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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

What makes a person an original

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Richard Florida, Adam Grant

Shiftdisturbers Episode #1: Adam Grant and Non-Conformity

Transcript of the Podcast:

Ian Gormely: Hello, and welcome to Shiftdisturbers, the MPI podcast where we highlight the people, research and ideas that change the way we think about the world. I’m your host Ian Gormely coming to you from the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. On today’s episode we talk to Wharton School of Business professor, bestselling author, and MPI fellow Adam Grant and MPI’s own Director of Cities, Richard Florida about the role originality plays in the new creative economy.

We all probably read Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken in school, or are at least familiar with the basic conceit, regret, over not taking the less travelled path. And according to Adam Grant, following the herd could in fact be holding us back. In his new book Originals; How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam explains how leaders in business, politics, technology and entertainment manage risk and champion their own ideas in the face of skeptical or even downright hostile coworkers and managers.

Adam Grant: Most people when you ask them about their regrets, their biggest regrets are the chances they didn’t take. They are the errors of omission, not the errors of commission.

I think of an original as someone who’s a non-conformist, who chooses to stand out and speak up. Originals are the people who champion ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things around us better. So that means yes, you come up with creative ideas but you don’t stop there. You also take the initiative to make your vision a reality.

So you know you could say look, one way to be original is you know to start a business. What if I fail? You would be a failure or you would feel like a failure if your business goes bankrupt. But you could also fail by never trying to start a business at all. And it’s those moments of not trying that people wish they could redo. I think the virtue of originality is originals are the people who drive creativity and change in the world. So if everyone conforms all the time the world only stands still. And if we have any hope of improving our circumstances then we need people to champion ideas that might be unpopular.


IG: Perhaps one of Adam’s most surprising revelations is that originals aren’t unicorns. Yes, the Steve Jobs and Elon Musk’s of the world came up with a lot of unique game changing ideas. But the techniques they used to champion those ideas can be transferred to anyone.

AG: I think of originals as the people who drive the creative economy. They’re the people who look at a situation and don’t just ask, why is it the way it is? They ask how could it be changed, how could it be improved. Originals for me are also people who are willing to take initiative knowing that there’s a personal risk, but the organizational or societal benefit dramatically outweighs that.

The first thing that you do is you generate lots of ideas so you don’t have all your eggs in one basket. There’s overwhelming evidence that one of the best predictors of how original someone is, is just the sheer number of ideas that he or she generates, because the way to get to originality is through variety right. You need something different from what’s existed before. And the best path to variety is volume. If you just generate two ideas they’re usually your most conventional because they were the easiest to think of. It’s idea 15, 20, 30, 200, where you get to break free from conventional wisdom and really think up something that’s new.

I think that once you’ve generated lots of different ideas then the next thing you can do to reduce risk is figure out how to communicate them effectively. There are lots of people who have great ideas that never got heard, because other people didn’t appreciate them or understand them. And there are all sorts of techniques that you see successful originals adopt. One of them is sort of smuggling your idea in a Trojan horse.

So I had a fascinating conversation with Elon Musk recently where I asked him, how he got people on board to try the SpaceX thing, and he said, “people thought I was crazy. I’m a guy who worked in financial payments on the internet. And now I’m going to build a rocket? Yeah, right." So he didn’t tell people that his vision was to go to Mars. People would have just laughed at him. Instead he said, “Look, I don’t even know if this is going to succeed in getting into orbit let alone coming back. But let’s start there.” And once people saw that was possible then he sort of unveiled the broader vision.

And I think one of the mistakes that a lot of original people make is they sort of share the whole kahuna from the beginning, right and other people just look at that and say “uh-uh” as opposed to starting with the more anchor mental goal and then getting a small win. 


When I think about originals I think about them being people who champion ideas that are different and better. And that can happen anywhere. There’s all this research on what’s called job crafting, which is rejecting the job description that was handed to you and suggesting maybe there’s some ways that I can make this job more effective, more meaningful, you know more interesting.

So, if I’m a barista at a coffee shop, one of the ways I would craft my job is I would try to make a more meaningful connection with customers, knowing that they want to be in a place where they’re recognized, they’re appreciated, they’re known, and they feel welcome. And you know we see this every day, right. There is somebody who remembers our name. There is someone who remembers our order. That’s a very small act of originality. Now you could ask, does that make you a Steve Jobs level original. Maybe not but it’s a starting point. And most originality begins with these tiny little changes that we make to our everyday surroundings.

So one of my favourite examples of that is Kat Cole who was working as a waitress; she’s in a situation where she’s dropped out of college and she doesn’t necessarily have any unique experience or expertise, except she’s taken initiative to fill in when other people don’t show up. So she was a hostess. But one day a chef doesn’t arrive at work and Kat runs back in the kitchen and starts making meals. Another day a manager quits and Kat is the one who takes it upon herself to organize the schedule so that everyone has their desired shifts and the restaurant can keep smooth operations. And she is the one who is tapped to open up their first restaurant in Australia when they decide to expand internationally because she’s the only person who’s worked every job in the restaurant.

