Here is the full text and summary of Wharton professor Adam Grant’s talk: The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers at TED Talk 2016 conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Seven years ago, a student came to me and asked me to invest in his company. He said, “I’m working with three friends, and we’re going to try to disrupt an industry by selling stuff online.”
And I said, “OK, you guys spent the whole summer on this, right?”
“No, we all took internships just in case it doesn’t work out.”
“All right, but you’re going to go in full time once you graduate.”
“Not exactly. We’ve all lined up backup jobs.”
Six months go by, it’s the day before the company launches, and there is still not a functioning website. “You guys realize, the entire company is a website. That’s literally all it is.”
So I obviously declined to invest. And they ended up naming the company Warby Parker. They sell glasses online. They were recently recognized as the world’s most innovative company and valued at over a billion dollars. And now? My wife handles our investments.
Why was I so wrong? To find out, I’ve been studying people that I come to call “originals.” Originals are nonconformists, people who not only have new ideas but take action to champion them. They are people who stand out and speak up. Originals drive creativity and change in the world. They’re the people you want to bet on. And they look nothing like I expected.
I want to show you today three things I’ve learned about recognizing originals and becoming a little bit more like them.
So the first reason that I passed on Warby Parker was they were really slow getting off the ground. Now, you are all intimately familiar with the mind of a procrastinator. Well, I have a confession for you. I’m the opposite. I’m a precrastinator. Yes, that’s an actual term. You know that panic you feel a few hours before a big deadline when you haven’t done anything yet. I just feel that a few months ahead of time.
So this started early: when I was a kid, I took Nintendo games very seriously. I would wake up at 5am, start playing and not stop until I had mastered them. Eventually it got so out of hand that a local newspaper came and did a story on the dark side of Nintendo, starring me.
Since then, I have traded hair for teeth. But this served me well in college, because I finished my senior thesis four months before the deadline. And I was proud of that, until a few years ago. I had a student named Jihae, who came to me and said, “I have my most creative ideas when I’m procrastinating.”
And I was like, “That’s cute, where are the four papers you owe me?”
No, she was one of our most creative students, and as an organizational psychologist, this is the kind of idea that I test. So I challenged her to get some data. She goes into a bunch of companies. She has people to fill out surveys about how often they procrastinate. Then she gets their bosses to rate how creative and innovative they are. And sure enough, the precrastinators like me, who rush in and do everything early are rated as less creative than people who procrastinate moderately. So I want to know what happens to the chronic procrastinators. She was like, “I don’t know. They didn’t fill out my survey.”
No, here are our results. You actually do see that the people who wait until the last minute are so busy goofing off that they don’t have any new ideas. And on the flip side, the people who race in are in such a frenzy of anxiety that they don’t have original thoughts either. There’s a sweet spot where originals seem to live. Why is this? Maybe original people just have bad work habits. Maybe procrastinating does not cause creativity.
To find out, we designed some experiments. We asked people to generate new business ideas, and then we get independent readers to evaluate how creative and useful they are. And some of them are asked to do the task right away. Others we randomly assign to procrastinate by dangling Minesweeper in front of them for either five or 10 minutes. And sure enough, the moderate procrastinators are 16% more creative than the other two groups.
Now, Minesweeper is awesome, but it’s not the driver of the effect, because if you play the game first before you learn about the task, there’s no creativity boost. It’s only when you’re told that you’re going to be working on this problem, and then you start procrastinating, but the task is still active in the back of your mind, that you start to incubate. Procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps.
So just as we were finishing these experiments, I was starting to write a book about originals, and I thought, “This is the perfect time to teach myself to procrastinate, while writing a chapter on procrastination.” So I metaprocrastinated, and like any self-respecting precrastinator, I woke up early the next morning and I made a to-do list with steps on how to procrastinate.
And then I worked diligently toward my goal of not making progress toward my goal. I started writing the procrastination chapter, and one day — I was halfway through — I literally put it away in mid-sentence for months. It was agony.
But when I came back to it, I had all sorts of new ideas. As Aaron Sorkin put it, “You call it procrastinating. I call it thinking.” And along the way I discovered that a lot of great originals in history were procrastinators. Take Leonardo da Vinci. He toiled on and off for 16 years on the Mona Lisa. He felt like a failure. He wrote as much in his journal. But some of the diversions he took in optics transformed the way that he modeled light and made him into a much better painter.