From Aaron Sorkin to Steve Jobs to Meredith Perry and Elon Musk, “original” thinkers — such as entrepreneurs — do a lot of different things to move the world to their visions. And many of those things (and traits) are counterintuitive, such as … Embracing procrastination. But there’s a catch: It’s about being the just-right amount of procrastinator, expert, or confidant. There’s a curvilinear relationship between too much and too little.
There’s also some surprising findings about why NOT to “start with the why” but with the how. Because sometimes the how is much more believable than the why. Especially when it comes to getting people to engineer things from ubeam to SpaceX. Or to really being able to tell the difference between communication vs. confidence vs. competence.
Ultimately, it’s all about being flexible, argues top Wharton management professor and New York Times columnist Adam Grant in his new book Originals. So how do we strike the just-right balance — whether making an entrepreneur or just trying to raise more creative, productive kids? Is the answer perhaps to immerse them in sci-fi books and video games? Well, J.K. Rowling could be the most influential “original” alive, argues Grant in this podcast… but not for the reasons you think.
- Discussion of what a non-conformist is, and different types of procrastination [0:00]
- Steve Jobs, Meredith Perry, and other originals [7:38] and the idea of the “skeptical optimist” [12:52]
- The importance of depth of experience [14:41], what it means to be an expert [19:49], and implications for entrepreneurs [21:12]
- How originals were influenced in childhood [23:42]
- Applying this research in organizations [31:34]
Sonal: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the “a16z Podcast.” I’m Sonal, and today I’m here with Adam Grant, who is a Wharton professor and a New York Times columnist who covers the topics of work and psychology. And he has a new book out: “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.” And we thought it’d be really interesting to talk to Adam about this, because there’s a lot of overlap between non-conformists and entrepreneurs. Welcome, Adam.
What is a non-conformist?
Adam: Thank you.
Sonal: The first thing I want to start with is how you actually define a non-conformist, because I think there’s a whole spectrum — and I use spectrum in both the psychological sense and just a descriptive sense. How do you know if someone’s a non-conformist, and not, like, a good rebel versus a bad rebel — like, someone who’s actually detrimental to society?
Adam: When I think about non-conformist, I’m thinking about people who don’t just reject the status quo for the sake of being different, or for disagreeing, but actually care about making things better for other people. So, I think about, you know, non-conformity as being — you can think about, you know, creative rebels who say, “Look, you know, there’s a standard way of doing things that isn’t right. And I think I can improve it.” Or, you can think about being a moral rebel and say, “You know, there’s a rule, a law, a policy, that doesn’t make sense, and it’s hurting a particular group. And I want to try to do something about that.”
Sonal: So the constructive form of non-conformism, essentially.
Sonal: One funny anecdote that you mentioned, which made me laugh out loud, is that a person’s choice of browser indicates where they fit. So, if you’re like a Chrome user, for example, or a Firefox Mozilla user, you’re more likely to be along those lines than not — it feels kind of obvious in hindsight, but it’s a really funny thing to come across. Like, how did you sort of come up with that?
Adam: Well, I wish I could take credit for it. I was sitting at a conference one day and an economist, Michael Housman, presented this study showing that he could predict your job performance and how long you stay in your job just by knowing what browser you use. And a lot of people don’t like the results of this study, obviously. And if you don’t know what browser you use, you should check Ask Jeeves right away. Basically, what he found was, Chrome and Firefox users were on average getting, in call center jobs, to customer satisfaction rates in 90 days that took Internet Explorer and Safari users 120 days to reach. And the Chrome and Firefox users also stuck around 15% longer in their jobs. So, the first instinct for me was, this has got to be a technical advantage, right? The people who are more computer savvy are the ones who are using Chrome and Firefox.
Sonal: That’s actually what I would think too.
Adam: But Mike ran the data, and there was no difference in typing speed or computer knowledge between the different browser groups. And what I eventually realized was, it’s about how you get the browser. Because if you’re an Internet Explorer or Safari user, those came pre-installed with your computer. They’re the default, and you just accepted the status quo that’s handed to you. Whereas, if you wanted Chrome or Firefox, you have to take a tiny bit of initiative and upgrade, or figure out, you know, maybe there’s something different out there. Let me try it out. And that turns out to be a signal of being the kind of person who doesn’t just conform and accept the defaults that are given to you.
Sonal: What are some of the other counterintuitive characteristics? I think, by the way, procrastination was super interesting to me.
Adam: I think we’ve all procrastinated at some point in our lives. And I will say though, I’m pretty much the opposite of a procrastinator. There’s a term for me — I’m a precrastinator. So I’m one of those people who, when I have a presentation to give in six months, I will wake up tomorrow morning feeling this tremendous sense of urgency to get it done now, so that I don’t wait until the last minute and it’s not hanging over my head. And as I studied originals, I found that many of them resisted that temptation and use procrastination productively.
