We have all heard of that elusive quality known as “originality.” But while it remains something highly coveted, referring to someone as an “original” can also bring up connotations of eccentricity or weirdness.
So, can there be originality without originals?
In the book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, author Adam Grant, looks at the ways in which you can be non-conformist and original without getting shunned, as well as some of the originals who have challenged the status quo and pushed innovation throughout history.
Look in any dictionary and it’ll tell you that originality is the quality of having a unique or singular character. But what’s an original? In today’s context, originals are people who not only dream up novel ideas and shake up the status quo, but who also take the initiative to make their unique vision a reality.
Even the smallest things can identify an original. Economist Michael Housman discovered in his research that a certain percentage of customer service employees stayed in their jobs far longer than others. Seeking clues, he discovered a surprising link between how long someone kept their job and their choice of internet browser. Sounds crazy, right?
Get this: employees who installed browsers other than the default Internet Explorer were not only more likely to keep their jobs, they were also more likely to take initiative, confront challenges and find new solutions. In the end, the tendency to install Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox was tied to problem-solving abilities that, in turn, allowed these employees to stay in their jobs an average of 15 percent longer.
As for the other employees who simply used built-in browsers, they approached their roles in the same conventional way as they used the internet. They accepted the standards given to them and were unable to solve problems, which eventually made them sick of their jobs.
If you want to survive in the working world, your best bet is to become an original. The good news is, anyone can do it. Though we might not all be able to found our own companies, compose a musical masterpiece or alter the course of history with a stirring speech, we all have unique ideas with the potential to improve our work, our communities and our relationships.
Putting new ideas out there requires courage and the determination not to back down when you want change to happen. The first step toward becoming an original is overcoming your fear of taking action and standing up for your own ideas. But how?
Legend has it that physicist Isaac Newton was relaxing under a tree when an apple fell on his head. In a flash of brilliance, Newton was inspired to develop his law of universal gravitation. Unfortunately, great ideas like this usually don’t fall from trees; new ideas require hard work.
When it comes to idea generation, what’s more important – quantity or quality? As it happens, they’re equally important, specifically because quantity paves the way for quality in brainstorming. Psychologist Dean Simonton, renowned for his study of creative productivity, demonstrated in his research that highly creative individuals don’t necessarily produce better ideas; rather, they just make more of them.
By creating a larger volume of work, they had a higher probability of developing a small handful of brilliant ideas. For instance, Picasso’s entire body of work includes countless rugs and prints, 2,800 ceramics, 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures and more than 12,000 drawings. And yet, only a small number of these pieces gave Picasso his success and status as an international art icon.
In other words, when it comes to quantity and quality, you can’t have one without the other!
Another of Simonton’s findings demonstrated that even geniuses can’t tell which of their works will become timeless classics and which ones will flop. So, again, the more you produce, the better. Simonton found that Beethoven judged his work quite differently than later experts did. Comparing letters where Beethoven rated 70 of his own compositions with the evaluations of contemporary critics, Simonton calculated that Beethoven had disagreed with them about 33 percent of the time!
Generating ideas, and lots of them, is the first step to unlocking your creative potential. But you shouldn’t see your brain as a creativity factory, pumping out original ideas the way cars are manufactured on an assembly line.
To create great ideas, we need to take it slow. That could mean taking a detour and procrastinating, or just making the time here and there to relax under a tree!
Procrastinating, we’re told, is your productivity’s arch-nemesis; but is this really the case?
Leaving stuff to the last minute makes us more creative by forcing us to improvise. Would you have guessed that Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous line was the result of procrastination? King was set to give a speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but didn’t even start writing the speech until the night before.
King’s iconic “I have a dream” line was partially improvised – gospel singer Mahalia Jackson cried out during King’s speech, imploring him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” King abandoned his script and began to speak freely about his inspiring vision of the American future.
King’s speech is a fantastic example of the Zeigarnik effect. The phenomenon, named after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, describes the way that our mind stays open to new ideas and insights, even after we attempt to finish a task and give up. Essentially, King’s unfinished speech left room for his brain to come up with brilliant lines.
For great originals, procrastination is a key strategy. It allows them to make gradual progress while remaining open to a range of possibilities. Leonardo da Vinci is another example of history’s prolific procrastinators. He began painting the Mona Lisa in 1503, then abandoned the project before returning to the painting some years later. The Mona Lisa was finally completed in 1519, 16 years later!
Historian William Pannapacker believes that this allowed da Vinci to procrastinate in a calculated way, experimenting with optical illusions and new painting techniques. Without this experimentation, and the procrastination that created the space for it, we may never have had the Mona Lisa or other brilliant works by original thinkers.
Check out my related post: What is your strongest personality trait?