What Makes an Original: Psychologist Adam Grant on the Paradox of Achievement and How Motivated Dissatisfaction Fuels Creativity
“The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.”
By Maria Popova
“To be perfectly original,” Lord Byron famously quipped, “one should think much and read little, and this is impossible, for one must have read before one has learnt to think.”
In Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (public library), organizational psychologist Adam Grant — who has spent years studying the counterintuitive psychology of success — brings contemporary social science to the timeless validity of Byron’s words, examining the contextual nature of creative genius and demonstrating that the most groundbreaking innovations aren’t spurred by arbitrary sparks of mystical epiphany but by intelligent and informed dissatisfaction with cultural defaults, translated into a radical and purposeful desire to upend those defaults.
Grant — an immensely pleasurable writer who interpolates elegantly between T.S. Eliot allusions and Silicon Valley startup lore — echoes Mark Twain’s assertion that all ideas are essentially second-hand, but he offers a useful working definition of originality:
Originality involves introducing and advancing an idea that’s relatively unusual within a particular domain, and that has the potential to improve it. Originality itself starts with creativity: generating a concept that is both novel and useful. But it doesn’t stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality.
The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.
This conception of originality calls to mind legendary choreographer Martha Graham’s notion of “divine dissatisfaction” — and it affirms the idea a creative breakthrough isn’t something generated entirely outside its cultural context but a motivated response to a discontented immersion in context. Grant calls this vuja de:
The starting point [of originality] is curiosity: pondering why the default exists in the first place. We’re driven to question defaults when we experience vuja de, the opposite of déjà vu. Déjà vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we’ve seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse — we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.
When we become curious about the dissatisfying defaults in our world, we begin to recognize that most of them have social origins: Rules and systems were created by people. And that awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.
Therein lies the paradox of achievement — Grant points out that the people we celebrate as prodigies are actually not innovators, for they outperform along an existing axis of excellence rather than weaving an entirely new thread into the fabric of society. In a sense, a prodigy is an outlier, whereas an original is an aberration.
Although child prodigies are often rich in both talent and ambition, what holds them back from moving the world forward is that they don’t learn to be original. As they perform in Carnegie Hall, win the science Olympics, and become chess champions, something tragic happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies and beautiful Beethoven symphonies, but never compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to the codified rules of established games, rather than inventing their own rules or their own games.
This observation calls to mind psychologist Carol Dweck’s trailblazing work on the difference between the “fixed” and “growth” mindsets — one of the most important and far-reaching findings in psychology in the past century. Prodigies, as Grant describes them, represent the fixed mindset and are animated by a hunger for approval according to accepted standards; originals, on the other hand, embody the growth mindset and are driven by curiosity and a desire for improvement. Lest we forget: Even the supremest success, if it is success by someone else’s standards, is still an act of conformity — just ask Thoreau.
Half a century after the great social scientist John Gardner contemplated what children can teach us about taking risks and being unperturbed by failure, Grant reminds us that the word entrepreneur, which was coined by the economist Richard Cantillon, is literally translated as “bearer of risk.” The radical risks that define originals, however, aren’t foolish risks but considered ones — successful people distribute their risks in a kind of portfolio, ensuring stability in some areas of their lives in order to have the flexibility to fail in others.
How to master the art-science of taking radical risks — including how to procrastinate strategically, why it’s easier to translate fear and anxiety into excitement than to calm yourself down, and how to harness the positive power of negative thinking — is what Grant goes on to explore in the remainder of Originals, a fine counterpart to his earlier work on the behavioral styles that predict success. Complement it with pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner on the six essential conditions for creative breakthrough and André Gide on what it really means to be original.
For more of Grant’s insight into human behavior, devour his fascinating On Being conversation with Krista Tippett: