The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers

CliffsNotes + commentary on Adam Grant’s TED Talk

Li: throw out your preconceived assumptions of what makes people creative thinkers and doers.

I encourage you to watch the full talk (15 mins, link at end of this post), but if you want a 3 minute preview, here we go:


I became interested in studying originals after missing out on investing in Warby Parker. Originals not only have ideas but they champion them.

It turns out, they looked nothing like I expected.

Originals are late to the party

I’m not a procrastinator. I’m a pre-crastinator, meaning I stress about finishing projects as fast and as early as possible. I finished my senior thesis 4 months before the deadline.

As a kid, I played Nintendo starting at 5am because I was so eager to win and get better. The local newspaper even wrote a story called “The Dark Side of Nintendo”, starring me.

The Dark Side of Nintendo, starring Adam Grant.

One of my students (at Wharton) said to me:

“I have my most creative ideas when I’m procrastinating”

So I challenged her to do a study on this. She surveyed people and ran some experiments and what she found was that the pre-crastinators were so eager to the point of panic that they had no original thought, but the procrastinators waited so late that they also couldn’t come up with anything creative either.

Originals are the middle people.

Those are the people who wait just long enough before working on and completing the task. This works because the task is active in the back of their minds. The brains are working on it while they waited to complete the project.

You call it procrastinating, I call it thinking.

Leonard Da Vinci toiled for 16 years on the Mona Lisa. Martin Luther King was rewriting his speech 3am the night before he gave it. And half way through his speech, he looked up and spoke four words that were not in his script:

I have a dream.

By waiting, he left himself open to the wildest range of idea. Procrastinating is a vice for productivity, but a boon for creativity.

The first mover advantage concept in business is mostly a myth. It is the improvers who take the time to come up with something unique and better who do well in the end.

Originals feel doubts and fears

Original people feel the same fear and doubt, but they manage it differently. There are 2 types of doubts: idea doubt and self doubt.

Idea doubt is energizing because it motivates you to refine and test your ideas. Instead of saying “I’m crap” (self-doubt), you say “the first few drafts are going to be crap anyway” (idea-doubt).

When you feel doubt, don’t let it go.

Just keep working at it and you’ll experience vuja de (not deja vu) —you see something you’ve seen a million time, but with fresh eyes.

Originals fear failure, but they fear not trying even more. They may fear action, but they fear the regret of inaction way more.

Originals have tons of bad ideas. The greatest originals are the ones who failed the most, because they tried the most. One of the best predictors of creativity is sheer output.

The Warby Parker founders tested 2,000 names before picking Warby Parker.

Being original is not easy, but it’s the best way to improve the world around us.

Watch the full video: