Are You an Original?

Measure the risk, take a chance and try something new. The author of ‘Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World’ shares the secret to getting ahead.
July 5, 2016

On a cool fall evening in 2008, four student entrepreneurs set out to revolutionize an industry. Each of them had lost and broken eyeglasses and—already buried in loans—were outraged at how much it cost to replace them. One had been wearing the same damaged pair for five years. He was using a paper clip to bind the frames together. Even after his prescription changed twice, he refused to pay for pricey new lenses.

Luxottica, the 800-pound gorilla of the eyewear industry, controlled more than 80 percent of the market. To make glasses more affordable, the students would need to topple a giant. When they casually mentioned their idea of creating an online eyeglass shop to friends, time and again they were blasted with scorching criticism. No one would ever buy glasses over the internet, their friends insisted.

They proceeded regardless. 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. They called the company Warby Parker. They expected to sell a pair or two of glasses per day. But when GQ called them “the Netflix of eyewear,” they hit their target for the first year in less than a month. The rest is history. In fact, Fast Company named them the world’s most innovative company in 2015.

Related: How to Create a Culture of Innovation

Years ago, psychologists discovered there are two routes to achievement: conformity and originality. Conformity means following the crowd down conventional paths and maintaining the status quo. Originality is taking the road less traveled (as the founders of Warby Parker did), championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better.

Of course, nothing is completely original in the sense that all of our ideas are influenced by what we learn from the world around us. We are constantly borrowing thoughts, whether intentionally or inadvertently. We’re all vulnerable to “kleptomnesia”—accidentally remembering the ideas of others as our own. By my definition, originality involves introducing and advancing an idea that’s relatively unusual within a particular domain.

Originality itself starts with creativity—generating a concept that is both novel and useful. But it doesn’t stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality. The Warby Parker founders had the originality to dream up an unconventional way to sell glasses online but became originals by taking action to make them accessible and affordable.

Back in 2009, one of the founders pitched the company to me, offering me the chance to invest in Warby Parker. I declined. It was the worst financial decision I’ve ever made, and I needed to understand where I went wrong.

***

 

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 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 insight into old problems.

Related: 6 Ideas to Embrace Your Curious Side

Without a vuja de event, Warby Parker wouldn’t have existed. The founders had always taken the status quo for granted, never questioning the default price of glasses. Glasses had been worn by humans for nearly a thousand years, but why hadn’t they changed since our grandfathers wore them? And why did such a fundamentally simple product cost more than a complex smartphone?

Anyone could have pondered this and arrived at the same answer the Warby Parker squad did. The default—Luxottica’s monopoly on the industry—wasn’t inherently legitimate; it was a choice made by a group of people at a given company. And this meant another group of people could make an alternative choice.

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. That awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.

The pressures to accept defaults start much earlier than we realize. If you consider the individuals who will grow up and make a dent in the universe, the first group that probably comes to mind is child prodigies. But to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, their careers tend to end not with a bang but a whimper.

Child prodigies rarely go on to change the world. Although child prodigies are often rich in both talent and ambition, what holds them back from moving the world forward is they don’t learn to be original. As they perform in Carnegie Hall, win the science Olympics and become chess champions, something tragic happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to the rules of games instead of inventing their own.

Research even demonstrates that the most creative children are the least likely to be 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 nonconformists who made up their own rules. Teachers tend to discriminate against highly creative students, labeling them troublemakers. In response, children learn to keep their original ideas to themselves.

The drive to succeed and the accompanying fear of failure have held back some of the greatest creators in history. Concerned with maintaining stability and attaining conventional achievements, they have been reluctant to pursue originality. Instead of charging full steam ahead with assurance, they have been coaxed, convinced or coerced to take a stand. While they might seem to have possessed the qualities of natural leaders, they were figuratively lifted up by followers and peers. If a handful of people hadn’t been cajoled into taking original action, America might not exist, the civil rights movement could still be a dream, the Sistine Chapel might be bare, and the personal computer might not have been popularized.

