“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” George Bernard Shaw
Unreasonable men and women have been moving the world forward since the dawn of time. Some of those people you’ve heard of, like Martin Luther King and Amelia Earhart. Some of them you might not have heard of, like Ray Dalio and Neil Blumenthal.
But what exactly does it mean to be original? Is it something that can be taught? And if so, what do you need to do in order to become an original yourself?
We’ll answer these questions and many more in the next 12 minutes.
Originals question defaults
One of the traits that all Originals share is that they question the default settings of the world we live in. Once they start doing that, they recognize that most of the defaults in this world are rules and systems that were created by people. And if they were created by people, they can be changed.
For instance, the founders of Warby Parker – the eyeglasses company that sells quality eyewear for a fraction of the price that you’d pay at the optometrist’s office – wondered why they couldn’t get a pair of glasses at a reasonable price. Intrigued, they did some research and found that 80% of the market was owned by one company – Luxxotica.
So, they built Warby Parker, a company that nobody thought would succeed. They would sell glasses that might otherwise cost you $500 for $95. They would also give a pair of glasses to somebody in need for every pair that was purchased. To top it all off, they would do it over the Internet.
Needless to say, they have been successful. Fast Company named them the most innovative company in the world, beating out the winners from the last 3 years – Apple, Google, and Nike. They were also valued at more than $1 billion.
Anybody could have asked why they couldn’t get a pair of glasses at a reasonable price, but it took a group of originals like the founders of Warby Parker to dig for the answer and bend the world to their will.
It pays to question the defaults.
Originals are risk averse
This one comes as a surprise to many people, because entrepreneurs and originals are often viewed as people who take big risks.
And while it’s true that many entrepreneurs are big risk takers, the most original ones often are not.
For instance, none of the founders of Warby Parker wanted to fully commit their time and energy to the company when they first founded it. They all had a Plan B in their back pocket in case it didn’t work out. These were risk averse individuals.
You would think that entrepreneurs who were risk averse wouldn’t succeed at the same rate as the people who “burned the ships”, as the saying goes. But in a study of 5,000 entrepreneurs, it was found that those who kept their day jobs were 33 percent less likely to fail then those who quit.
As Grant points out, having sense of security in one area of your life allows you the freedom to be an original in another. The feeling that they can fail, and it will still be ok, is what allows Originals to pursue truly original ideas.
How to create original ideas
The best way to become an original is to have a lot of ideas. Psychologist Dean Simonton has spent his life studying creativity, and has found that creative geniuses were not qualitatively better than their peers. Instead, they produced a much larger amount of work, which gave them a better chance of hitting on a successful idea.
As he says, ““The odds of producing an influential or successful idea, are a positive function of the total number of ideas generated.”
So how do you come up with a large amount of original ideas? Steve Jobs tells us that we have to look for inspiration outside of our own field of work. To produce original ideas, you have to look for connections that were never made before. For instance, Steve Jobs was the first person in the computer industry to truly focus on design as a differentiator. Where did he get this idea? Kitchen appliances.
Getting feedback on your ideas
Now there’s the challenge of determining which of your ideas are actually brilliant. You, my friend, are not the best judge of that. And your manager is hard-wired to vet ideas by figuring out the hundred and one ways your idea might fail. So where do you turn?
Grant’s advice is that you should turn to your colleagues for a couple of reasons. They won’t be risk averse like your manager might be, but they also don’t have any particular investment in your ideas, allowing them to give you an honest evaluation.
If you’re an entrepreneur, a peer group is most likely the best place for you to get this type of feedback.
Getting people to buy in to your idea
Now that you’ve figured out which idea to dive into, it’s time to convince other people to get onboard. It might be investors, employees, and ultimately customers. But convincing people that that your original idea might be good for them is harder than you might like. Most people are innately skeptical of new ideas.
A novel way to do this is to lead with your faults, highlighting the flaws in your ideas rather than the bright spots.
Most people are skeptical about new ideas. The more radical your idea is, the more resistance it’s going to face. Beating your skeptics to the punch has a number of benefits.
The first benefit is that it disarms the audience. The last thing they expect you to do is tell them all the reasons why they shouldn’t buy into your idea.
The second benefit is that it makes you look smart. If you are laying out the downsides your audience is already thinking, they’ll get the sense that you are intelligent – just like them.
The third benefit is that it makes you appear more trustworthy. If they can rely on you to make an honest assessment of your idea now, they are much more likely to put their faith in you later, as well.
When to move forward with your original idea
Just like many things in life, timing is everything. Launch your idea too early, and the market might not be ready for it. Launch it too late, and you’ll never catch up.
Grant finds that most Originals are fashionably late to the party. In a study done looking at the first movers vs. later entrants to a market, it was found that the first movers had a 47% failure rate compared to only 8% for the later entrants. Even when the pioneers did survive, they captured much less market share than the later entrants. You don’t have to be first to win – you just have to be different and better.
One of the tools used by most Originals is productive procrastination. Although procrastination doesn’t help you with short-term tasks like your todo list, it is a huge benefit for creativity. It allows you to keep your options open, only closing off new avenues to explore when the time is right. This type of procrastination isn’t about laziness, it’s about waiting for the right time.
How to create an Originals culture
So how do you create an entire culture where original ideas and thinking can flourish?
One thing you need to do is encourage differing viewpoints, and allow people the freedom to voice them. Dissenting opinions are even valuable when they are wrong because they contribute to finding of new and novel ideas that otherwise wouldn’t have been explored.
If there’s one company that models this behaviour to the extreme, it’s Bridgewater Associates – one of the world’s largest hedge funds. Bridgewater was started in the bedroom of a NYC apartment by Ray Dalio, and now invests over $170 billion on behalf of it’s clients – mostly large institutions.
Dalio wrote a document titled Principles detailing over 200 principles that he wants to govern the behaviour of his employees. Most of them deal with how to be “radically transparent”. For instance, one of the principles is that “no one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it”. This is true no matter what your position is in the company, and in fact, Dalio himself is taken to task by his employees on a regular basis.
One important wrinkle in building in dissenting opinions into your culture is that the people playing devil’s advocate actually have to believe what they are saying. So, randomly assigning one person to argue against an idea to make sure all viewpoints are taken into account won’t work.
Regulate your emotions and be an Original
Being an Original is tough work. You’ll face many moments of self-doubt and fear, and if you don’t understand how to regulate your emotions, you might not make it to the finish line.
Nelson Mandela once said:
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. . . . The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Here are some situations you are likely to find yourself in, and strategies for making the most of them.
When you find yourself in situations where your commitment is wavering, you can keep yourself on track by considering the progress you’ve already made. It will give you the extra push you need to keep going.
When you find yourself committed to the task at hand, you should think like a defensive pessimist – considering all the things that could go wrong, and coming up with plans to make sure that they don’t.
If you are in situations where you are nervous, tell yourself that you are excited. Instead of succumbing to the fear and fleeing, you’ll activate your “go” system and lean in to whatever the task at hand is.
Becoming an Original isn’t for everybody, but it is something that is available to you, if you want it. You can start today by questioning all of the assumptions you’ve made about where your life is going, and why it has to be that way. If you start today, we might just be reading about you in Adam Grant’s next book.