And so, a manager ended up recognizing that little show of initiative and she ends up opening restaurants across multiple continents. She gets brought back to the United States to head up corporate training. And at the age of 32 she’s the president of a brand that four years later is worth over a billion dollars under her leadership. It’s called Cinnabon.

You know the reality is the greatest originals are not the people with the deepest expertise in their fields. They’re the ones with the broadest experience, who are able to do what Steve Jobs talked about in 1982. He said the secret to his creativity was to not have the same bag of experiences as everyone else. And I don’t think we do a good enough job enabling people to diversify their experiences.

IG: But where do they fit into the larger world of work? As Adam mentioned originals drive the creative economy. To learn more about this we talk to the Martin Prosperity’s Institute’s own Richard Florida, who not only breaks down the creative economy for us he also explains where originals fit into this every expanding occupational class.                  


Richard Florida: Yeah. There’s a great line in the Jimmy Hendrix song, you know “white collar conservative pointing your plastic finger at me. You’re hoping my kind will drop and die but I’m going to wave my freak flag high.” It’s a funny line but it kind of captures the ethos of the time, which was, I want to be my own self. I want to use my creativity.

IG: Richard identified a broad definition for the creative class in his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class. And he spent the past decade and a half looking at how they helped drive the creative economy. According to Richard the 60’s and in particular the counter culture that emerged at the end of the decade is where the genesis of the creative economy occurred.

RF: The creative economy…there are numerous definitions but the one I like is the broadest. And that definition is based on the kinds of work people do, rather than just the industries and companies that make up the creative economy. So that includes science and technologists, the people who are really creative innovators or innovate technologically, create technologically. It includes knowledge-based professionals. So it includes business managers, the kind of people who would be entrepreneurs, or people who would manage businesses big and small. It would include financial professionals, including venture capitalists and people who work in finance; lawyers, medical professionals, researchers.

And then, it would also include a group of kind of creative people, super creative. So maybe artists, musicians, designers, entertainers, media folks like that. People have always engaged in creative endeavor. There has always been a creative economy. The thing is for most of human in history it’s been remarkably small.

You know going back way, way, way, far in time you would have seen very few people have…you would have philosopher kings in ancient Greece. And you would have maybe in Europe before the industrial revolution or the eve of the industrial revolution, you would have the court you know, the state supporting…the king and queen supporting some bohemian, some performers, and some artists as far back as, say the year 1900 or maybe even 1850. You know it was like five per cent of all workers you could document being in this creative economy and even if you look in 1950 that’s no more than 10 per cent of the economy. It’s really between 1980 and today that we get the explosion in the creative economy. And by about 1980 until today it grows probably to about 35 per cent of the workforce.


Now, do these creative occupations…probably about half of all wages and salaries paid in a modern advanced economy like Canada or the United States or the advanced countries of Europe are in this creative economy. What’s really remarkable…and if you look at the most advanced countries, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Singapore, even more so than Canada or the United States, they probably already have 40 per cent or 45 per cent of their workforce made up of this creative economy. And, of course this creative economy is very spikey and concentrated. So if you look at a big city like San Francisco or Vancouver and on down the list; Amsterdam, London, you probably have many more than 40 per cent of people. And if you look at the urban core, the urban centres, the denser parts of those cities, you could have 50 per cent, 60 per cent, 70 per cent and some neighbourhoods 80 per cent or 90 per cent of the workforce of activity making up the creative economy. So it’s quite big. It’s almost as big today as the old blue collar industrial economy was in my parents and grandparents day. Just about as big; just slightly smaller. And in some places it’s by far the dominant part of the economy. It could be well over half of all occupations and activities in those urban zones.

There was a time when most human beings were involved in agriculture. And it took most of our labour to produce agricultural products; to farm and to fish and to hunt and to gather. And then it would be, as we became more efficient in agriculture as in England and in Europe they developed more efficient technologies for producing food. That freed up human labour to go into industry. And so agriculture began to shrink and where most people were involved in agriculture a couple of hundred years ago, now this is hard to believe. In the United States or Canada that one percent of the workforce that are involved in agricultural production, but we still produce a heck of a lot of food. So industry became the big thing, blue collar manufacturing. And then it surged from very few people doing it to over 50 per cent of the workforce been involved in blue collar manufacturing activities, say between 1850 and 1950.

But now today, and this is a shocking statistic, only five or six percent of our workforce is really involved in direct factory production. The blue collar group is bigger, because that includes construction workers and transportation workers and movers and installers. That’s 20 per cent. But the people who actually make things are about five or six percent of our workforce. So now that we have a total of seven percent of our workforce making things and producing food it frees up, it frees up a lot of the human creative capability to do other things. So that’s what happened.                                                                                 


And I think, also we saw a real culture shift at that time. You know people were kind of revolting, if you will against the old staid society, the organization ‘man in the gray flannel suit.’ Music was changing, culture was changing, the Beatles, the Stones, I could go on…San Francisco, the sixties, Woodstock. What happened of course in the 60’s is — that took the form of a giant temper tantrum — but what ultimately happened is many of those Silicon Valley, high technology innovators were influenced by that. And many of them with their long hair and their torn up blue jeans had this ethos that they wanted to unleash their human creativity.