So, look at Leonardo da Vinci, for example, who spent roughly 15 years trying to finish up “The Last Supper,” and kept putting it off and working on these little optics experiments. And he felt like he was spinning his wheels, and wrote in this notebook over and over again, “Tell me if anything ever was done.” But ultimately, those diversions led him to make these discoveries in how to display light that dramatically improved his painting and made him the Renaissance man. And there’s a lot of research coming out suggesting that when we procrastinate, we give ourselves more time to incubate ideas. We do more divergent thinking. We’re less likely to be stuck in linear structured patterns of thought. And that can be useful if you want to come up with new ideas.
Sonal: I think I would probably nuancify the description of procrastination then, a little bit, because I think you either do it or you don’t. And I think what you’re actually saying is actually that there’s something more in between. Because when I think of how I procrastinate as well, you know, it’s not like you’re not working on it. You’re working on the back of your head, or you’re putting on the back burner, or you’re exploring ideas that are related to X topic. And then, when they suddenly kind of come together, you’re like, “Okay. Now is the time to actually put it together on paper, and this is the right time to put it out.” There’s another form of not procrastinating, where you just stick your head in the sand, and you just completely avoid it. Like, the kind I remember doing, like, in high school — you don’t even show up. I feel like there’s different flavors to those kinds of procrastination in what you’re describing.
Adam: Yeah. I think productive procrastination is intentionally delaying the start or finish of a task to make sure you have all the creative ideas that you might develop at your disposal. And that’s very different from just not engaging with the task at all, right? So I had a Ph.D student, Jihae Shin, who studied this, and she found that there’s a curvilinear relationship between how often you procrastinate and how creative your supervisors rate you in multiple organizations. So, if you put things off until the very last minute, you’re screwed, and you just have to rush forward with the easiest ideas. But there’s a sweet spot, where you put things off a little bit, you’re delaying, but you are kind of doing some unconscious thoughts, some incubating. And that allows you, then, to come forward with more interesting ideas and more unusual possibilities, because the first ideas that you generate are usually the most conventional and obvious.
Sonal: Right, exactly.
Adam: And if you just marched forward with those, then you’re limiting your field of vision. But it is key that you are, sort of, processing the task. So one of Jihae’s experiments randomly assigned people to procrastinate before developing business plan ideas by playing “Minesweeper.” And they were, after doing that, 28% more creative than people who jumped right into the task. “Minesweeper’s” awesome, but it’s not the reason to become more creative. The effect only held if they were told about the task before they played “Minesweeper.” So that, you know, while they’re working in the games, they’re kind of thinking about different business ideas. And that’s where the creativity came in.
Sonal: So what’s interesting about what you’re describing is a type of behavior. But in the real world, people have deadlines, and constraints that they have to follow, and things that they have to deal with. Like, if you’re in a company, or in school, or, you know, in just paying your bills on time. How does this sort of behavior play out in those scenarios? Like, can you be an original in one aspect of your life and then suddenly be very punctual about paying your bills? The psychological traits we have — it’s not like you get to pick and choose what arenas of your life you get to be a certain way.
Adam: Yeah. I think it’s hard to be an original without being flexible. In fact, that might be the most central defining characteristic of original people, is that they’re willing to bring different ways of solving problems to different situations. So, of course, there’s some tasks — actually, take any task where creativity is not important. If you’re paying bills, you don’t have to come up with novel solutions. And in fact, if you do, the IRS might come calling. That’s a task where you want to be structured, conscientious, focused, and, you know, sort of punch it in as quickly and efficiently as possible. I think that where originals end up procrastinating is when they know they’re working on a hard problem. One of my favorite examples of this is Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter who’s known for the “West Wing” and the Steve Jobs movie. And he was interviewed once by Katie Couric, who said, “You know, basically, you drive your staff crazy, because sometimes you’re literally about to shoot a scene, and there’s still no script. Like, how do you put up with this procrastinating?” And Sorkin said, “You call it procrastinating. I call it thinking.”
Sonal: It’s an interesting way of reframing that. I know you were talking about Aaron Sorkin writing the script for that movie, but I do think it’s interesting to talk about Steve Jobs as an example here because — and I definitely don’t want to be one of those people who elevates to this cult of Steve Jobs all the time. I think we need to be both critical and mindful of what he did and didn’t do. But one thing that struck me when I was reading his biography, the one that Walter Isaacson wrote, was this concept of his reality distortion field. And I think it’s very closely tied — like, you have to have some sort of flexibility of reality, a view of reality, in order to distort it for a better world and be able to envision a better possibility. But then there were times when it became just straight-up delusion. How do people navigate that balance? And what are your views on how this sort of thing played out with an example like Steve Jobs?
Adam: It’s a really interesting question. I feel like Steve Jobs is a Rorschach test, where you put him out there, and then whatever response you hear is much more revealing of the person answering than it is of Steve Jobs.
