creative will to consider alternative ways that the world could work."
Barrier 1: Achievement Motivation
From a young age, many of us are encouraged to achieve, set our sights high, and perform. While this seems productive on the surface, it comes with a dark side: "The more you value achievement, the more you come to dread failure."
Fear of failure can outweigh the curiosity, sense of justice, and creativity that otherwise would've driven you to pursue more original accomplishments. When the highest goal is achievement, unique accomplishments get pushed aside to make room for more sure paths to "success".
Achievement motivation leaves us chasing zero-sum games like prestige and status. The fastest, most obvious way to win these games is not to try something that may not work or do something that's never been done before. Instead, following a conventional path, climbing a pre-constructed ladder faster, better, higher than anyone else sadly fulfills our "intense desire to succeed," which "leads us to strive for guaranteed success."
When you're competing against the best of the best for conventional achievements, it's unlikely there will be any room to pursue unique ones. The fear of falling behind, not measuring up, or flat out failing organizes our desires around maintaining stability and makes us "reluctant to pursue originality."
In part, achievement motivation is why many child prodigies never become exceptional later on in life as their early promise so strongly suggested. They do reasonably well for themselves, but typically never surpass their peers who eventually catch up. They end up applying their "extraordinary abilities in ordinary ways, mastering their jobs without questioning defaults and making waves."
Barrier 2: Arrogance
Arrogance can be found in individuals and organizations. Often, organizations with strong cultures of "this is how we do things around here because that's how we've always done it" struggle to recognize the need for change. They become set in their ways, blind to the changing market around them. As the economy becomes increasingly dynamic and fast-paced, organizations that "resist the insights of those who think differently" will struggle to thrive or even survive in the long run.
Now that we know some of the ways originality is thwarted, we can now dive into some of the strategies to boost and encourage originality.
Quantity, Quantity, Quantity
The assumption that there's an intrinsic tradeoff between quantity and quality of work is false. On the contrary, "when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality," and "the best way to boost your originality is to produce more ideas."
Studies show that historically creative geniuses didn't produce qualitatively better work than their contemporaries. Instead, their "greater volume of work" differentiated them. These geniuses produced their most original works during periods where they were simply producing the most works in general. Volume predicted originals' originality more than any trait, characteristic, or particular practice.
"They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality."
Many of the men and women we would consider creative geniuses today produced large amounts of work that was "technically sound" but unremarkable. They merely created a huge body of work, and out of that huge sample, a small number of them became "hits."
"...the most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work." - Ira Glass
One helpful heuristic I've found for titling articles on this blog is Upworthy's rule which states that to come up with the best line, you must generate at least 25 headline ideas. By forcing yourself to explore different options, you're forced to get all the obvious, trite headlines out of the way until you strike headline gold because "it's only after we've ruled out the obvious that we have the greatest freedom to consider the more remote possibilities."
The more iterations and outputs you create, the more variation you get, and the higher chances that one of those pieces of work will turn out to be a "hit" or an "original." Beyond a requisite skill level, it's not qualitative differences that set originals apart, but quantitative ones. In the quest for original work, quantity begets quality. The more you produce in general, the greater the odds you have of producing a hit.
- Picasso created more than 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, 12,000 drawings, and many more prints, rugs, and tapestries. Only a fraction of those has garnered acclaim.
- We remember Maya Angelou's memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but she wrote 6 others autobiographies we never hear of.
From a young age, we're taught procrastination is bad. In school, students are rewarded for starting and completing their assignments early, studying in advance, and generally being on top of things. While avoiding procrastination can be helpful in some domains, it can be surprisingly detrimental in others, namely those which require creativity.
Working ahead can make you productive in the outer world but at the cost of stifling your creativity. When you delay progress on a creative project, you're giving your mind space to ruminate on the problem, explore different angles, and consider several options that may not be readily apparent. It gives you time to consider several alternatives before prematurely "seizing and freezing" on a strategy.
Your mind only has the freedom to meander through this realm of possibilities when it's not being forced to operate on a regimented schedule. It's why you may hear originals you admire talk about how their best ideas hit them while they're in the shower, cooking dinner, on a walk, or when they're apparently doing nothing of substance. It's in these moments where you're not tying your brain in a straitjacket of productivity that it has the space to roam around the problem you've presented it with, presenting the problem in previously unseen lights.
"...genius is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. You cannot produce a work of genius according to a schedule or outline." - William Pannapacker
A benefit of strategic procrastination for originality is explained by the Zeigarnik Effect which states that "people have a better memory for incomplete than complete tasks." Once you complete a task, your mind allows you to release it to the "done and forgotten" pile of your mind whereas when you leave a task incomplete, your brain keeps reminding you of it. This can be stressful at times but, in certain situations, can be extremely helpful to allow your incomplete ideas to marinate until you execute them.
Trying to be creatively productive when you're most alert and traditionally productive may be counterproductive. When you're slightly less alert, perhaps even groggy, your mind is more open and susceptible to random ideas and different directions. When you're wide awake, you often engage in very structured, linear thinking, which while productive in the traditional sense, can be the very enemy of creativity and originality.
This isn't to say planning isn't useful or important because it is. Although originals can be great procrastinators, that doesn't mean they ignore planning. "They procrastinate strategically, making gradual progress by testing and refining different possibilities."
A marvelous example of an original who procrastinated strategically was Martin Luther King Jr. in his "I Have a Dream" speech. He finished the speech as he was delivering it, constantly adlibbing consequential lines. However, he wasn't just winging it without preparation.
While King may have deferred writing the “dream” speech, he had a wealth of material at his disposal that he could draw upon extemporaneously, which made his delivery more authentic. “King had collected a repertoire of oratorical fragments—successful passages from his own sermons, sections from other preachers’ work, anecdotes, Bible verses, lines from favorite poets,” [Drew] Hansen explains. “King did not so much write his speeches as assemble them, by rearranging and adapting material he had used many times before. . . . It gave King the flexibility to alter his addresses as he was speaking. . . . Had King not decided to leave his written text, it is doubtful that his speech at the march would be remembered at all.”
Originals are often accomplishing the most when they look the least productive. It's not when they're typing words on a page, coding lines on a computer, or singing melodies into a microphone that the creative genius is taking place. It takes place before they ever step up to the microphone, open their laptop, or pull out the canvas when they're forming a more perfect idea in their minds leading up to the point of practice or performance. It comes in lurching and halting bursts of inspiration, later tamed by the organizational rearranging of these fragments of ideas,
Originals are rarely one-dimensional. They live dynamic lives filled with experiences and work that isn't always aligned and may be very far from the field they're known for their originality.
A Michigan State study of Nobel Prize-winning scientists found that these winners were much more likely to engage in artistic hobbies unrelated to science than their peers. These were the odds that the Nobel Prize winners partook in the hobby compared to the typical scientist:
- Music: playing an instrument, composing, conducting 2x greater
- Arts: drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpting 7x greater
- Crafts: woodworking, mechanics, electronics, glassblowing 7.5x greater
- Writing: poetry, plays, novels, short stories, essays, popular books 12x greater
- Performing: amateur actor, dancer, magician 22x greater
Furthermore, "a representative study of thousands of Americans showed similar results for entrepreneurs and inventors."
It turns out, even in stereotypically cold STEM disciplines, the arts can be an excellent source of creative insight. They provide different angles with which researchers can approach their scientific work. Instead of specializing so deeply in one domain, range in your hobbies or personal lives frees you from the "tunnel vision of your imagination" and improves the "acuity of your peripheral vision." Originality requires a combination of both broad and deep experience.
Not knowing the rules of the game can actually be an advantage. When you're an outsider, you don't know which rules you aren't supposed to break. A detachment from the status quo can be helpful if you're trying to break it. This fresh perspective allows you to see opportunities and originality where seasoned industry veterans can't. They're so entrenched in the normal way of doing things that sometimes they can't recognize original opportunity when it's staring them in the face.
This isn't to say you can just blunder into a new field and transform an industry without knowing anything about it. It's those who have moderate expertise in their field who are the most open to "radically creative ideas." Still, some naivete can be beneficial. In the words of Neil Blumenthal, co-founder of Warby Parker, "It's rare that originality comes from insiders."
Don't be a first-mover
Many businesses race to be the first movers in new markets. They want to capture market share, gain knowledge on customers before anyone else, and be the first to take advantage of a burgeoning opportunity. Surprisingly, however, "the downsides of being the first mover are frequently bigger than the upsides." Why?
First, originals rushing to be pioneers often overstep. They don't yet know how far they can push the market, so they often flood it with more than it's ready for. One study showed 75% of startups fail because of premature scaling or "making investments that the market isn't yet ready to support."
