Back in 2010, Wharton Professor Adam Grant made a financial mistake that he still regrets—failing to invest in billion-dollar eyewear juggernaut Warby Parker when offered a pre-launch opportunity. This tale of optic, myopic oversight begins his book ORIGINALS. Wanting to know if there were signs he missed, details alluding to Warby Parker’s future success, Grant dissects the traits and actions of the company’s founders, his former students.
The results surprise him. He discovers unexpected characteristics associated with highly successful entrepreneurs across all fields, from science to music. Original thinkers aren’t that different from the rest of us. They aren’t fearless risk-takers. They don’t rush to be first to market. They aren’t necessarily members of Mensa.
After reading ORIGINALS, I asked Professor Grant how his research findings could be applied to writing great children’s literature.
TL: Every writer in children’s publishing is trying to be the next J.K. Rowling, Jeff Kinney or Mo Willems. We all want to create a book that captivates millions of readers. That’s one reason why I run the annual STORYSTORM challenge, for writers to develop one story idea daily for a month. For every thirty ideas, five might be good, but ONE might be the next big thing—NY Times bestseller, movie deal, merchandise galore. So we’ve got the idea generation part covered; we churn out many ideas to get to the good ones. According to your research, what can we do to identify that one GREAT idea and nurture it to fruition?
AG: I love your focus on developing one idea daily for a month. There’s a wealth of evidence that the most creative writers, musicians, artists, scientists, and inventors don’t have better ideas than their peers on average—they just have more of them. The best way to find a great idea is to generate more ideas. But then we have a challenge: it can be hard to judge our own ideas and we often fall in love with the wrong ones. My former student Justin Berg, now a Stanford professor, has some fascinating new research asking people to rank their ideas from best to worst. He finds that the most creative idea is typically the one we rank not first but second. We’re too easily blinded to the flaws of our pet story, and we have just enough distance from our second pick to improve it—while also still bringing a great deal of passion to it.
TL: I’ve always been a procrastinator. I procrastinated sending you these questions. But procrastination is an essential habit of ORIGINALS. How so?
AG: I’ll tell you later.
Actually, it really irked me to find virtues of procrastination, but I eventually came around. I explained why in my TED talk last year.
TL: I cringe when an aspiring author tells me they quit their day job to tackle writing full time. I’ve been at this nine years and this is the first year I made a decent income—and by decent, I mean about as much as my teenage daughter’s part-time babysitting gig. People assume that focusing just on writing will help achieve their goal of publication faster. But why is it beneficial to keep a day job while pursuing your creative goals?
AG: It turns out that entrepreneurs who keep their day jobs are 33% less likely to fail than those who quit their jobs to start their businesses. I think the same is likely to be true for writers—it worked for Stephen King and T.S. Eliot (who held onto his day job as a bank clerk for decades even after achieving eminence as a poet. Note to self: convince more bank clerks to try their hand at iambic pentameter). Why? One: it provides financial security, making it easier to focus on writing without worrying. Two: as Scott Adams of Dilbert fame can attest, a miserable day job can be a fountain of creative inspiration. And three: it keeps us open to tinkering with new ideas, as opposed to feeling pressure to push forward with our idea that’s most developed or most directly aligned with what our audience seems to want.
TL: There seems to be a hive mind in children’s publishing. Suddenly you see umpteen books about narwhals on the shelves—or Yetis, or armadillos—when just a year ago, there were none. Writers who have been working on that amazing armadillo idea may then just give up. But armadillo aspirations don’t have to die! Your research shows that being first to market doesn’t mean being best. Can you elaborate on that?
AG: Being original isn’t about being first—it’s about being different and better. Creating a market from scratch is a lot harder than entering a market that already exists. Imagine if J.K. Rowling had said, “Well, C.S. Lewis already wrote about kids doing magic.”
Adam Grant is Wharton’s top-rated professor and a leading expert on how we can find motivation and meaning, and live more generous and creative lives. He has been recognized as one of the world’s 25 most influential management thinkers and Fortune’s40 under 40.
Adam earned his Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan, completing it in less than three years, and his B.A. from Harvard University, magna cum laude with highest honors and Phi Beta Kappa honors.
He is the author of two New York Times bestselling books translated into 35 languages.
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