Sonal: Oh, that’s so interesting. That’s actually a really good point.
Adam: So, what does it mean that that was my reaction? I don’t know.
Sonal: That’s fair.
Adam: No. I mean, okay. So I’ll put my biases on the table here. I think that, for me, successful originals are not distorting reality as much as they are choosing when to present different realities. My favorite example of this is Meredith Perry. So Meredith has this amazing startup called uBeam, which is doing wireless power, right?
Sonal: Full disclosure, we’re actually investors in that.
Adam: When Meredith came up with the idea for wireless power, she went to some physicists and engineers, and they all told her it was impossible and she was insane. And she was in this, sort of, chicken and egg, catch-22 scenario, where she needed to build a prototype to prove it. But she couldn’t get anyone to work for her, because they all told her she was out of her mind. And at some point, she realized that instead of going to engineers and saying, “You know, I’m trying to build wireless power. Can you create this kind of transducer for me that I think will help me convert vibrations in the air into energy?” and having them say, “No, that can’t be done,” she started hiding her purpose and telling the engineers she was trying to recruit about the means that she wanted but not the ends. So, instead of saying, “You know, I’m trying to build wireless power, you know, I needed a transducer that will help me convert vibrations in the air into energy,” she just said, “Do you think you could build me a transducer with these properties?” And all of a sudden, instead of, “Hell no,” the answer was, “Yeah, I could probably figure out a way to make that work.”
And I think this is such a good example of timing which realities to present, as opposed to distorting them. It’s not like she’s lying to them. She’s not saying, you know, “I’m trying to build a transducer in order to tie my shoes faster.” She’s just choosing to reveal this information after she has more of the technology available, and people will be much more likely to believe her. And I think this is, to me, a fascinating strategy for originals, because we’re always told, especially if you watch Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, start with why.
Sonal: Oh, I love that TED Talk.
Adam: I do, too. And I think the point is largely right, that you have to — in order to motivate people to come on board with most ideas and visions, you have to explain your purpose. But if you have a really original idea, that’s terrible advice. Because your “why” sounds insane to other people. And so, if you’re Meredith, or if you’re Steve Jobs, for that matter, sometimes the “how” is much more believable than the “why.” And I think that that’s a skill that we could all work on, right, knowing when to say, “This is my ultimate goal,” and when to say, “You know, I’m kind of working toward this mid-level objective. Do you think you could help me with that?”
Sonal: The most fascinating aspect of the anecdote you just shared, to me, is that she essentially had a very original idea, and had to take a very non-original approach. She had to use people’s non-originality in order to get them to deliver what she needed incrementally to get her to the next goal. So it’s almost like, you have this interesting interplay in an organization between the people who have these characteristics and people who don’t, and then how you, sort of, interact with each other and how you switch contacts based on that.
Adam: Bingo. And we see this with lots of great entrepreneurs. This is exactly what Elon Musk did with SpaceX. He didn’t recruit his team by saying, “Let’s go to Mars.” He said, “Let’s see if we can get a rocket into orbit, and then back.” And once they saw that was possible, it’s a little bit more acceptable to start talking about whether we can colonize another planet.
Sonal: But don’t you want people who believe in your vision? Because when you say, like, Elon Musk recruited those — some of those folks, I mean, okay, clearly, he needed people who aren’t just so pie in the sky that they actually need to build what he’s envisioning. But at the same time, I feel like one of the defining characteristics of startups, and sometimes for really good leaders of startups, is this collective of people who believe in a similar vision. And not to sound, like, cult-like or like it’s a mission, but more like — it’s a way to really align people around like you’re doing something. Like, I know I would not want to work for someplace where I don’t believe in the product, for example.
Adam: Of course. I think, though, that the people that I would want to hire, and that I think Elon wants to hire are skeptical optimists.
Sonal: Let’s break that down a little bit.
Adam: Yes. So the optimism part is, you believe that the future can be better than the present and the past. And when you consider possibilities, you’re willing to have hope and see upsides. The skepticism is saying, “I’m not going to be convinced by every Pollyanna idea that somebody throws at me. I want to see the hard evidence, you know. Show me that this is doable.” And so, you know, I think actually recruiting people who think that they could do, for a fraction of NASA’s budget, something that NASA has never been able to do — those are people who are willing to believe in a vision. That buys you the optimism. But I don’t necessarily want to recruit people who believe on day one that Mars is a realistic destination in the next decade or two.
