How Nonconformists Move the World
by Adam Grant
After finishing this book in August of 2022, I wrote,
"If you're interested in knowing more deeply how non-conformists (although not all of them) move the world, Adam Grant will take you on an entertaining, informative, and maybe even useful journey into the creation of the creatives."
My clippings below collapse a 349-page book into 14 pages, measured by using 12-point type in Microsoft Word."
Here are the selections I made:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” George Bernard Shaw
They would sell eyeglasses that normally cost $500 in a store for $95 online, donating a pair to someone in the developing world with every purchase.
Warby Parker’s scrappy startup, a new kid on the block, had a staff of just five hundred. In the span of five years, the four friends built one of the most fashionable brands on the planet and donated over a million pairs of glasses to people in need. The company cleared $100 million in annual revenues and was valued at over $1 billion.
What made the difference was how they obtained the browser. If you own a PC, Internet Explorer is built into Windows. If you’re a Mac user, your computer came preinstalled with Safari. Almost two thirds of the customer service agents used the default browser, never questioning whether a better one was available. To get Firefox or Chrome, you have to demonstrate some resourcefulness and download a different browser. Instead of accepting the default, you take a bit of initiative to seek out an option that might be better. And that act of initiative, however tiny, is a window into what you do at work.
The customer service agents who accepted the defaults of Internet Explorer and Safari approached their job the same way. They stayed on script in sales calls and followed standard operating procedures for handling customer complaints. They saw their job descriptions as fixed, so when they were unhappy with their work, they started missing days, and eventually just quit.
“People who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject, or change it.”
The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. I’ve spent more than a decade studying this, and it turns out to be far less difficult than I expected.
The starting point is curiosity: pondering why the default exists in the first place. We’re driven to question defaults when we experience vuja de, the opposite of déjà vu. Déjà vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we’ve seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse—we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.
Without a vuja de event, Warby Parker wouldn’t have existed. When the founders were sitting in the computer lab on the night they conjured up the company, they had spent a combined sixty years wearing glasses. The product had always been unreasonably expensive. But until that moment, the...
When we become curious about the dissatisfying defaults in our world, we begin to recognize that most of them have social origins: Rules and systems were created by people. And that awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.
Child prodigies, it turns out, rarely go on to change the world.
Research demonstrates that it is the most creative children who are the least likely to become the teacher’s pet. In one study, elementary school teachers listed their favorite and least favorite students, and then rated both groups on a list of characteristics. The least favorite students were the non-conformists who made up their own rules. Teachers tend to discriminate against highly creative students, labeling them as troublemakers.
In response, many children quickly learn to get with the program, keeping their original ideas to themselves. In the language of author William Deresiewicz, they become the world’s most excellent sheep.
Child prodigies are hindered by achievement motivation.
When achievement motivation goes sky-high, it can crowd out originality: The more you value achievement, the more you come to dread failure.
As psychologists Todd Lubart and Robert Sternberg put it, “Once people pass an intermediate level in the need to achieve, there is evidence that they actually become less creative.”
As economist Joseph Schumpeter famously observed, originality is an act of creative destruction.
If you think like most people, you’ll predict a clear advantage for the risk takers. Yet the study showed the exact opposite: Entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs had 33 percent lower odds of failure than those who quit.
And although Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin figured out how to dramatically improve internet searches in 1996, they didn’t go on leave from their graduate studies at Stanford until 1998. “We almost didn’t start Google,” Page says, because we “were too worried about dropping out of our Ph.D. program.”
When Pierre Omidyar built eBay, it was just a hobby; he kept working as a programmer for the next nine months, only leaving after his online marketplace was netting him more money than his job.
Instead, successful originals take extreme risks in one arena and offset them with extreme caution in another.
At age twenty-seven, Sara Blakely generated the novel idea of creating footless pantyhose, taking a big risk by investing her entire savings of $5,000. To balance out her risk portfolio, she stayed in her full-time position selling fax machines for two years, spending nights and weekends building the prototype—and saving money by writing her own patent application instead of hiring lawyers to do so. After she finally launched Spanx, she became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.
Across all three studies, the people who become successful entrepreneurs were more likely to have teenage histories of defying their parents, staying out past their curfews, skipping school, shoplifting, gambling, drinking alcohol, and smoking marijuana. They were not, however, more likely to engage in hazardous activities like driving drunk, buying illegal drugs, or stealing valuables. And that was true regardless of their parents’ socioeconomic status or family income.
As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker, “Many entrepreneurs take plenty of risks—but those are generally the failed entrepreneurs, not the success stories.”
High school seniors: 70 percent report that they have “above average” leadership skills, compared with 2 percent “below average”; in the ability to get along with others, 25 percent rate themselves in the top 1 percent, and 60 percent put themselves in the top 10 percent. • College professors: 94 percent rate themselves as doing above-average work. • Engineers: In two different companies, 32 percent and 42 percent rated themselves among the top 5 percent of performers. • Entrepreneurs: When 3,000 small-business owners rated the probability that different companies would succeed, on average they rated the prospects of their own businesses as 8.1 out of 10 but gave similar enterprises odds of only 5.9 out of 10.
Rice professor Erik Dane finds that the more expertise and experience people gain, the more entrenched they become in a particular way of viewing the world.
He points to studies showing that expert bridge players struggled more than novices to adapt when the rules were changed, and that expert accountants were worse than novices at applying a new tax law.
Research on highly creative adults shows that they tended to move to new cities much more frequently than their peers in childhood, which gave them exposure to different cultures and values, and encouraged flexibility and adaptability.
“You need confidence to be humble, to front-run your weaknesses,” Griscom says. “If I’m willing to tell them what’s wrong with my business, investors think, ‘There must be an awful lot that’s right with it.’”
Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it can be a resource for creativity.
Similarly, when strategy researchers Sucheta Nadkarni and Pol Herrmann studied nearly two hundred companies in India, the firms with the highest financial returns were the ones whose CEOs rated themselves the lowest on efficiency and promptness.
One study of over three thousand startups indicates that roughly three out of every four fail because of premature scaling—making investments that the market isn’t yet ready to support.
“To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself,” Einstein lamented.
According to Dartmouth psychologist Judith White, a lens for understanding these fractures is the concept of horizontal hostility. Even though they share a fundamental objective, radical groups often disparage more mainstream groups as impostors and sellouts.
As Sigmund Freud wrote a century ago, “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them.”
White noticed horizontal hostility everywhere. When a deaf woman won the Miss America crown, instead of cheering her on as a tr...
To explain why this kind of animosity happened, White led fascinating research on horizontal hostility in different movements and minority groups.
Orthodox Jews evaluated conservative Jewish women more negatively than Jewish women who didn’t practice or observe religious holidays at all.
Even if they care about different causes, groups find affinity when they use the same methods of engagement.
If you’ve spent the past decade taking part in protests and marches, it’s easy to feel a sense of shared identity and community with another organization that operates the same way.
Stone was committed to campaigning at the state level; Anthony and Stanton wanted a federal constitutional amendment. Stone involved men in her organization; Anthony and Stanton favored an exclusively female membership. Stone sought to inspire change through speaking and meetings; Anthony and Stanton were more confrontational, with Anthony voting illegally and encouraging other women to follow suit. The suffragists who formed alliances with the temperance activists were more moderate in their methods, which helped the two groups find common ground. At the same time that women were organizing local WCTU clubs, Lucy Stone introduced suffrage clubs. Both groups had extensive histories with lobbying and publishing. They began to work together to lobby and speak in front of state legislatures, publish articles and distribute literature, and hold public suffrage meetings, rallies, and debates.* Together, suffragists and temperance activists persuaded several states to allow women to vote.
Finally, Perry made a move that flew in the face of every piece of wisdom she had heard about influence; she simply stopped telling experts what it was she was trying to create. Instead of explaining her plan to generate wireless power, she merely provided the specifications of the technology she wanted. Her old message had been: “I’m trying to build a transducer to send power over the air.” Her new pitch disguised the purpose: “I’m looking for someone to design a transducer with these parameters. Can you make this part?”
In a series of groundbreaking studies, psychologist Bert Uchino found that ambivalent relationships are literally unhealthier than negative relationships. In one study, having more ambivalent relationships predicted higher rates of stress, depression, and dissatisfaction with life.
Compared to firstborns, laterborn scientists had more than triple the odds of endorsing Newton’s laws of gravity and motion and Einstein’s theory of special relativity when these ideas were considered radical.
Prior to Darwin, 56 of 117 laterborns believed in evolution, compared with only 9 of 103 firstborns.
In the sixteen years after Darwin published his discoveries, the laterborn odds of supporting evolution dropped from 9.7 times to 4.6 times greater than firstborns. As the ideas gained scientific acceptance, firstborns were more comfortable advocating for them.
But remarkably, birth order was more consequential than age. “An 80-year-old laterborn was as open to evolutionary theory as a 25-year-old firstborn,”
This rational approach to discipline also characterizes the parents of teenagers who don’t engage in criminal deviance and originals who challenge the orthodoxies of their professions. In one study, parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of less than one rule and tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.
Reasoning does create a paradox: it leads both to more rule following and more rebelliousness.
In an ingenious series of experiments led by psychologist Christopher Bryan, children between ages three and six were 22 percent to 29 percent more likely to clean up blocks, toys, and crayons when they were asked to be helpers instead of to help. Even though their character was far from gelled, they wanted to earn the identity.
His team was able to cut cheating in half with the same turn of phrase: instead of “Please don’t cheat,” they changed the appeal to “Please don’t be a cheater.”
In one study, psychologists tracked unique accomplishments in American children’s stories from 1800 to 1950. After original achievement themes in American children’s books rose by 66 percent from 1810 to 1850, the patent rate shot up sevenfold from 1850 to 1890.
Unlike biographies, in fictional stories characters can perform actions that have never been accomplished before, making the impossible seem possible.
The inventors of the modern submarine and helicopter were transfixed by Jules Verne’s visions in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Clipper of the Clouds.
Recent experiments show that reading Harry Potter can improve children’s attitudes toward marginalized groups. As they see Harry and Hermione face discrimination for not having pure wizard blood, they empathize and become less prejudiced toward minority groups in their own lives.
Polaroid fell due to a faulty assumption. Within the company, there was widespread agreement that customers would always want hard copies of pictures, and key decision makers failed to question this assumption. It was a classic case of groupthink—the tendency to seek consensus instead of fostering dissent.
In a famous analysis, Yale psychologist Irving Janis identified groupthink as the culprit behind numerous American foreign-policy disasters, including the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Vietnam War.
Janis argued that members of the Kennedy administration were concerned about “being too harsh” and destroying the “cozy, ‘we-feeling’ atmosphere.”
As Bill Moyers, who handled correspondence between Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, recalls: Men who handled national security affairs became too close, too personally fond of each other.
And there’s a fine line between having a strong culture and operating like a cult.
After carefully combing through the data, Whyte concludes that “cohesiveness should be deleted from the groupthink model.”
In this chapter, I want to examine what really causes groupthink and what we can do to prevent it.
While Kodak hired men with advanced science degrees, Land sought a more diverse workforce, employing women with artistic backgrounds and men straight out of the navy. Just like the Silicon Valley founders with commitment blueprints, he didn’t worry about the specific skills or star qualities of the people he took on; his focus was rather on whether they would value generating novel ideas and dedicate themselves to the mission.
Once a market becomes dynamic, big companies with strong cultures are too insular: They have a harder time recognizing the need for change, and they’re more likely to resist the insights of those who think differently.
These findings map directly onto the rise and fall of Polaroid. After Land invented the instant camera in 1948, the company took off, its revenues jumping from under $7 million in 1950 to nearly $100 million in 1960 and $950 million by 1976. Throughout that period, the photography industry remained stable: Customers loved high-quality cameras that printed instant pictures. But as the digital revolution began, the market became volatile, and Polaroid’s once-dominant culture was left in the dust.
How can you build a strong culture that welcomes dissent?
“The greatest tragedy of mankind,” Dalio says, “comes from the inability of people to have thoughtful disagreement to find out what’s true.”
In the language of futurist Paul Saffo, the norm is to have “strong opinions, weakly held.”
If employees can get in sync about making sure that everyone speaks up, they don’t need to worry as much about groupthink.
If you’re a leader talking to your employees, how would you fill in the blanks in this sentence? Don’t bring me ________________; bring me ________________.
Hofmann found that a culture that focuses too heavily on solutions becomes a culture of advocacy, dampening inquiry.
When every member of a group has different information, inquiry needs to precede advocacy—which means you have to raise the problems before pursuing solutions.
By reaching out to them in advance, one member of Bock’s team explains, “Our biggest complainers become our strongest advocates.”
Polaroid never systematically engaged canaries to call out problems. In contrast, Bridgewater is designed to be a whole company of canaries.
Getting problems noted is half the battle against groupthink; the other is listening to the right opinions about how to solve them.
“Democratic decision making—one person, one vote—is dumb,” Dalio explains, “because not everybody has the same believability.”*
At Bridgewater, every employee has a believability score on a range of dimensions. In sports, statistics for every player’s performance history are public.
As management scholar Karl Weick advises, “Argue like you’re right and listen like you’re wrong.”
Before the college students gave their speeches, Brooks asked them to speak three words out loud. She randomly assigned them to say either “I am calm” or “I am excited.” That one word—calm versus excited—was sufficient to significantly alter the quality of their speeches. When students labeled their emotions as excitement, their speeches were rated as 17 percent more persuasive and 15 percent more confident than those of students who branded themselves calm. Reframing fear as excitement also motivated the speakers, boosting the average length of their speeches by 29 percent; they had the courage to spend an extra thirty-seven seconds on stage. In another experiment, when students were nervous before taking a tough math test, they scored 22 percent better if they were told “Try to get excited” instead of “Try to remain calm.”
To counter apathy, most change agents focus on presenting an inspiring vision of the future. This is an important message to convey, but it’s not the type of communication that should come first. If you want people to take risks, you need first to show what’s wrong with the present. To drive people out of their comfort zones, you have to cultivate dissatisfaction, frustration, or anger at the current state of affairs, making it a guaranteed loss.
“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world,” E. B. White once wrote. “This makes it difficult to plan the day.”
Question the default. Instead of taking the status quo for granted, ask why it exists in the first place.
Triple the number of ideas you generate. Just as great baseball players only average a hit for every three at bats, every innovator swings and misses. The best way to boost your originality is to produce more ideas.
Immerse yourself in a new domain. Originality increases when you broaden your frame of reference. One approach is to learn a new craft, like the Nobel Prize–winning scientists who expanded their creative repertoires by taking up painting, piano, dance, or poetry.
Procrastinate strategically. When you’re generating new ideas, deliberately stop when your progress is incomplete. By taking a break in the middle of your brainstorming or writing process, you’re more likely to engage in divergent thinking and give ideas time to incubate.
Seek more feedback from peers. It’s hard to judge your own ideas, because you tend to be too enthusiastic, and you can’t trust your gut if you’re not an expert in the domain. It’s also tough to rely on managers, who are typically too critical when they evaluate ideas. To get the most accurate reviews, run your pitches by peers—they’re poised to spot the potential and the possibilities.
Balance your risk portfolio. When you’re going to take a risk in one domain, offset it by being unusually cautious in another realm of your life.
Highlight the reasons not to support your idea. Remember Rufus Griscom, the entrepreneur in chapter 3 who told investors why they shouldn’t invest in his company?
Make your ideas more familiar. Repeat yourself—it makes people more comfortable with an unconventional idea.
Speak to a different audience. Instead of seeking out friendly people who share your values, try approaching disagreeable people who share your methods.
Be a tempered radical. If your idea is extreme, couch it in a more conventional goal. That way, instead of changing people’s minds, you can appeal to values or beliefs that they already hold. You can use a Trojan horse, as Meredith Perry did when she masked her vision for wireless power behind a request to design a transducer.
Motivate yourself differently when you’re committed vs. uncertain. When you’re determined to act, focus on the progress left to go—you’ll be energized to close the gap. When your conviction falters, think of the progress you’ve already made. Having come this far, how could you give up now?
