Can non-conformity lead to success? Dana Perino talks with ‘Originals’ author

Editor’s note: Adam Grant earned his Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan, his B.A. from Harvard, and is a top-rated teacher at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He is also a speaker, consultant and author. His first book, “Give and Take,”  was a New York Times bestseller and his new book, “Originals,” offers groundbreaking insights about rejecting conformity and improving the status quo. Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino, co-anchor of “The Five”  talked recently with Grant about the book. 

DANA PERINO: Adam, “Originals” is one of the most dog-eared books I’ve read in a long time. It is filled with interesting points and I found it very thought-provoking. When people read your books, do you find that they almost always think that the book was written about or for them? Like a personal counseling session with you?

ADAM GRANT: Thank you; that means a lot to me. People have started reaching out to say the book spoke to them as non-conformists. (If that keeps happening, we’ll have to announce that non-conformity is the new conformity.) I don’t do counseling sessions—I’m not that kind of psychologist—but I love it when people see themselves in my writing. I was drawn to social science because it helped me understand myself and the people around me, and I believed it could make our lives better.

PERINO: I love the idea of vuja de – it takes people a minute to realize what you mean, but then it makes a lot of sense. It can be a little scary to look at your own industry – for me, politics and broadcast journalism, for you, academia and psychology – and to think, how would an outsider see us today? And how should we prepare for the best possible future? Because we know these industries are changing rapidly.

GRANT: Vuja de is the opposite of déjà vu: it’s when you look at something you’ve seen before, but all of a sudden see it with fresh eyes. Like looking at the empty rooms in people’s homes and wondering for the first time, “Why don’t we rent those out like hotel spaces?” Boom: Airbnb is born. We all need more vuja de moments. Wait, have we had this conversation before?

PERINO: I found that you and I share some characteristics – for example, I have often been afraid of risk and the idea of tenure would have appealed to me, too. Also, I was the kind of person that would finish a task first, thinking that first was also best. But you say that procrastinating can actually help you achieve more. How so?

GRANT: I’ll tell you later!

Leonardo Da Vinci was a chronic procrastinator: he spent the better part of a decade delaying progress on the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘The Last Supper.’ Frank Lloyd Wright put off what became his greatest architectural masterpiece, ‘Fallingwater,’ for nearly a year. Martin Luther King, Jr. rewrote most of his famous “I have a dream speech” the night before.

Had they jumped right into these creative tasks and finished them early, they would have been limited to their first ideas, which are usually the most obvious and conventional. By putting the task off, they had more time for ideas to incubate, and they made more unexpected connections. As screenwriter Aaron Sorkin put it, “You call it procrastination, I call it thinking.”

PERINO: Recently I’ve recognized the need to have more “white space” in my brain for creative thinking. But with the load that comes with email communication and deadlines that come faster than ever, it’s difficult to pull up out of that and think creatively. Are there any shortcuts to finding more space in which to be creative?

GRANT: Start thinking about a creative task at night, right before you go to bed, and you’ll often wake up with new ideas. Also, there’s some really cool research suggesting that your mind is freed up for original thoughts while you’re doing mindless work—easy, low-pressure tasks. You can come up with all sorts of ideas while cleaning your office, doing laundry, or cooking dinner. If that fails, you can always daydream in meetings.

PERINO:  Forming alliances to achieve a goal – that’s almost considered heretical in today’s politics, on both the Left and the Right. But it makes a lot of sense to me, and not just in politics, that you’re better off forming alliance with your enemies than your frenemies. Frenemies scare me more than people who are working against me. Am I right to be afraid?

GRANT:  Yes. When you have a purely negative relationship, it’s predictable. Managing frenemies can be exhausting: when they walk up behind you, you don’t know if they’ll pat you on the back or stab you in the back. Research shows that frenemies are literally bad for your health: if you have lots of them in your life, they cause you a lot of stress.

PERINO:  What if you have an original idea, a way to change something at an organization or company, but you are realistic enough to realize that you’re likely not to succeed. At what point do you know you should give up and move on?

GRANT: Sooner than you think. It’s easy to fall into a trap that’s called escalation of commitment to a losing course of action. You make a bunch of suggestions and they all fall on deaf ears, and you don’t want to feel or look like a quitter, so you keep fighting a losing battle. The time to give up is when you no longer believe you can make a difference there, your commitment to the organization has faded, and you have other options. At that point, it’s time to admit “It’s over, man. Let her go.”

PERINO: Is there any rhyme or reason to birth order when it comes to presidents? And what about only children? Are they more or less likely to be Originals?

GRANT: Birth order effects are highly controversial, and the results for only children are especially inconsistent, but there is evidence that firstborns are overrepresented in political leadership positions. It’s true of American presidents, and of female presidents and prime ministers around the world. Firstborns appear to benefit from growing up in a world of adults and having extra responsibility.

As a card-carrying firstborn, I thought this was good news… until I learned that later-borns are more likely to champion scientific revolutions, become great comedians, and even steal bases in Major League Baseball. Why? I think it’s because laterborns grow up with more freedom (which makes them more comfortable taking risks) and because it’s hard for them to be smarter or stronger than their older siblings (which leads them to look for creative ways to stand out).

PERINO: Everyone falls prey to groupthink, and I remember once when I didn’t speak up because, frankly, I was tired and felt that no one had listened to me for a while so “fine, do it your way, guys.” Well that decision cost us a lot politically – it took up time and resources to deal with the aftermath, and I was right all along. I am scarred from that experience and would like to think it’s been one of the reasons I’ve been willing to speak up more ever since. Does failing to act ever prod people to be more original?

GRANT: In the moment, most people worry about the costs of speaking up—they’re afraid of looking stupid, feeling embarrassed, damaging relationships, and jeopardizing careers. But in the long run, it turns out that most of our regrets are inactions, not actions. We often learn that exactly as you did, through failing to act. It teaches us to master the art of mental time travel. Next time you’re torn about whether to speak up, look ahead and then look back: “In the long run, what will I be most likely to regret?” Usually, it’s staying silent that we regret.

PERINO:   I work with a colleague who has been a defensive pessimist his entire life. He sees everything as a pending disaster, which drives a strategic optimist a bit crazy. Are these two views of the world compatible in the workplace?

GRANT:  Get this: when presidents are highly optimistic in their inaugural addresses, the economy gets worse—employment rates and GDP both decline. If you only see the future through rose-colored glasses, you don’t worry enough about real problems and serious threats. On the flipside, if you’re always gloom and doom, you don’t have enough hope to create new possibilities. Optimists and pessimists may annoy each other, but they need each other. A company or government without both is missing a crucial system of checks and balances.

PERINO: How much does negative social media feedback affect an Original’s thinking and actions? I would imagine that there are a lot of people who are now unwilling to take risks because of the immediate backlash of negativity that can come from a small group of aggressive online commenters.

GRANT: I think that happened a lot in the early days of social media. But now, it’s so easy to filter out the trolls. Plus, we’ve learned to ignore them. After all, how many sane people do you know who spend their days writing nasty comments online? I counted a grand total of zero.

PERINO:  Bonus question: Do you realize how terrific this book is? I highly recommend it to everyone. Employers, employees, inventors, students, parents, pastors, politicians…I can’t think of a single group that wouldn’t benefit from reading this book. Congratulations!

GRANT: You are far too kind. But thank you.

Dana Perino currently serves as co-host of FOX News Channel’s “The Five” (weekdays 5-6PM/ET). She previously served as Press Secretary for President George W. Bush. She is the author of the new book “And the Good News Is…: Lessons and Advice from the Bright Side” (Twelve, April 21, 2015). Ms. Perino joined the network in 2009 as a contributor. Click here for more information on Dana Perino. Follow her on Twitter@DanaPerino.

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