Do You Fit In Or Stand Out: How To Be More Original?
In 2016, when I was still spending three hours a day commuting to and from New York City, I decided to use that time to listen to audiobooks. One of those books was Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant. While I remember loving the book when I heard it, later, I was able to recall only bits and pieces of it. Although audiobooks are a popular book format, this format is not suitable for me. I seem to retain very little information by listening to someone else read. Recently, I decided to pick up a physical copy of Adam Grant's book and read it for "real" this time. I am so glad I did as it reminded me of a few valuable insights.
I spent a lot of time over the past year thinking about why most people rely on conventional wisdom, why fitting in is so important not just in high school, but in the corporate world as well, and why it is so hard to be original.
"We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society…they [imagined orders] are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively."
Every society has rules, laws, and common practices that the population is expected to follow. Without those laws, our society would fall into chaos. While that may be true, the flip side of accepting the society's imagined order is we start to live in a state of default; we conform, we do not ask questions, we never change.
Grant found that, paradoxically, people who suffer the most are the ones who are least likely to question or challenge their situation. The act of accepting the status quo and justifying to yourself that this is how the world is becomes an emotional painkiller. This reminds me of a documentary I watched many years ago about a country under a dictatorial regime. The first sentence of the movie was, "It is easy to live under a dictatorship." It was shocking to hear that, but it made sense. A dictatorship is an extreme version of imagined order. All decisions are made for the people, and all they are expected to do is conform.
One would think that in the United States, where we have so much freedom and value self-expression, individuals would strive to be more original. However, that is not the case. Psychologists have long known that two paths to achievement are conformity and originality. Out of fear of failure, most people choose to fit in, to conform rather than to stand out from the crowd.
Teachers do not like creative students and prefer the ones who follow the rules. From an early age, children learn not to share their original ideas out of fear of being perceived as a troublemaker. As Sir Ken Robinson said in his famous TED talk, "We don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it."
At work, it is not any different – the motivation for achievement crowds out originality. The more we value achievement, the more we are afraid to fail. It is safer to follow a conventional path to success by mastering our jobs without questioning defaults. We prefer to maintain stability and attain conventional achievements instead of listening to new ideas in our heads for how we can improve our workplaces, communities, and schools. Joseph Schumpeter, a German economist whose theories I used for the theoretical framework of my dissertation, proposed a concept of creative destruction – creating new ways of doing things often requires destroying the old ways.
In our drive to succeed, we consume existing knowledge, conform to the established rules, and practice what we learned. However, as Grant points out, "Practice makes perfect, but it doesn't make new."
Originality starts with questioning the status quo and contemplating how our systems and rules can be improved.
"The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default." – Adam Grant
Originality requires creativity, the ability to generate novel and useful ideas. Individuals who are originals make their visions a reality. Becoming an original requires one to break with convention and take some risk. However, despite a common belief, the majority of originals are not extreme risk-takers.
According to Grant's research, the best way to be original is to generate many ideas and produce a large volume of work. While most of that work will be unremarkable, having a large quantity of output increases the chances of originality. We often hear that quality supersedes quantity, and to create great work, it is better to produce less of it, but of a higher quality. That is not the case, because we can never predict which one of our ideas will turn out to be a blockbuster.
Grant provides examples of what it took for the most famous composers in history to produce a handful of best-known masterpieces. Out of more than 600 pieces that Mozart composed before his death, only six pieces are included in the list of 50 greatest pieces of classical music complied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Similarly, Beethoven produced 650 pieces, and five were included in the list. Bach wrote over 1,000 pieces, three of which are considered among the greatest by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Art and science follow the same trend. Picasso produced 12,000 drawings, 2,800 ceramics, 1,800 paintings, and 1,200 sculptures, but only a fraction of these works could be considered true masterpieces. Edison had 1,093 patents to his name, but only a handful of those represented true innovations.
One of the strategies to becoming more original is to broaden one's frame of reference by immersing in a new domain. Peter Drucker was known for saying that he used to pick a new subject to study every three to four years, whether it was Japanese art or economics. He followed that process for the last 60 years of his life, earning him an equivalent of 15-20 specialized college degrees.
While standing out of the crowd may be scary and risky, being original can lead to a more fulfilling life. As Adam Grant's book title indicates, "non-conformists move the world." With that said, I am not advocating for everyone to strive for originality. People can achieve success through conformity as well, and for many, it is a better option. I am just grateful that I live in a country where I can follow a path of originality if I so choose.