Don’t try to calm down. If you’re nervous, it’s hard to relax. It’s easier to turn anxiety into intense positive emotions like interest and enthusiasm.
Focus on the victim, not the perpetrator. In the face of injustice, thinking about the perpetrator fuels anger and aggression. Shifting your attention to the victim makes you more empathetic, increasing the chances that you’ll channel your anger in a constructive direction.
Realize you’re not alone. Even having a single ally is enough to dramatically increase your will to act. Find one person who believes in your vision and begin tackling the problem together.
Remember that if you don’t take initiative, the status quo will persist. Consider the four responses to dissatisfaction: exit, voice, persistence, and neglect. Only exit and voice improve your circumstances. Speaking up may be the best route if you have some control over the situation; if not, it may be time to explore options for expanding your influence or leaving.
Run an innovation tournament. Welcoming suggestions on any topic at any time doesn’t capture the attention of busy people. Innovation tournaments are highly efficient for collecting a large number of novel ideas and identifying the best ones.
Picture yourself as the enemy. People often fail to generate new ideas due to a lack of urgency. You can create urgency by implementing the “kill the company” exercise from Lisa Bodell, CEO of futurethink.
Invite employees from different functions and levels to pitch ideas. At DreamWorks Animation, even accountants and lawyers are encouraged and trained to present movie ideas.
Hold an opposite day. Since it’s often hard to find the time for people to consider original viewpoints, one of my favorite practices is to have “opposite day” in the classroom and at conferences. Executives and students divide into groups, and each chooses an assumption, belief, or area of knowledge that is widely taken for granted. Each group asks, “When is the opposite true?” and then delivers a presentation on their ideas.
Ban the words like, love, and hate. At the nonprofit DoSomething.org, CEO Nancy Lublin forbade employees from using the words like, love, and hate, because they make it too easy to give a visceral response without analyzing it.
Hire not on cultural fit, but on cultural contribution. When leaders prize cultural fit, they end up hiring people who think in similar ways. Originality comes not from people who match the culture, but from those who enrich it. Before interviews, identify the diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and personality traits that are currently missing from your culture. Then place a premium on those attributes in the hiring process.
Shift from exit interviews to entry interviews. Instead of waiting to ask for ideas until employees are on their way out the door, start seeking their insights when they first arrive.
Ask for problems, not solutions. If people rush to answers, you end up with more advocacy than inquiry, and miss out on the breadth of knowledge in the room. Following Bridgewater’s issue log, you can create an open document for teams to flag problems that they see. On a monthly basis, bring people together to review them and figure out which ones are worth solving.
Stop assigning devil’s advocates and start unearthing them. Dissenting opinions are useful even when they’re wrong, but they’re only effective if they’re authentic and consistent.
Welcome criticism. It’s hard to encourage dissent if you don’t practice what you preach. When Ray Dalio received an email criticizing his performance in an important meeting, copying it to the entire company sent a clear message that he welcomed negative feedback. By inviting employees to criticize you publicly, you can set the tone for people to communicate more openly even when their ideas are unpopular.
Ask children what their role models would do. Children feel free to take initiative when they look at problems through the eyes of originals. Ask children what they would like to improve in their family or school. Then have them identify a real person or fictional character they admire for being unusually creative and inventive. What would that person do in this situation?
Link good behaviors to moral character. Many parents and teachers praise helpful actions, but children are more generous when they’re commended for being helpful people—it becomes part of their identity. If you see a child do something good, try saying, “You’re a good person because you ___.” Children are also more ethical when they’re asked to be moral people—they want to earn the identity. If you want a child to share a toy, instead of asking, “Will you share?” ask, “Will you be a sharer?”
Explain how bad behaviors have consequences for others. When children misbehave, help them see how their actions hurt other people.
Emphasize values over rules. Rules set limits that teach children to adopt a fixed view of the world. Values encourage children to internalize principles for themselves.
Create novel niches for children to pursue. Just as laterborns sought out more original niches when conventional ones were closed to them, there are ways to help children carve out niches. One of my favorite techniques is the Jigsaw Classroom: bring students together for a group project, and assign each of them a unique part.