Sonal: I love that you said that phrase, of skeptical optimism. Chris Anderson, the former editor in chief of WIRED, used to always kind of describe our mission when we were at WIRED as being informed optimists. Like, the bar for a story getting through was, like — it’s not only optimistic about the future of technology, but that there’s a level that it’s informed. It’s not just conspiracy theory. I love that. And I have to say, by the way, though, Adam — I think that you’re not the only one doing this, but a lot of people use Pollyanna as this way of saying Pollyanna-ish ideas. Like these, sort of, fluffy, idealistic, feel-good, rose-colored glasses, view of the world. And in reality, Pollyanna is actually a story about overcoming hardship. The reality of the movie is — and I hope I’m not giving spoilers, because that movie is like 50 years old, but — is that she has a very optimistic view of the world, but then she gets paralyzed. And she has to then overcome her own fear of her own limitations in order to hopefully overcome that disease.
Adam: The movie is very much about the importance of a certain kind of optimism for overcoming tragedy. I think that, obviously, the modern use of the term has evolved to, sort of, focus on “your glasses are so rose-colored that you might be a little bit unrealistic” or “too easily duped — like, you’re gullible.”
The meaning of “expert”
Sonal: And that’s totally fair. I’m just, like, putting out my own personal agenda to defend the movie. Let’s talk a little bit more about some of the more counterintuitive characteristics. What are some of the surprising things that define originals, based on your research in this book?
Adam: I think one of the things that really caught me off guard is that they tend to have less expertise than a lot of their peers.
Sonal: Ooh, interesting.
Adam: Yeah. So there’s this curvilinear relationship between expertise and originality, where when you’re trying to come up with new ideas, you obviously need to know a field or a domain well enough to have an understanding of what’s possible and what’s been done in the past. Right? So, Einstein couldn’t have come up with his theory of relativity without knowing something about physics beforehand and studying Newton. But it’s not a coincidence that he was relatively new to the field, because the longer you learn a particular domain of knowledge and the more you internalize it, the easier it is to become entrenched, where you basically take for granted assumptions that need to get questioned.
And what you see with a lot of successful originals is they have this great combination of breadth and depth. Where, yes, they know the domain reasonably well, but they’ve also immersed themselves in ideas outside that domain to make sure that they’re seeing things from a fresh perspective. One of the ways you see this is — actually, if you look at Nobel Prize-winning scientists. One of the things that differentiates them from their peers is they’re much more likely to have artistic hobbies. So, on average, Nobel Prize winners are twice as likely to play a musical instrument. They’re seven times as likely to paint and do other kinds of art. They’re 12 times as likely to write creative fiction, poetry — and they are 22 times as likely to act, dance, or perform magic.
Sonal: Oh, my God, that’s actually really funny.
Adam: Yeah, as a former magician, I love that stat. But…
Sonal: I think Aaron Levie, the CEO of Box, is actually a magician too.
Adam: That is right. And I think that, you know, obviously, this is not all causal. The same curiosity that draws people to be creative also tends to pique their interests in these kinds of artistic hobbies. But sometimes, engagement with these hobbies helps with the discovery of original ideas. Einstein said that the theory of relativity was a musical thought, and that it came to him because of all the time he spent playing the violin. And Galileo — one of his greatest discoveries was being able to spot mountains on the moon for the first time. What’s remarkable about Galileo is, he was looking through his telescope at an image that other astronomers had seen, but he was the only one who recognized that the shading he was observing was mountains. And the reason for that was, he had specialized in a drawing technique that used a very similar kind of shading. And so he knew that that was how you represent a mountain. And in that case, if he had not been an artist, he never would have made that discovery.
Sonal: So, that’s a case where the art actually influenced how they viewed certain things. So, I mean, you’re describing two things. One is this, sort of, co-occurrence of this creativity in a field or experience in a field. But you’re also describing something where you’re talking about the exact right amount of experience and expertise, and you’d mentioned it as being curvilinear. And that’s the second time you’ve mentioned the curvilinear as an example. So, it sounds like there’s always, like, a sweet spot — where there’s not too much, not too little, but there’s just this one — just right amount. How do you know what that sweet spot is? Like, where do you sort of fall off into one side of the curve or not?
Adam: I think that part is much more art than science. As much as it pains me as a social scientist to admit it. I wrote a paper about this a couple years ago with Barry Schwartz, where we argued that everything in life is an inverted U. And that, you know, if you take any strength, or virtue, or positive experience, you can find too much of a good thing — where, you know, like, okay, if you’re too confident, we get narcissism. If you’re too generous, we get altruistic self-sacrifice. And you can play this out for any trait that you probably see in a positive light. I think the only thing that we really know at this stage about how to find the sweet spot is that good things satiate and bad things escalate. So, the further that you move down the positive end of something, the more likely the costs are to start outweighing the benefits. And I think you can only usually see that by looking at the results. So, you know, in the case of expertise, right, the question is — okay, when you start to generate ideas, are you finding yourself trapped by what you already know in the field? As you’re, you know, evaluating different kinds of ideas, do you consistently gravitate toward what’s already accepted and proven?