Second, pioneers to a new field "tend to get stuck in their early offerings" whereas originals wait until the pioneers have already experimented on their behalf. Then, they can improve on the offerings they've already seen work and ignore the ones that failed. Before taking the risk of entering the market, "settlers can observe market changes and shifting consumer tastes and adjust accordingly."
"Since the market is more defined when settlers enter, they can focus on providing superior quality instead of deliberating about what to offer in the first place."
The disadvantages of being a first-mover can be summed up as, "when you're the first to market, you have to make all the mistakes yourself."
Encourage Dissenting Opinions
To avoid groupthink (which dampens originality), it's important to cultivate an environment where people feel comfortable voicing dissenting opinions. By introducing ways a proposed idea or plan won't work, the group is impelled to see the problem from different angles. In this way, "dissenting opinions are useful even when they're wrong."
Importantly, dissent must be authentic. While it may be tempting to assign a devil's advocate to always make sure you've covered all your bases, it's ineffective. Only authentic skepticism motivated by a genuine search for the truth or the best solution is enough to stimulate real thought from the rest of the group. In the words of Grant: "While it can be appealing to assign a devil's advocate, it's much more powerful to unearth one. When people are designated to dissent, they're just playing a role."
Creators are best at evaluating original ideas
Producing originality is one battle but it's not worth much unless we know how to identify and execute the right original ideas. How do we know which ideas we should pursue and which are a waste of time? Which movie idea will become a blockbuster, which song will be a chart-topper, and which startup will IPO? To answer these questions, a better question to ask isn't "how" but "who".
Let's start with who is not good at evaluating originality: the creator himself and his managers.
First, the creator himself tends to be overconfident when evaluating his own work, expecting it to perform much better than it actually does in front of audiences and customers. The problem is, when we're the ones who came up with the idea, we're too close to it. The idea is entirely familiar to us because we dreamed it up and have been thinking about it since its inception, so there's too much mental distance between us and the audience to accurately predict how our idea will be perceived. By the time you expose it to an audience, you've thought about it so much it's like an old friend; to the audience, it's a stranger. They must wrap their head around it for the first time.
Even Beethoven was terrible at predicting how good his work was. Researcher Dr. Dean Simonton observed, "Beethoven’s own favorites among his symphonies, sonatas, and quartets are not those most frequently performed and recorded by posterity.”
Second, managers tend to be surprisingly poor predictors of a creative work's success. They're slightly better at predicting which are good ideas than the creative himself since they're not as close to the project, but they tend to be underconfident, too skeptical, and too focused on the flaws--leading them to kill ideas before they're given a chance to be proven wrong. False negatives are common for managers.
This may be due to something called the middle-status-conformity effect:
- When you possess a high level of power and status, people expect you to be different, risk-taking even. Therefore, you "have the license to deviate.
- Similarly, when you're at the bottom in terms of power and status, you have "little to lose and everything to gain by being original."
- The middle segment of the hierarchy "is dominated by insecurity." You've gained just enough status that you now have something to lose by making a wrong move, but not so much that you feel you have the aforementioned "license to deviate." You've earned enough respect that you fear losing it, so you don't want to jeopardize the standing you've gained.
"Middle-status conformity leads us to choose the safety of the tried-and-true over the danger of the original." To have the most reach and impact, voice your ideas upward and downward to the people who are most willing to take risks, not to the middle.
Another handicap some managers possess is the double-edged sword of experience. The more expertise and a person gains, the more entrenched they become in a certain way of viewing the world and the harder it is for them to step out of the mental trenches they've dug. Experience can produce dangerous conviction in our ideas and opinions. When we're too sure of ourselves too fast, we not only increase the chances of false negatives, but also we fail to produce the "requisite variety to reach our creative potential."
"As we gain knowledge about a domain, we become prisoners of our prototypes."
If creators are too close to their "original ideas" to evaluate them accurately, and managers are too risk-averse to give them a chance, who can accurately evaluate originality? Fellow Creators. Our professional peers provide the most reliable judgment of our work.
While creators themselves are too close to their work to give it any level of an accurate rating, it turns out their fellow creators are excellent predictors of creative success. They understand the industry and have a skilled, trained eye to recognize success, yet they're not so close to the project that they can't see its flaws.
