Wharton Professor Adam Grant On Creativity And The First Mover Myth

Adam Grant, a best-selling author and the youngest tenured professor at Wharton, is back with a new book that hits both real and virtual bookshelves today: “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.”

We talked about the book yesterday with Grant, who, despite being just 34, has already been teaching for a dozen years, including earlier at UNC Chapel Hill. (According to his LinkedIn profile, the Harvard grad has also been a record-setting ad director, a junior Olympic springboard diver, and a professional magician.)

Grant told us what inspired him to share his new take on original thinking — and how to encourage it in both adults and children alike.

TC: Is this book mostly for the would-be entrepreneurs who you’re teaching at Wharton?

AG: In part. One of the most frequent questions I get from students are: How do I become a successful entrepreneur? But people also wonder: How do I innovate from the inside of a company? How do I fight groupthink and know when someone is on to a valuable, original idea? There are a lot of myths out there [that I hoped to tackle].

TC: We caught a piece you’d written in the New York Times this past weekend about why parents wanting creative children should place more emphasis on moral values than on specific rules. You seemed to be taking on Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that to be successful at something, you need to put in many thousands of hours of disciplined practice and study.

AG: I wasn’t taking on the idea so much, but while 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are great when it comes to mastering a skill, they can also blind you to radical new ways of thinking and acting. You can miss out on breadth when you dive deep into one particular area.

TC: Can we talk more about the emphasis on morality in your book? Why is that so crucial?

AG: Kids who evolve into creative adults tend to have a strong moral compass. They’ve been nurtured by their parents, who’ve talked with them and modeled values of excellence for them that [seed ] concern for the consequences of their [kids’] actions on other people. At the same time, they’re given a lot of autonomy to figure out how they want to live with those values.

I love to see parents [invite] their kids [to think about] how they can make a real contribution to the world they live in by asking them: “How would you like to make it a better place? How would you define excellence? Who are your role models and what might they do?” Kids end up endorsing their [parents’] values when they feel like they’ve had an active role in choosing them. They’re also more confident in going against the grain rather than trying to fit in.

TC: Many parents seem to conclude that creativity can come by exposing their children to as much as possible.

AG: It’s a balance that has to be achieved. It starts with interest. Then some mastery has to be achieved before a new activity is as fun as it could be. After all, if you’re a novice at everything, it’s hard to be passionate about anything. But you want to expose your kids to many things, then let them pick what they want to do.

TC: What if they want to drop out of school? Is that a trend you’re seeing, or is that very far afield from your experience as a Wharton professor?

AG: We actually see more and more people not dropping out of school and not leaving jobs and realizing instead that you can start companies on the side.

In the past, people looked at Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and thought they had to go all in. But people who start jobs on the side, rather than who quit their day jobs to start companies, are 33 percent less likely to fail.

TC: Why do you think that is?

AG: We’re not sure we know yet. But a couple of guesses is that a job buys you the time to do things right. You don’t feel pressured to rush your product to market. Having an income also gives you more room to pivot. If your startup starts as a hobby, it’s easier to say, “That one didn’t work out; let me work on the next idea.”

TC: Peter Thiel endorsed your book. Have you talked with him about the benefits of staying in school and getting a stable job? He’s obviously a famed proponent of encouraging certain students to drop out.

AG: Peter and I did an event together a little over a year ago and we talked about the pros and the cons of college. I think his goal is less to get lots of people to drop out and more to get people off of tracks and to be generally less conformist. He wants people to think about the best path for themselves as individuals, which is totally in line with my thinking.

He also thinks we need fewer entrepreneurs, not more of them. He sees too many people pursuing their own ideas rather than trying to join an early-stage startup where somebody else has a brilliant idea and [others] can help make it great.

TC: Your new book is about original people of all kinds. What are some of the other key takeaways you learned from your research into them?

One that I’m finding useful in my own life is that we can generate more original ideas when we become more comfortable with procrastinating. There’s a bunch of research that shows when you start [a project] early and finish quickly, you get stuck with the most conventional ideas. When you take longer, you do more divergent thinking and start to make connections between ideas.

Also, a lot of people believe they have to be first to market, but the first-mover advantage is mostly a myth. With most products and industries, the settlers enjoy more success than the pioneers because the pioneers have to fight an uphill battle to create the market, whereas the second or third movers have to make the product better.

TC: Do you see Uber as a pioneer or a settler?

AG: Uber carved out a very clear niche, but you could say that taxi companies were first movers; they created the market for on-demand rides from one place to another. Uber, with its vastly superior technology, made that market much more efficient.

TC: Any last bits of concrete advice for people looking to be more creative or better at identifying strong creative ideas?

AG: You can’t judge your own ideas. You tend to be too positive. On the other hand, middle managers tend to be too risk averse and look at why ideas will fail. Your fellow creators can give you the most accurate picture of whether an idea is a strong one or it’s garbage. They typically know the domain and have a vested interest in seeing new possibilities succeed rather than looking for reasons why they won’t.

Also, for managers who may be reading: Before you’re about to evaluate an idea, generate three of your own. You’ll be more inclined to look for potential and possibility.