Sonal: It’s really funny that you guys tried overfitting the U-shaped curve to all these different things as well. But I think that there’s a gender or racial background, or other background effect that can play out here differently. I’m thinking of cases where a lot of women, myself included, will sometimes underplay their expertise. Because, you know, I’ve seen a lot of my former male colleagues — like, they would be experts in things that they necessarily weren’t. But they have the confidence to say that they were. And to me, that wasn’t a sign of confidence. I’d actually get really irritated when people said, like, “Be confident and say you’re an expert in that.” And I’d be like, “I’m not going to frickin claim to be an expert on something I’m not. Like, I don’t think that’s confidence. I think that’s just being full of crap.” I think it’s really interesting, because I think some of these things also play out where there’s an interaction effect between people’s background, whether it’s gender, race, or privilege, or other things that have influenced how they grow up. Like, how did you see that play out in thinking about originals?
Adam: Yeah, it’s interesting even how you set up that comment, right? Because a man would have said, “It’s a fundamental fact,” as opposed to, “Here’s what I think and I’ve kind of noticed…”
Sonal: Oh, God, you’re right. It’s funny because when I hear myself on the podcast, I’m always like, I really got to take out some of those caveating words I use, like kind of, maybe, what do you think, vocal fry, whatever. All the stuff that I think I tend to do sometimes, and I hear it and I cringe. Other times, I’m like, “Fuck it. It’s who I am, like, take it.” You know what I mean? Like, anyway, you’re totally right though. So…
Adam: Well, let’s take that a step further, though.
Sonal: Yeah, let’s talk about it.
Adam: Do you really want to take that out? I would say maybe not. So, Zak Tormala at Stanford has these studies showing that experts are believed more when they express uncertainty.
Sonal: I like that, because I actually think that is what a true expert is. It’s hubris to claim to be an expert in something you’re not. At the same time, it will say, coming full circle to your point, I have observed that the people who actually go out and start companies — and this takes us to entrepreneurs — are people who have such belief in an alternative view of the world — even if they’re not experts in X, Y, or Z, that they’re the ones who go out and do it. And I admire that. I do think it takes a certain amount of knowing that you can do that. So, like, what’s the difference? Is that a confidence thing? Is that an experience thing? Is that an original’s mindset? I mean, where do we figure out, like, what’s making an entrepreneur tick there?
Adam: There’s a huge debate about, you know, how much does confidence really drive success. And, like everything else, is curvilinear. Right? So, if you have too little confidence, you never act. And if you have too much confidence, then you end up getting complacent and missing out on threats and opportunities that you underestimate. I think that where I would come down on this is — Susan Cain is fond of saying that there’s zero correlation between who’s the best talker and who has the best ideas. And that’s true empirically. The sad thing is though, a lot of us take confidence as a signal of competence. And I think we need to stop doing that. I think if we stop doing that, we’ll see many more women and minorities rise into leadership positions, because we’ll see that oftentimes they are better prepared, but communicating in such a way that didn’t always signal, you know, the confidence behind the idea.
I would also say that the self-esteem movement has been disastrous for entrepreneurs, in the sense that, like, becoming a successful entrepreneur is not about thinking that you’re special. It’s about believing that, you know, somebody else could do this. Maybe I could too. And I think that confidence should come as a consequence of competence. Right? So instead of saying, “Well, I need to build my confidence, and then I’ll be successful,” no, let’s develop grit. Let’s have a growth mindset. Let’s work as hard as we can to achieve success. And then confidence will be the natural product of that.
Sonal: When you know something really well, or you feel very passionate about it, it feels true to you. The way I feel and, say, personally about editing — you feel incredibly confident in that, because it is a consequence of competence. You quoted Susan Cain’s work, and she’s the author of “Introverts.” That — there not necessarily being a correlation between how one communicates and that confidence, and the competence. I think it’s interesting, though, because — when it comes to leadership, as you know, and I’ve seen this with entrepreneurs as well — you are motivating people by being able to communicate your vision as well. And it has implications for hiring, for everything else. So, it actually really does matter. I mean, I don’t think we can easily dismiss that out of hand either.
Adam: Let’s be careful not to overrate confidence. But, yeah, it plays a role in our lives. I think for most people, grounded confidence comes from accomplishments, not the other way around.
Sonal: Are there any other takeaways? Like, I’m actually curious, not just for entrepreneurship, but like, for education, for raising kids. Like, you had an article in the New York Times this past weekend that talked about, like, the mistakes a lot of parents commonly make — like, you know, over-programming their kids. I mean, what are some of the implications of your research?