"Instead of attempting to assess our own originality or seeking feedback from managers, we ought to turn more often to our colleagues. They lack the risk-aversion of managers and test audiences; they’re open to seeing the potential in unusual possibilities, thus guarding against false negatives. At the same time, they have no particular investment in our ideas, which gives them enough distance to offer an honest appraisal and protects against false positives."
Joining Forces: How to Get People on Board
As good as your idea might be, it won't go anywhere if no one joins you. In the quest to enact change, getting other people on board is crucial. Here's how:
Earn Status Before Exercising Power
If you want to affect real change, you must earn the support of other people by first earning their respect. If you try to exercise power before you have status in the community you're trying to persuade, you'll likely be dismissed. When people who haven't earned our admiration tell us what to do, we naturally push back.
"Status cannot be claimed; it has to be earned or granted."
You gain status by accruing idiosyncrasy credits or " the latitude to deviate from the group's expectations." These are gained by consistently making valuable contributions over time. By contributing to the cause you want to change, people will see, in the paraphrased words of Carmen Medina, that you stand for something, not just against the status quo.
Befriend Your Enemy
There are three primary types of relationships we can have with people:
- Positive - Friends
- Ambivalent - Frenemies
- Negative - Enemies
It always helps to have friends who we don't have to fight to agree with us; this makes sense. However, our instincts fail us when it comes to navigating the other two types of relationships. Our first inclination is to cut off negative "enemies" entirely and attempt to convert ambivalent "frenemies". After all, frenemies who agree with us some of the time appear easier to convince than those who never agree with us at all. Thus, the thought goes, they should be easier to convert into allies.
However, ambivalent relationships are more damaging and less productive than purely negative ones because although "negative relationships are unpleasant," at least they're predictable. You always know to expect disagreement from the other person. In ambivalent relationships though, "you're constantly on guard, grappling with questions about when that person can actually be trusted." It's more mentally and emotionally draining to deal with inconsistent individuals than consistent ones, even if the consistent ones are consistently not in your favor.
Counterintuitively, our former adversaries tend to be our most valuable allies. They can be very effective at persuading others to join our cause or get on board with our idea because they know the mental hurdles they had to jump over to join the movement themselves. Instead of cutting off our enemies and trying to convert our frenemies to friends, we're actually better off cutting off our frenemies and trying to convince our enemies to join us.
Form Alliances Based on Share Strategic Tactics instead of common goals.
It seems like common sense to partner with groups with common goals. We think vision and values are what bind groups together, but in reality, they often drive them apart. This concept is explained by what psychologist Judith White calls horizontal hostility--"the more strongly you identify with an extreme group, the harder you seek to differentiate yourself from more moderate groups that threaten your values." In more colloquial terms, the message is, "if you were a true believer, you'd be all in."
Instead of trying to align with other groups based on shared values, it can be better to partner up based on shared strategic tactics. "Even if they care about different causes, groups find affinity when they use the same methods of engagement."
The caveat here is that your tactics should be similar, but not so similar that you have nothing new to learn from each other.
Be a Tempered Radical
When trying to convince the masses to join your movement, at some point you can't be so extreme that you turn potential allies away. Researchers have found that to be successful in conveying and convincing people of their message, originals must "learn to tone down their radicalism by presenting their beliefs and ideas in ways that are less shocking and more appealing to mainstream audiences." Even if we believe in a radically different way of doing things, at some point, to get the necessary people on board to make a lasting change takes framing our message in a way that's palatable to more people.
"The goal is to push the envelope, not tear the envelope." - Rob Minkoff
Further, when trying to convince people to join our movement, it's tempting to try and convince them to change their values to match ours. This is nearly impossible. Instead, we should "present our values as a means of pursuing theirs." Instead of trying to change another's ideals, we're better off linking "our agendas to values that people already hold."
Make rebellion feel like conformity
If you want to encourage non-conformity, if you want a movement to catch on, all you need is a single dissenter from the status quo. When others know they're not the only resisters, they'll find it much easier to reject the crowd because "emotional strength can be found even in small numbers."
Rebelling is easier when it "feels like an act of conformity." Knowing other people are involved gives us the courage to join the cause.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead
Lead with Weakness
When pitching an idea to people who have the power to grant or reject our proposals, our natural inclination is to hide the problems with our plans. This often is the wrong approach; we should instead accentuate the flaws. When your audience has skin in the game (i.e. they would be risking something to get on board with you), they're naturally going to be hunting for the faults in your proposal.
The advantage of leading with weakness is that it disarms the audience upfront. Most people are allergic to the feeling of being sold so they're already skeptical of your suggestion. Acknowledging the risks of your plan upfront shows your audience you're not trying to hide anything they likely would find while doing their due diligence anyway. Admitting the imperfections in your plan upfront "shifts their attention away from self-defense and toward problem-solving."
Framing Risk so People Will Take Them
As originals, it's our job to reframe risk in a way that helps people see the subtle but imminent danger of NOT taking action. However, accentuating the costs of apathy isn't always the most effective strategy. When should you emphasize the benefits of changing vs. the costs of not changing? If the person perceives the new behavior as safe, you should highlight the benefits of changing. If they perceive the new behavior as risky, you should emphasize the costs of not changing.
When a person perceives a behavior change as "safe," highlighting its benefits is usually enough to sway them to make that change. But when the change feels like a risk, pointing out the benefits of changes often aren't attractive enough to overcome the comfort already developed with the status quo. Most people "tend to be risk-averse in the domain of benefits" but will do just about whatever it takes to avoid losses, "even if it means risking an even bigger one."
When emphasizing what a person gains by taking action isn't enough, it's more powerful to show them what they'll lose if they don't.
Dealing with Emotional Turmoil of Becoming an Original
Disrupting the status quo is uncomfortable and can come with emotional turmoil. These are the some of the ways to deal with it:
Balancing Personal Risk Portfolios
Most people are familiar with the idea of mitigating financial risk in the stock market. You mitigate risk by diversifying your investments. That way you can bet on high-risk, high-reward stocks with relative security. You balance out the potential for your risky investment to fail with safer, more stable, but low reward-potential investments.
In the same way that investors mitigate financial risk by diversifying assets, originals offset the creative risk in their lives by balancing them like a portfolio.
"Having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another."
Successful originals are famous for the risks they took in one area of their lives: business, art, craft, work. However, we overlook how, like a stock investor, many of them balanced out the high-risk, high-reward aspects of their lives with more stable personal lives. Originals can embrace danger in one domain because they exercise caution in another.
“No person could possibly be original in one area unless he were possessed of the emotional and social stability that comes from fixed attitudes in all areas other than the one in which he is being original.” - Edwin Land (Polaroid founder)
Originals often look like risk-taking daredevils in the part of their lives we know them for but remain rather conventional in the other areas of their life to sustain this approach.
- After publishing his landmark work, The Waste Land, T.S. Elliot kept his banking job until 3 years later, not wanting to take on professional risk at the same time as creative risk.
- eBay creator, Pierre Omidyar, kept his day job until the online marketplace he built net him more money than his job.
- Sara Blakely risked investing her whole $5000 savings to start her company Spanx but stayed in her full-time job selling fax machines for two years while getting her company up and running.
Don't Calm Down
In any situation where you push yourself outside your comfort zone, nerves and anxiety are common. Just as common is the advice to "try to relax and calm down." It turns out, this isn't very effective.
Anxiety, and more basically fear, is an intense emotion. Telling your body to relax when your body is revved up is "like slamming on the breaks when a car is going 80 miles per hour. The vehicle still has momentum." Instead of suppressing such a strong emotion, it's more productive to convert it into a different but equally intense emotion: excitement.
Instead of trying to calm yourself down (and failing, which only stresses you out even more), change what you're telling yourself from "I'm nervous" to "I'm excited." Your body will still be jacked up, but your brain will be less fearful and read the situation more positively.
Optimism isn't always the answer--when to be pessimistic
In any situation, you can act as a strategic optimist or defensive pessimist.
- Strategic optimists anticipate the best, stay calm, and set high expectations.
- Defensive pessimists expect the worst, feel anxious, and imagine all the things that can go wrong.
Despite what you might think, it's not always bad to be a defensive pessimist. In some situations, using pessimism as a strategy can be advantageous because it squelches complacency. "Negative thoughts can direct our attention to potential problems, and the absence of those thoughts predicts a failure to take preventative and corrective actions." The problem with trying to turn a defensive pessimist into an optimist is that "when they don't feel anxious, they become complacent; when encouraged, they become discouraged from planning."
