How to be an Original

Our world is rapidly becoming more complex. The kinds of challenges we face today, like the effects of technological advancement and global warming, will require unprecedented levels of innovation and ingenuity to solve. So what can we do now to ensure that we eventually overcome these challenges and move the world forward in a healthy direction?

The key might lie in developing people who not just excel at traditional academics (what most gifted programs focus on exclusively), but who can also think creatively and get their ideas adopted. Or, as the renowned organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, likes to call them –  “Originals”.

In his latest book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant notes that “Although child prodigies are often rich in 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.

Using surprising insights sprinkled throughout the book, Grant shows how anyone can learn to be an Original. While his insights cover the gamut from coming up creative ideas to championing them effectively in the workplace, here are three learnings that would be useful to adopt even as early as elementary school age.

Generate Lots Of Ideas

The best way to find that creative, game-changing idea, is to have lots of ideas. In fact, that’s what the eminently creative people in all fields do. Mozart composed more than 600 pieces before he died at the age of thirty-five, but only a handful of them made it into London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 50 greatest pieces of classical music. Similarly, Edison, one of the most prolific inventors known, had over a thousand patents over his lifetime. While most people know him as the inventor of the lightbulb and the phonograph, few know that many of his ideas, like a creepy talking doll and concrete beds, completely failed. 

Oftentimes, a truly creative idea is lurking behind the less creative ones, and can only be seen after the other ideas have gotten out of the way. In a study done on the Alternate Uses Task, researchers found that participants arrived at more novel responses after the initial wave of obvious ones (after 9 responses, in their case). The researchers recommend that “To get more original solutions, one must push past and build upon the ideas generated first to arrive at the less obvious ideas and associations.

Even in an area like Mathematics, not typically considered a creative field, coming up with more than one solution to a problem has been shown to improve and deepen understanding in that topic.

Start With The Unfamiliar And Make It Familiar

One powerful technique to come with original ideas is to use an unfamiliar or novel starting point.  Justin Berg, a creativity expert at Stanford, asked people to design some novel products to help job interviewees as part of an experiment. When he gave them a familiar starting point of a 3-ring binder, most of the ideas that people could come up with were fairly obvious. But when he gave them a starting point of inline-skates for roller blading, the group generated ideas that were rated 37% higher in originality.

Starting with an unfamiliar or random stimulus helps people break free of the typical associations and forces them to find new ones, generating more unusual ideas. This is the underlying mechanism for the “Wacky Inventions” brainteaser and the Japanese art of Chindogu.

Develop An Artistic Hobby

A fascinating study that Adam highlights in his book, compared Nobel Prize-winning scientists to typical scientists who were equally technically proficient in their fields. The researchers found one surprising correlation –  the Nobel Prize winners were significantly more likely to be involved in arts than their less accomplished peers.  If the artistic hobby was drawing or painting, the likelihood of being a Nobel winner went up to 7x, and for performing arts like theater, dance or magic the odds were as high as 22x!

So why does that happen?

One reason is because an interest in arts is a reflection of a curious mind. But more importantly, the artistic hobby itself can help build new associations and spur new creative insights. The reason that Galileo was the first astronomer to discover mountains on the moon, was because he recognized the tell-tale zig-zag pattern of dark and light regions, due to his training in an artistic technique called chiaroscuro. As Adam Grant explains, “…it’s not just that a certain kind of original person seeks out exposure to the arts.  The arts also serve in turn as a powerful source of creative insight.

To learn more about originals, check out Adam’s insightful TED talk.