Non-conformists in childhood
Adan: One of the things that surprised me the most is, when you study originals and look back at their childhood histories, you see that their parents often focused on creating a really strong moral compass. So, there are these brilliant studies of creative architects, where you look at the people who are nominated consistently by the most respected people in their field as truly original. And then you compare them to their peers, who are technically skilled, but haven’t necessarily done anything creative. And in the original studies, there were extensive interviews — not only with the architects but their family members, lots of observations, assessments. One of the things that came out was that the parents of the creative architects tended to focus less on rules and more on values. But that they gave their children a lot of freedom to actually determine their own values. And what happened was, the architects, then, develop their own values, which, you know, were grounded in a moral framework — that when other people said your idea was ridiculous, they were much more comfortable standing their ground and saying, “Well, this is who I am. And I’m going to try it anyway.”
They also, you know, in addition to just being comfortable with nonconformity, they were much more likely to be concerned about, you know, what is my contribution to the world, right? When I’m constantly asked to think about what are the consequences of my actions for other people, I want to leave the world better than I found it. And I think we could probably all do a better job. I know I can as a parent — you know, really having that conversation about, you know, here’s some broad values that we think matter. How do you want to live by those?
Sonal: Are those things you think communicated verbally or through modeling? Because one thing that comes to mind when you describe that is, that probably explains a lot of immigrant children’s success in the first, second, and third generations. I know the effect tends to disappear after the third generation in past studies. But I wonder, with immigrants, it’s kind of, like, this epic that you get, because you just watch it. I mean, I wouldn’t speak blandly for every ethnicity out there. But a lot of immigrant groups — you’re not having those conversations with your parents in any kind of articulated way. Like, it’s not a — it’s a very nonverbal type of culture in that way. And so, you can actually learn those things just by watching them work hard and try to contribute something to the world.
Adam: Yeah. Modeling effects are often stronger than conversation effects. In part because, you know, role models — when you see the behavior, it teaches you how to do it. It tends to raise your expectations of what’s possible. Conversations don’t always have that impact. They also sometimes, you know, create this reverse psychology reaction of, “Don’t tell me what to do, I will now do the opposite.”
Sonal: Exactly. You also mentioned role models, the existence of. Because one thing that comes to mind as well — and I’m thinking of classic developmental psychology studies of resilience in orphaned children [who] were orphans in previous world wars. And one of the consistent findings that came through over and over again is, no matter what else those children did not have, one of the greatest predictors of resilience was having a person they could look to as a mentor or as a role model. How does that play out with — taking it a step further — like, beyond survival, to becoming a productive non-conformist?
Adam: I think that parents don’t necessarily have to be role models. I think that everyone needs a role model in order to have some kind of vision for what it looks like to make a mark. But we can find role models in some pretty unexpected places. There’s some classic research looking at patent rates and innovation trajectories of entire economies. And my favorite finding out of this body of work is that you can predict the spikes and falls in U.S. patent rates by coding themes of original accomplishment in children’s books.
Adam: Yeah. So if you look at the children’s literature of a particular era, when that literature starts to include examples of people accomplishing things and succeeding in ways that are new and innovative, patent rates actually spiked 20 to 40 years later.
Sonal: Was the era where Dr. Seuss, like, published “Cat in the Hat,” like, super high on patents? Like, I mean, those kids were fully defying their parents with, like, the cat mouse.
Adam: Yeah, I think there’s a case to be made there, and more recently “Oh, The Places You’ll Go,” I think was the most popular children’s book in the ’90s, which was all about choosing your own path. And what’s fascinating about this is, you know, in part is just a reflection of the culture. Right? So, you know, when innovation becomes more important, we tend to write, and buy, and read children’s books that are innovative. But there’s, I think, a story to be told about how these books actually shape originals. What you will find is that if you talk to some of the great originals of our time, they are constantly saying their favorite books as kids were stories of, actually, other kids who were, you know, inventing things, or accomplishing things that were impossible previously. If you ask Peter Thiel and Elon Musk to name their favorite childhood books, they both pick “Lord of the Rings.” Jeff Bezos and Sheryl Sandberg both said “A Wrinkle in Time.”
Sonal: Yeah. I used to love Madeleine L’Engle.
Adam: Yeah, we all did. Right? And what is that story about? It’s about a young girl bending the laws of physics and traveling through time.
Adam: Like, if that doesn’t get you thinking about making an original contribution to the world, I don’t know what does.
Sonal: Well, they’re both sci-fi books. They all fall in the sci-fi genre, which is interesting in and of itself.
Adam: They do. And it’s not a coincidence, by the way, that you can trace a lot of modern inventions to, you know, the writings of Jules Verne and the technology that we watched on “Star Trek.” And, you know, I think in a very real way, these fictional role models give children the freedom to define their own niches, and imagine doing things that don’t exist or aren’t currently considered possible.
I really think “Harry Potter” is going to have this impact. I would probably put my money on J.K. Rowling as the most influential original alive, because “Harry Potter” sold more books than any other series except maybe the Bible. So it’s reached a lot of people. You have kids saving the world and inventing spells in ways that spark lots of creative thinking. And there’s also academic research now showing that, after kids read “Harry Potter,” they become less prejudiced. So, they learn not to stereotype people in the way that wizards look down on muggles. And so, you know, that’s a pretty good trifecta, right, reaching hundreds of millions of people, getting them to think in original ways, and making sure that they don’t have these strong in-group, out-group boundaries.
