As I’ve gone about my travels recently, one book has stood out to me again and again. For one thing the cover is irresistibly head-turning; the promise of the title is also compelling.
I’m referring to Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, the #1 New York Times bestseller from respected Wharton business school professor Adam Grant.
I recently picked up Originals and was pleased to read it, noting six actionable strategies for writers.
1. Write. And when you get scared, write some more.
One of my favorite quotes comes early in the book: “The people who choose to champion originality…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.”
Grant goes on to explain that successful originals aren’t the best judges of their own ideas. Thus their best strategy to improve their chances of hitting on greatness is to do a “huge volume of work,” quoting This American Life‘s Ira Glass.
The reality is that the work of creative geniuses is not inherently better than that of their peers. Creative geniuses are simply more prolific, which significantly increases the variety of their output and their chances of successful originality.
2. Get feedback from your peers.
Because we are not the most reliable judges of our own work, we need help from people Grant calls “fellow creators.” Folks involved in work similar to ours have an understanding of the possible pitfalls, but they also know ingenuity when they see it.
“They’re open to seeing the potential in unusual possibilities,” says Grant, “which guards against false negatives.” We can translate “false negatives” here to mean choices writers make that might seem unconventional. One thinks of the work of Austin Kleon, for example, or even Baker author David Kinnaman’s impulse to enlist others to comment on his chapters in unChristian.
3. Broaden your stimuli.
Did you know scientists are more likely to win the Nobel Prize if they take up a form of artistic expression, like playing an instrument or painting? And did you also know that fashion designers become more innovative when they travel to and steep themselves deeply in a foreign culture?
As we strive to attain our creative best, we would do well to broaden our field of experience and diversify the stimuli that hit our cerebral cortex. Ways this could look are infinite, of course, from attending a religious service different from our own to traveling to a far off land to reading something we normally wouldn’t.
4. Argue against yourself.
Grant provides a fascinating profile of how entrepreneur and Babble cofounder Rufus Griscom pitches his business ideas to potential investors. We’d expect Griscom to highlight the strengths of his ideas, but he goes the other way. He starts by telling his possible partners all the reasons they should stay away from the opportunity he’s presenting.
This has a disarming effect on Griscom’s listeners. They go from sitting through a sales pitch to collaborating on how to solve a problem.
One way a writer can take this practice to heart is by telling publishers why they shouldn’t publish her book. Or at least a writer could be clear about her project’s weak spots so she can be sure to address these as compellingly as possible in her book proposal.
Another way to build this practice into one’s writing is to ask, “Why might readers criticize or be left wanting after reading my book?” Once you’ve identified a problem within your manuscript, you’re in a position to do something about it.
5. Vary your motivation depending on where you are in your project.
Often at the beginning of a book project we’re high on adrenaline and our level of commitment is off the charts. We live out our cry: “Let’s do this!”
In these moments Grant’s research-based advice is to focus on how far we have to go. We’ll be that much more motivated to “close the gap,” he says.
But when we’re midway and the honeymoon of our initial commitment wanes, it’s time to shift our focus to how much progress we’ve made. Having come so far, how can we stop now?
6. Keep pursuing a thoroughgoing understanding of your audience’s problems.
Again and again ask the people you want to serve what their struggles and pain points are. If you always rush too quickly to answer-giving mode, you’ll end up with a stunted perception, and your ability to help will be limited.
This is one of the reasons, Grant points out, that the Segway failed as a product despite embodying unquestionably brilliant technology. The Segway was the result of excitement and brilliance, not of a careful listening to what transportation consumers really wanted or needed.
Question: As you think about your own writing life, which of these strategies do you want to put into practice? You can leave a comment by clicking here.