Non-Conformity is Your Path to Success: Five Questions with Adam Grant on His New Book “Originals”

Adam M. Grant’s new book Originals arrives today so seemed like a good time to ask him some questions. This past weekend Adam’s NYTimes post on How to Raise a Creative Child (hint: Back Off!) gave a taste of what Originals contains. My wife and I have been fortunate enough to know Adam for a few years now and always enjoy his thoughts on what makes people tick and what makes company cultures work (or not).

Hunter Walk: Your new book Originals is available starting today. What’s it about and how’d you settle on this topic versus other areas of interest?

Adam M. Grant: It’s about how individuals can champion new ideas and leaders can fight groupthink.  There’s a lot of guidance about how to generate creative ideas, but much less on what to do after you have an idea.  Think of this book as the sequel to creativity: it’s about how we can all get better at recognizing good ideas, speaking up, and finding allies.  I wrote it because students are constantly asking how they can make suggestions and pitch their ideas more effectively, and leaders are regularly seeking insight on how to battle conformity and drive innovation and change.

HW: What’s your writing technique like when you’re finishing a book? Do you force yourself to log a certain number of hours each day or pages each week?

AG: I used to follow a pretty rigid schedule: start writing in the morning, and don’t stop until I’ve finished a chapter or a major section.  Then I learned that procrastination can boost creativity, so while writing Originals, I taught myself to procrastinate.  At various points, I deliberately stopped in mid-sentence, leaving thoughts unfinished so I could come back to them with new ideas a few days later.

HW: Give and Take was a blockbuster and you’ve gained a ton of visibility with your writing and speaking. I’m sure a ton of offers get thrown your way. How do you balance the commercial opportunities vis a vis all the other parts of your life that you enjoy?

AG: I set a ceiling on the maximum number of speaking, consulting, and travel days I do per month.  When I go above it one month, I make up for it the next month.

HW: Is there a common misinterpretation of Give and Take that you hear from people?

AG: Yes—it’s not about how nice guys finish first.  I found that givers are overrepresented at the bottom and the top of most success metrics, so it would be more accurate to say that the book is about why some nice people finish last and others finish first.  But that’s not quite right either: being a giver is not about being nice. The goal is to help others, not please them.  There are lots of disagreeable givers out there—they’re gruff and tough on the surface, yet underneath have other people’s best interests at heart.  They give the critical feedback that no one wants to hear, but everyone needs to hear.  As a Google programmer described them, “They have a bad user interface but a great operating system.”

HW: When you compare Silicon Valley to the population at large, do we index differently on your Giver, Taker, Matcher segmentation?

AG: I would love to see rigorous data on that.  My experience has been that Silicon Valley has an unusually high number of people who act like givers for taker or matcher reasons.  It’s a small world where gossip travels as fast as the speed of sound, so many people try to get ahead by developing a reputation for generosity.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s a difference between helping because you expect something in return and doing it because you enjoy helping others and seeing them succeed.  Ironically, when you give with the goal of getting ahead, it doesn’t work as well.

You can purchase Adam’s new book Originals at Amazon or your local bookstore