Article of the Day

Daily Routines of Famous Creative People – Podio


Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
~ C.S. Lewis

Five Habits of Originality

Originality is a goal not only in literature and art, but also in business and certainly in the startup community.  We often use different terms such as ‘differentiation’ or ‘innovation’ for originality but the concept is the same, offering something to the world that is distinguished in small or large ways.

Just as innovative new products are usually the result of a combining old things in new ways, people with originality skills combine various habits in ways that result in more frequent creativity and impact.  We are a sum of our habits, so establishing and refining habits in ways that result in new ideas is important for those who wish to express creativity in their work.

I’ll draw on some examples from business to depict five habits of originality.  I take significant inspiration from Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant.

  1. Seek and speak truth – Bridgewater and its founder, Ray Dalio, are famous for being a successful investment fund and for having a focus on company culture based on an articulated set of principles.  Principle 1 is Trust in Truth.  Truth isn’t just about avoiding lies, its about being transparent and developing a capacity for constructive criticism.  Mistakes happen in business every day, even more often when working on something new.  Anything less than truth when dealing with mistakes leads to an inability to learn from mistakes, fatal for businesses but also for your capacity to get better and grow.
  2. Engage your mind by using your body – Something as simple as taking a walk can stimulate the mind better than sitting for hours on end staring at a computer screen.  Thomas Edison famously dismissed golf as exercise in saying that he got more exercise in walking through his lab from table to table and was able to keep his brain working well at the same time.  The brain is about 2 percent of body weight but consumes about 20 percent of a person’s total energy.  Shifting some energy requirement back to the rest of the body can help bring new mental energy.  I used to go on noon runs with an entrepreneur who loved to work through business issues while on the run.  It was an extremely challenging workout for me because he ran at a faster pace than I typically did, but also because he forced me to carry on a conversation the whole while!
  3. Engage people – Talking through ideas with others is a great habit for those working on challenges.  An entrepreneur I know tells the story of explaining his new business idea to a well-known and successful businessman.  After 4 meetings, the entrepreneur started to question the reputation and intellect of the businessman, as he asked very basic questions again and again and again about the entrepreneurs new business idea.  On the fifth meeting, the businessman again asked very basic questions about the entrepreneur’s new business idea.  Exasperated, the entrepreneur gave one more try to explain the business idea.  By the end of that day’s conversation the businessman smiled and told the entrepreneur that he had finally evolved the business idea to the point where it might be interesting.  His repeated questions weren’t from a lack of comprehension.  Rather they were pushing the entrepreneur to more fully think through important parts of the new business idea.  Socratic business development perhaps, but a powerful example of the mental iteration and evolution that can occur just buy talking to people.  Especially talking to people who ask good questions and challenge your assumptions.
  4. Learn about new domains – Originality often flows from specializing in a trade, task, or skill.  In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.  Though this is disputed by many, I certainly buy the idea that getting really good at something takes time and effort.  A counter idea to the concept of complete specialization, however, is that many creative originals take time away from their primary occupation and art to learn about new and unrelated things.  Meredith Perry of uBeam started out to create a wireless means of electricity transmission by being told by professors, physicists, and engineers that it was impossible.  While commercial success for uBeam may or may not come, Ms. Perry exhibited tremendous creative capacity in domains in which she had little or no expertise.  While learning new things is challenging, often un-learning things you think you know is the bigger hurdle.
  5. Respect the status quo but question it brutally – The core of creativity involves introducing new things to the world.  The default for originals is to question the status quo.  Just because it’s always been done that way doesn’t mean it always will.  The savvy original, however, will at least respect the status quo.  The world works that way it does today for a complex set of reasons.  You may not agree with those reasons, but you have to at least understand them.  For the new and creative to win, you must be able to navigate past barriers and resistance effectively.  My friend Kevin Maher started Global Vet Link with a goal of transitioning animal health certificates from being paper forms to electronic.  Easy right?  The challenge was that state veterinarians govern animal health certificates and had to approve this change in regulatory model.  The Iowa state veterinarian didn’t buy-in initially (Global Vet Link’s home state) so had to start with Florida as state number one.  Kevin’s great persistence got all 50 states onto the Global Vet Link platform, but it also took a great patience and understanding of the status quo in order to finally change it.

What habits of creative, effective people do you admire?  What is most important for you to work on and develop as  a habit?