Originals: Try and Fail But Never Conform

Adam Grant’s teaches how to balance the unleashing of creative genius while managing risk.

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Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

I first heard Adam Grant in a Malcolm Gladwell podcast. The two hosted an event at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan and broadcast on Malcolm’s Revisionist History. I am a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan and the two together were incredibly funny and entertaining to hear. They are clearly close friends who thoroughly enjoy engaging in an intellectual arguement. My favorite kind.

Adam is brilliant and the perfect counterpoint to Malcolm’s reasoned logic. I loved hearing him so much that I found his Ted Talk, read his articles and bought his books. His positivity about life and brilliant reasoning on business comes through in every word he speaks and writes. And I need his voice right now.

I am in the midst of launching a company with a completely novel product. There is no roadmap on how to pull this off and I have no idea how to get from A to B. My first attempt at entrepreneurship was a well worn path. I bought into a franchise business. It was a moderate success and an excellent experience for a young business owner. It was safe. There are solid benefits to jumping with a parachute. But if I am truly carving my own path, don’t I need to be all in? Quit my day job? Eliminate every possible distraction? Adam would say no.

“Entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs had 33 percent lower odds of failure than those who quit. If you’re risk averse and have some doubts about the feasibility of your ideas, it’s likely that your business will be built to last. If you’re a freewheeling gambler, your startup is far more fragile.”

-Adam Grant, Originals

In his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, he shares the beginnings of many entrepreneurs:

Former track star Phil Knight started selling running shoes out of the trunk of his car in 1964, yet kept working as an accountant until 1969.

After inventing the original Apple I computer, Steve Wozniak started the company with Steve Jobs in 1976 but continued working full time in his engineering job at Hewlett-Packard until 1977.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin figured out how to dramatically improve internet searches in 1996, they didn’t go on leave from their graduate studies at Stanford until 1998.

Selma director Ava DuVernay made her first three films while working in her day job as a publicist, only pursuing filmmaking full time after working at it for four years and winning multiple awards.

Brian May was in the middle of doctoral studies in astrophysics when he started playing guitar in a new band, but he didn’t drop out until several years later to go all in with Queen.

John Legend released his first album in 2000 but kept working as a management consultant until 2002, preparing PowerPoint presentations by day while performing at night.

Thriller master Stephen King worked as a teacher, janitor, and gas station attendant for seven years after writing his first story, only quitting a year after his first novel, Carrie, was published.

Dilbert author Scott Adams worked at Pacific Bell for seven years after his first comic strip hit newspapers.

Adam’s prescription for success includes prudence. Originality is key. Following your own path and refusing to conform are predictors of success. But that doesn’t mean you have no doubts and it doesn’t mean you ignore risk. If your decision making process does not account for risk, your business is likely to fail. Non-conformity does not equal a complete disregard for the system you are operating within. It means you need to change the system.

But how? The principles laid out in his book are a roadmap. Whether you are leading a team in a boardroom or inventing a business from scratch, his advice holds. I used Originals to create a business planning guide for my own startup. These simple and straightforward concepts put the planning in perspective:

“If we communicate the vision behind our ideas, the purpose guiding our products, people will flock to us.”
-Adam Grant, Originals

I am currently developing a brand definition for my company. Grant explains the need for a vision and purpose for your product. The most important element of developing a brand is your intention. The what and how pale in comparison to the why. Think of the brands you love and why you love them. I buy Rothy’s, an online shoe company. They make a great product that I enjoy wearing. But whenever someone asks me about my shoes, I always mention that they are made of recycled bottle caps. That is part of the story and I love that fact. I feel good about what I bought and I know why.

“Argue like you’re right and listen like you’re wrong.”
-Adam Grant, Originals

The strength of any conviction should be tested. Intellectual disagreements are a brilliant way to get where you need to be. So many times, the boss is looking for a “yes man” to agree with his opinion and execute his vision, no questions asked. That is recipe to ensure stagnation. If your idea can’t hold up to a debate, it will never hold up anywhere.

“Being original doesn’t require being first. It just means being different and better.”
-Adam Grant, Originals

Apple didn’t invent the computer. It made everything about the computer more user friendly. Warby Parker didn’t invent glasses or even a new way to sell them. But they made it easier. Google didn’t invent search engines. They improved them. We live in a world of reinvention. Keep your focus on being the best because solving the problem for your consumer is the ultimate goal.

“Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it can be a resource for creativity.”
-Adam Grant, Originals

I am in the middle of a 100 day writing challenge. The hardest part is not the actual writing. Ideas need time to develop. Being creative is not like making widgets. You cannot quantify how long it will take to solve a novel problem. Let things ruminate and the answer will come.

“The greatest shapers don’t stop at introducing originality into the world. They create cultures that unleash originality in others.”
-Adam Grant, Originals

I have a fantastic team of people working on developing my startup. At times, the conversation in our meetings gets a little anxious and I can tell when someone is trying to make the exact “right” choice. What I want is your wildest idea. How we accomplish it isn’t our problem, yet. We are going to try and we are going to fail. That is part of the deal when you are the first to attempt something new. The Wright Brothers crashed a lot of planes before one flew. We are going to try to crash small and protect ourselves. The ability to recognize your mistakes and adapt quickly sets you apart. But whatever happens, we have to keep creating.

“In these pages, I learned that great creators don’t necessarily have the deepest expertise but rather seek out the broadest perspectives.”
-Adam Grant, Originals

Ernest Hemmingway said good writers borrow and great writers steal. Bottom line, no one is the sole source of brilliant originality.

Every great company is pieced together with knowledge and lessons from every corner. Look at Steve Jobs list of favorite books. It is a wild variety of inspiration and he used it all to create a business that he loved. He connected with the best business leaders and hired the best employees he could find. You could have some success as one man alone in a room coming up with ideas. But real leadership comes from cultivating your resources to your advantage.

“When we use the logic of consequence, we can always find reasons not to take risks.”
-Adam Grant, Originals

There is always a reason not to move. Risk involves possible loss and we as humans are hardwired to avoid pain. But without pain, there is no growth. Logically, it makes sense get that safe job and never really go for it. Imagine a world where no one took a risk. Trying involves the risk of failure. But personally, I would rather try and fail a thousand times than settle for inertia.

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