Estimated read time : 9 minutes
‘Originals’ by Adam Grant is not about ‘parenting’ at all. Instead, it explores what it means to be an ‘original’ — to take the road less travelled, to champion a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better. Using a combination of research and stories from the field of politics, business, sports, and entertainment, Adam Grant takes us deep into the world of incorrigible non- conformists who refuse to accept the status quo and attempt to seek a different or a better option. He leads us on a journey to understand how we all can become ‘originals’.
The reason, I included this book in the list of go-to books on parenting is because parents of non-conformist children are a harried lot. I am talking about children who refuse to conform, who will not colour between the lines, who incessantly ask ‘why’ before agreeing to follow instructions. They are the ones to get labelled as disruptive, irresponsible, disobedient; a problem to be fixed if they have to thrive in our current factory system of education.
Psychologists suggest that there are two routes to achievement: Conformity and originality. Conformity is well understood, originality is not. As I read through the book, I could not help but wonder what it would take to nurture and more importantly preserve originality in our children. I attempt to transpose key themes of the book to the world of parenting.
Child prodigies rarely change the world
Early on in the book, Grant makes a counterintuitive claim; child prodigies rarely go on to change the world.
Child prodigies are often rich in both talent and ambition but what holds them back from moving the world forward is that they do not learn to be original. Practise makes perfect but it doesn’t make new. The sooner they achieve and break barriers, the more they dread failure. Instead of aiming for unique accomplishments, the intense desire to succeed leads them to strive for guaranteed success.
Research by Dean Simonton in the field of creativity shows that on average, creative geniuses weren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers. They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality. The odds of producing an influential or successful idea are a positive function of the total number of ideas generated.
The implication for parents is that if you want to raise a changemaker then brace yourself and let her or him fail, however heart-wrenching that process might be. Especially if your child does not like to play it safe and resists going down the tried and tested route. Allow him/her to the luxury of going down blind alleys before forging their unique path to world-altering success; they will need to kiss many frogs before they find their prince or princess.
Great spirits have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds- Albert Einstein
The question is how do mavericks push their ideas forward when most people barely understand them. Grant shares a powerful framework by economist Albert Hirschman to handle a dissatisfying situation.
In the quest for originality, exit and voice are the only viable alternatives if one wants to change the situation. Grant shares examples of two professionals, one chose the path of ‘voice’ and the other diametrically opposite path of ‘ exit’ but there was one way in which their choices were the same- they chose to speak up rather than stay silent. Speaking up is important to make change happen.
As such, children need to have the confidence to question and trained to speak up when they disagree. Where should this training begin? Home. If we quash dissent at home, the world might be deprived of great spirits who have the capacity to change it but never garnered the tools to make it happen. In the long run, research shows that the mistakes we regret are not errors of commission, but errors of omission.
Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it also can be a resource for creativity
Procrastination can be good. It took me some time to absorb this counterintuitive idea because for years my new year resolution read — Stop procrastinating.
It seems there has been significant research done to give weight to the idea that procrastination is conducive to originality. The common notion is that when you procrastinate you intentionally delay work that needs to be done but there is another scenario when you put off a task and buy yourself some time to engage in divergent thinking rather than foreclosing on one particular idea. Grant elaborates that long before our society became obsessed with efficiency in the backdrop of the industrial revolution, civilizations recognized the benefits of procrastination. In Egypt, there were two different words for procrastination; one denoted laziness; the other meant waiting for the right time.
Creative thinkers and great problem solvers often share the habit of procrastination. So next time, before reproaching your creative child for not finishing that essay on time, stop to consider whether it is the lazy procrastination or the creative one.
Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving- Erma Bombeck
Psychologist Teresa Amabile showed in one study that parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like a schedule for homework, bedtime, et al. 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. The latter approach helps children rely on the internal compass of values rather than the external crutch of rules. The other takeaway was that even if we as parents enforce many rules, it helps to ensure that children internalize the rationale for why these rules are important and what impact it will have on others if they break the rules.
The dual moral emotions of guilt and empathy play a powerful role in encouraging good behaviour. Yet again, we encounter the very difficult message of allowing ‘room for mistakes’.
The paradox of encouraging children to develop strong values is that parents effectively limit their own influence. Therefore the ‘originals’ more often than not, find their own role models beyond their parents. Grant emphasizes that if we want to encourage originality, the best step we can take is to raise our children’s aspirations by introducing them to different kinds of role models.
The richness of the book comes from the powerful life stories that are peppered throughout and the repeated assurance by the author that originality is not a fixed trait, it is a free choice. We can cultivate it through knowledge, practice, and effort to challenge established notions around learning and success.
While the book is rich in examples and novel ideas, there were many occasions when I disagreed with the author or felt that a story had been overly stretched to prove a theory. Many a time I found myself coming up with counterexamples that disprove the point that the author was making.
Having said that, it was still an illuminating read with a lot of food for thought. The ending quote is no different.
Becoming original is not the easiest path in the pursuit of happiness, but it leaves us perfectly poised for the happiness of pursuit.
This article was originally published on Pooja’s Medium profile and has been used here with her permission.
Pooja is an acclaimed educator working to transform early childhood education through application of neuroscience research to learning in the early years. She is the founder of Intellitots Learning (acquired by Founding Years) which is known for its ground breaking work in the field of early childhood education and care. Pooja is an angel investor and a mentor to many start ups, business leaders and educators.