Sonal: I’m fascinated by that. I mean, it’s one of my all-time favorite series. So, I’m personally incredibly motivated by “Harry Potter.” But to hear that it can have that effect on people is incredible. And to your point, it does indicate how culture does shape the sort of thinking that comes out in each generation. What’s more fascinating to me is the recent uptick in the last 5 to 10 years of young adult literature that is — really strong female characters. You know, like, obvious examples include “The Hunger Games” with Katniss Everdeen, the “Divergent” series by Veronica Roth. And there’s, like, countless others. I mean, I read, like, one a month. They’re just amazing.
Adam: I’m glad I’m not alone.
Sonal: No, and you’re not alone. And what’s actually refreshing is when we were growing up, do you remember even having that many female strong characters out there? Because I don’t remember that. I used to read stuff like — I mean, I remember reading like David Eddings, like, “The Belgariad,” or, like, other things that — they were male characters. There weren’t, like, strong female characters, or if there were, they were, like, adjuncts to the male character instead of the main character.
Adam: Yeah. As I think about it, like, the female protagonists or heroes, like, in my childhood were Nancy Drew, Wonder Woman, and maybe Penny from “Inspector Gadget.”
Sonal: Exactly. And they’re great strong women. But it’s very different than today, where you have Katniss Everdeen, like, murdering people for survival in “The Hunger Games” arena. I mean, they’re strong, hard characters. And I think that’s incredible. One other interesting thing, though, is I think we’re only talking about books as an influence on literature. I think it’s important to mention other forms of narrative, like TV shows. Things like “Game of Thrones” where there’s really no narrative arc. It’s this endless story that keeps developing. Or even, like, video games. Not all video games have a fixed content arc if they’re not a content-based video game. So, I think that’ll be interesting to see how that plays out in what you’re describing here, because there might not be as many examples in the future of that sort of thing.
Adam: I think so, too. I’d love to see the evidence.
Implications for organizations
Sonal: So far we’ve been talking about a lot of interesting themes, and research, and anecdotes that are really centered on outliers as cases, or as individuals. One thing I’m interested in, particularly because you’re a professor at Wharton, and you studied management science and things connected to this. How does this all play out systematically, like in the organization, for example? Because we all live — like, we probably spend more of our day inside a firm than we do in our own families. And so, I’m really interested in hearing how these dynamics play out in groups, and culturally across organizations as, sort of, containers have that sort of culture.
Adam: Part of “Originals” is about how individuals can champion new ideas, and then how parents can try to nurture kids to think differently. But I think it’s just as important, if not more so, for us to understand how leaders build cultures that welcome original thoughts and that fight groupthink. And there are a couple of things that most leaders do wrong, if you look at the data. First thing is, hiring on cultural fit. So, one of my favorite studies looks at over 200 Silicon Valley startups and tracks them before and after the dot-com bust.
Sonal: I like where this is going. This is going to be interesting.
Adam: Yeah, this is fun. So, you see that there are three prototypical ways that founders hire when they’re looking at talent. Some hire on skills, so they’re looking for people who have a certain set of competencies now. Some hire on potential. So, it doesn’t matter what you know today and — how much do we think you can learn? And then a third group hire on cultural fit. Do you share our values around here? And when you track the founders’ firms, what you see is that the founders who hire on cultural fit are less likely to see their startups fail, and they’re more likely to make it to IPO. And then after IPO, their firms grow at a much slower rate than the ones that hire on skill or potential. So, cultural fit helps you grow and take off, and then it causes you to stagnate, and maybe increases your risk of failure. Why is that?
The basic explanation is that cultural fit is a great way to get groupthink. You have these founders who are incredibly original at the outset, and then they hire a bunch of people who see the world exactly the same way they do, and they end up cloning themselves, and getting homogeneity of thought instead of diversity. So, I think the solution to this is, at some point, as your organization grows and you need to start questioning the very values that made you successful in the first place, you want to stop hiring on cultural fit and start hiring on cultural contribution.
Sonal: Ah, so what’s the difference there? Because I mean, I think people would — I would conflate that.
Adam: Yeah, so cultural fit is, basically, “Who are we, and how do we bring in people who are just like that?” Cultural contribution is asking, “What’s missing from the culture, and how can we bring that to the table?” So, trying to figure out who’s going to enrich the culture and add diversity of thought to it, as opposed to just replicating it. Of course, you can also overcome some of these problems if diversity is one of your core values.
Sonal: Right. I agree. I don’t think you can just tack it on, you know, as, like, a sidebar silo thing, it has to start from the leadership. It has to start from the top, like, you have to believe in something. You have to believe — whatever values leaders believe in is essentially what the company is going to believe in.