The last time you had an original idea, what did you do with it? Most likely, you let it simmer and then fade away. Although America is a land of individuality and unique self-expression, in search of excellence and in fear of failure, most of us opt to fit in rather than stand out. “On matters of style, swim with the current,” Thomas Jefferson allegedly advised, but “on matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

The pressure to achieve leads us to do the opposite. We find surface ways of appearing original—donning a bow tie, wearing bright red shoes—without taking the risk of actually being original. When it comes to the powerful ideas in our heads and the core values in our hearts, we censor ourselves. “There are so few originals in life,” says renowned executive Mellody Hobson, because people are afraid to “speak up and stand out.” What are the habits of the people whose originality extends beyond appearance to effective action?

***

To be an original, you need to take radical risks. This belief is embedded so deeply in our cultural psyche that we rarely even stop to think about it.

Related: Afraid of Risks? How to Be Bolder

We celebrate heroes like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who possessed enough conviction to risk their lives for the moral principles they held dear. We idolize icons such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates for having the audacity to drop out of school and go for broke, holing up in garages to will their technological visions into existence.

When we marvel at the original individuals who drive change in the world, we tend to assume they’re cut from a different cloth. We believe great creators are born with a biological immunity to risk. They’re wired to embrace uncertainty and ignore social approval; they simply don’t worry about the costs of nonconformity the way the rest of us do. They’re programmed to be iconoclasts, rebels, revolutionaries, troublemakers, mavericks and contrarians who are impervious to fear, rejection and ridicule.

The word entrepreneur, as coined by economist Richard Cantillon, literally means “bearer of risk.” When we read the story of Warby Parker’s stratospheric rise, this theme comes through loud and clear. Like all great creators, innovators and change agents, the quartet transformed the world because they were willing to take a leap of faith.

Six months before Warby Parker launched, one of the founders sat in my classroom at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He pitched the company to me, and like many other doubters, I told him it sounded like an interesting idea, but it was hard to imagine people ordering glasses online. I was also skeptical because the founders were all still in school and had backup jobs lined up after graduation. If they truly believed in Warby Parker, I thought they should drop out to focus every waking hour on making it happen.

I declined to invest in Warby Parker because the founders were too much like me. I became a professor because I was passionate about discovering new insights, sharing knowledge and teaching the next generations of students. But in my most honest moments, I know that I was also drawn to the security of tenure. I would never have had the confidence to start a business in my 20s. If I had, I certainly would have stayed in school and lined up a job to cover my bases.

When I compared the choices of Warby Parker to my mental model of the choices of successful entrepreneurs, they didn’t match. The founders lacked the guts to go in with their guns blazing, which led me to question their conviction and commitment. They weren’t serious about becoming successful entrepreneurs: They didn’t have enough skin in the game. In my mind, they were destined to fail because they played it safe instead of betting the farm. But in fact, this is exactly why they succeeded.

In every domain, from business and politics to science and art, the people who move the world forward with original ideas are rarely paragons of conviction and commitment. As they question traditions and challenge the status quo, they might appear bold and self-assured on the surface. But when you peel back the layers, the truth is that they, too, grapple with fear, ambivalence and self-doubt. We view them as self-starters, but their efforts are often fueled and sometimes forced by others. And as much as they seem to crave risk, some really prefer to avoid it.

 

To become original, you have to try something new, which means accepting some measure of risk.

 

Originals vary in their attitudes toward risk. Some are skydiving gamblers; others are penny-pinching germophobes. To become original, you have to try something new, which means accepting some measure of risk. But the most successful originals are not the daredevils who leap before they look. They are the ones who reluctantly tiptoe to the edge of a cliff, calculate the rate of descent, triple-check their parachutes and set up a safety net at the bottom just in case.

Originality is not a fixed trait. It is a free choice. Successful originals often begin by questioning defaults and balancing risk. After that, the challenge is to close the gap between insight and action—learning to champion an idea effectively once it pops into your mind.

The people who choose to champion originality are the ones who propel us forward. After spending years studying and interacting with them, I am struck that their inner experiences are not any different from our own. They feel the same fear, the same doubt, as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action anyway. They know in their hearts that failing would yield less regret than failing to try.

Related: 6 Ways to Act on Your Ambition

 

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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