It's better to act like a strategic optimist when you're not yet committed to a particular action but you want to be, or your commitment to your plan is wavering. In these situations, thinking like a defensive pessimist will make you give up on your goal before you begin and will only activate unnecessary anxiety. In the early stages of convincing yourself to take a good risk, it's important to look forward to all the good outcomes and activate enthusiasm. When your commitment is wavering in a project you've already started, reflect on all the progress you've already made to motivate yourself to keep going.
Once you've already committed to or settled on a course of action, however, switch to thinking like a defensive pessimist. In this way, you'll make fear your friend. At this stage, don't try to convert fear and doubt into positive emotions. Instead, embrace them and lean into the fear. Envision worst-case scenarios before they happen so you take the necessary steps to prepare for or avoid them in case they do. Defensive pessimists "deliberately imagine a disaster scenario to intensify their anxiety and convert it into emotion." Their anxiety pushes them to think of everything that could go wrong and prepare for it. They experience their anxiety peaks before the event they're worried about. Therefore, their confidence doesn't come from delusion or mere positive thinking, but thorough preparation for the event they're facing.
Anger can be used productively for positive change, but not through venting. The more you vent, the more aggressive you get toward everyone, even innocent bystanders. The problem with venting is that it focuses your attention on the perpetrator of the perceived injustice. It keeps you thinking about the person who hurt you and makes you want to violently retaliate which doesn't help anyone. What is productive is focusing on the victims who suffered from the injustice, not the perpetrator who caused it. Focusing on the victims leads to empathetic anger or "the desire to right wrongs done unto another."
"Research demonstrates that when we’re angry at others, we aim for retaliation or revenge. But when we’re angry for others, we seek out justice and a better system. We don’t just want to punish; we want to help."
Originality starts in childhood. If we want our kids to be change agents in the world, there are a couple of strategies we can implement when raising them.
Emphasize Character not Behavior
When we praise the behavior of a person, they see it as an isolated event. When we praise the character of a person as was indicated by a behavior, they start to evaluate choices differently.
There are two ways to view taking an uncomfortable action for the benefit of another person. By...
- The logic of consequence: What will happen to me if I take this action? What is the outcome of this action? By this logic, "we can always find reasons not to take risks."
- The logic of appropriateness: What should someone like me do? The logic of appropriateness allows us to think less about the outcome we want and act more from a sense of what the kind of person we want to be would do.
"When our character is praised, we internalize it as part of our identities. Instead of seeing ourselves as engaging in isolated moral acts, we start to develop a more unified self-concept as a moral person."
There was a study done on Holocaust rescuers. What compelled some people to step in and rescue their fellow neighbors while others from the same background, ethnicity, and social status stood by and allowed injustice to persist. The biggest factor was how they were raised by their parents. The Holocaust rescuers' parents uniquely disciplined them: specifically, they explained their discipline.
The parents of children who would later become creative original emphasized moral values and empathy more than rules. When a parent explains why they are disciplining a child, the kid is more likely to internalize the lessons and make better decisions for themselves. It was more important to the parents to develop their kid's moral code than to moderate their behavior by enforcing strict rules. In explaining their discipline instead of forcing an expected behavior out of their child, the children grew up to question rules that didn't align with their moral code and voluntarily comply with rules that did.
We live in an imperfect, chaotic, messy world, but we aren't powerless bystanders. When we come across a situation that pains us, we have 4 options:
- Neglect: do nothing
- Persistence: grit your teeth and deal with it
- Exit: leave the situation
- Voice: do something about it
Neglect and persistence don't change anything. If you want to make things better, exit and voice are the only viable options. In a toxic situation where an organization seems unwilling to change, exit may be the only path to originality. Your refusal to participate in whatever damaging behavior they're perpetuating may be the only thing that can wake them up to their error (if they change it all). The problem with exiting though is that it probably won't make the bad situation better for anyone else. Voice then, it standing up and fighting for a better way--giving up your comfort to make things better for others.
"In the quest for happiness, many of us choose to enjoy the world as it is. Originals embrace the uphill battle, striving to make the world what it could be... Becoming original is not the easiest path in the pursuit of happiness, but it leaves us perfectly poised for the happiness of pursuit."
You'll notice I interspersed several direct quotes throughout the summary where I couldn't possibly think of a better way to explain an idea than Grant. Unless otherwise stated, any quotes are directly from Originals by Adam Grant.
Although I did my best to accurately represent the ideas presented in Originals, I inevitably may have committed some errors. Any misinterpretations or inaccuracies in this summary are mine.