Adam: Yeah. And I think, you know, you can screen on this in really interesting ways. So, one of my favorite interview questions is to ask people, “Tell me what’s wrong with our interview process and how you would improve it.” Or, you know, more broadly, “Based on what you know about the culture so far, if you were in charge here, what are the three biggest changes that you would make?” People aren’t willing to give that kind of constructive criticism or bring in dissenting opinions in the hiring process — I’m a little worried about whether they’re going to do that moving forward.
Sonal: One thing I’m really fascinated in — because you brought this up a number of times in the book — is power differentials. And that’s power differentials between people, like, speaking truth to power, people have less powers, people who aren’t in management but who are contributing original thinking — even power differentials with people who are not represented, like, whether you’re underrepresented in the organization. How do those play out in this scenario?
Adam: Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that lots of people who come from non-dominant groups are less likely to get heard when they speak up. So, Sheryl Sandberg and I wrote an op-ed last year called “Speaking While Female,” where we covered a lot of evidence that when a woman and a man make the same point, the man gets a big pat on the back and people start to rally around him. And the woman is either not heard, or punished for being too aggressive. And you see the same effect with different kinds of minority groups, because this is not fundamentally a gender effect. It’s a power effect. Right? So the groups that are perceived as, you know, as not occupying high-status positions in society get stereotyped as, you know, sort of needing to find their place. And, you know, they’re often perceived as stepping out of bounds when they’re just trying to make suggestions or get their opinions heard.
You know, I think, from an organizational standpoint, we need to be especially careful to welcome dissenting voices when they come from people who don’t look like everyone else, and who don’t come from the most common backgrounds in the organization. But, I think, from an individual perspective, one of the opportunities to overcome these biases is to make sure that you earn status before you exercise power.
Sonal: That’s a good way of putting it.
Adam: Yeah. Once you’re recognized as an expert, an authority, as, you know, having made valuable contributions to the organization, it’s much easier for people to look at your suggestion and say, “Yeah, you know, like, you’ve given a lot here, so you have license to deviate from the majority’s preferences.” Or, you know, “You’ve shown that you really care about the group, and you’re committed to making the team successful. And now we’re going to interpret your idea as, you know, an effort to help us get better, as opposed to a threat or a challenge.”
Sonal: Of course, that does, by the way, assume a very meritocratic organization, because there are plenty of cases where there’s a very nepotistic flavor of earning status. Like, you happen to work with someone before and you believe in them, or you’re just friends and buddies, and you guys party together, or — you know what I mean, like, not everything necessarily plays out in a meritocratic way. There is that effect as well, I think.
Adam: So true and so sad.
Sonal: Yeah, it is.
Adam: You know, I think one of the other opportunities for leaders on this is, when making decisions, almost every leader I’ve ever worked with has made a point of assigning a devil’s advocate, and said, “You know, look, we need to make sure we have, you know, divergent thinking in the room. We want to hear all the dissenting opinions. So, you know, I’m going to ask a few people to represent the opposite.” The sad thing is, if you look at 40 years of research by Charlan Nemeth at Berkeley, she shows that devil’s advocates rarely work. You know, when you’re given the devil’s advocate role, you don’t argue as forcefully as you should. You’re like, “All right. So I’m going to take the opposite perspective. Okay. Now, let me go right back to what I really…”
Sonal: Or you can have something like the New York Times, where you have like devil’s advocate. I mean, I don’t — I know you work there, so you may or may not be able to comment on this — but where you have, like, someone like Margaret Sullivan, who plays the role of public editor, and I love reading her stuff. It’s fascinating. But even though it’s public, and it’s a criticism of the New York Times, it’s, like, a siloed thing. Like, do people actually then do anything with those takeaways?
Adam: I have no idea. But, you know, the evidence would suggest that a lot of people don’t, because the other side of this is — just as you don’t take the role seriously enough, your audience doesn’t either. They’re like, “All right, so we know you’re just playing the role. So, we’re just going to let you give your lip service to it and stick with what we already believed.” So what do you do? What you do is, instead of assigning a devil’s advocate, you unearth a devil’s advocate. It’s only authentic dissent that has the best chance of working. That means you need to find people who genuinely disagree and invite them into the conversation. And guess what? That’s more likely to be minority group members, right, who come from a different perspective and a different background. And, you know, this is one of the things that’s easy to talk about and hard to do, which is — you actually have to know what people think. Right? You have to go out to meet the silent minority and say, “Look, you know, we really value your input. Let’s find out what your reaction is to this idea.”
Sonal: That’s actually a good way of putting it. There’s so much more we could talk about, but I think people should just go ahead and read your book, “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World,” which is out now. And thank you for joining the “a16z Podcast.”
Adam: Thank you for having me.
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