So I think the motor force was economic, but there was certainly a big cross, the cultural cross current and people wanting to be themselves, do their own thing. Live the kind of life they wanted to live. Not be plugged into these organizations, man, top down factory-driven economy. And I think ultimately that’s what got unleashed with the rise of the creative class and the creative economy. It became less of a counter cultural thing, and much more of a mode of economic expression and ultimately a mode of economic development and growth.

IG: So we’ve heard from Adam about who originals are, what they do and how they do it. And Richard told us about how originals fit into the larger creative economy. But how does that work in the real world? How do we take our wildest thoughts and ideas and turn them into actual paying work? To find out we chatted with Alex Centorame. Alex is a local radio DJ at a college radio station where he plays rock and heavy metal on his program ‘The Rush.’ He’s also a recent graduate with a degree in broadcasting. But his path to originality started with pro wrestling of all things.

Alex Centorame: When I was a little kid I wanted to be a broadcaster but at the same time I wanted to be a pro wrestler.  And my mom was like, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. That idea was scrapped after I volunteered at a wrestling school and saw the amount of injuries these guys would get themselves into. And I was like, well, I don’t want a broken neck and I don’t want to make any tears happen. So I might as well do something somewhere in that field, where I can still be some sort of personality.

IG: As an 18-year-old high school student Alex knew that if he was to become an on air personality he’d need to get some sort of formal schooling. But the thing that would set him apart when school was done was experience, not academics. No one is going to give you a job talking on the radio if you’ve never talked on the radio before. So he opted for a co-op placement at a college radio station that promised that Alex would get to go on air once for one hour. That was three years ago.                                                                    


AC: I wanted to do something that was more practical. So I thought, you know what, a co-op experience at a radio or television station probably would be a great idea. Six to eight months in I really started working hard because I knew this was my passion, and this was what I really wanted to do. And so, that was when I came up with the idea of The Rush. And I was like, okay so have a rock/metal show and we’ll make this like an over the top high energy kind of thing. And I can take those aspirations of wanting to be a pro wrestler when I was a kid, make that into some sort of personality that is still, not cheesy but enjoyable to listen to and entertaining at the same time, and then put it into this sort of show idea. And now it’s been three years since I started there as a co-op student in high school. Now I’m graduating from college and already have accomplished all of this stuff.

IG: Alex hasn’t changed the world yet but he’s certainly embraced the ideas Adam talks about, and used them to fulfill his vision of what his career could be. Alex never told anyone about his idea to fuse a wrestling personality with a radio DJ. He Trojan horsed that idea until the guise of getting experience. He crafted his own position on the air. And now, a graduate with years of experience under his belt, Alex is leveraging the relationships he’s built, the people who have championed him and his ideas, into full time work. Not every original is going to become a Steve Jobs. And financial gain is only a small part of the appeal in the creative economy. Here is Richard Florida once again.

RF: In most of the careful studies that have been done of creative work, not precarious service work, have suggested that people actually do this work to take control of their lives, to make sure that they’re not at the whims of a boss or a corporate overlord. So I think the creative economy offers…the key things are flexibility, challenge, great work, high pay relative to all other pay. So I think challenge, flexibility, working on great projects, having control of your own time, making money, because that’s the path to a career today.

IG: Originals, says Adam, are ultimately happy just being original.

AG: The idea of creating change itself should be a reward that keeps you motivated until other people start to say this is valuable.

IG: That does it for us this episode. Thanks to Adam, Richard and Alex for their time.

Adam Grant’s latest book, Originals; How Non Conformists Move the World is out now.

Richard Florida publishes regularly at CityLab. And his latest book, The New Urban Crisis, Winner Take All Urbanism, Divided Cities and the Patchwork Metropolis, will be available in 2017.

And you can catch Alex "Crazy 8" Centorame and his show The Rush on 105.5FM in Toronto.


Thanks for listening to Shiftdisturbers. If you want to know about what’s going on at the Martin Prosperity Institute, please head over to or follow us on twitter at Martinprosperit (no ‘y’ at the end). And to make sure you never miss an episode of Shiftdisturbers please hit the subscribe button. I’m Ian Gormely and thanks for listening.

[18.28 minutes]

This podcast was produced by the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School in 2015.

headshot of Richard FloridaRichard Florida is university professor at the Rotman School and the School of Cities at the University of Toronto. He is author of the global best-sellers The Rise of the Creative Class, The Flight of the Creative Class and Cities and the Creative Class, as well as Who's Your City? He is a regular correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and a contributor to The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Economist and The Harvard Business Review. He has been appointed to the Business Innovation Factory's research advisory council and named European Ambassador for Creativity and Innovation.
headshot of Adam GrantAdam Grant is a top-rated professor at the Wharton School and author of two New York Times best-selling books. He is a leading expert on how we can find motivation and meaning, and live more generous and creative lives. He has been recognized as one of the world’s 25 most influential management thinkers and Fortune’s 40 under 40.