They are the bane of every graduation speech, the baleful platitudes adorning 3rd grade posters since time immemorial:
Dare to be Different! Dream Big. Be Original!
Wharton professor Adam Grant’s book Originals tiptoes down the hall towards those elementary school placards. A peek at the table of contents suggests adult aphorisms for the MBA & DIY set, with chapters titled The Risky Business of Going Against the Grain and Speaking Truth to Power. As I opened it, I wondered if I had found the snowflake factory, where every person is unique and ‘original’, a bare collation of hot takes on millennial creativity. After coming out the other side, I’m glad to say I was (somewhat) wrong.
What is Grant’s work about? Originality. Or as he puts it, “the hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.” He begins by rewriting over our notions of successful startups. What makes for the best creative or institutional change? You may operate under the assumption that innovation is for the young, the 20- or 30-something entrepreneur or inventor. As Einstein quipped once, “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.” On the contrary, Grant marshals convincing evidence that there are different kinds of creativity. Although we tend to recall the boy geniuses, older masters of their field can provide needed sparks of originality. The young creative is a conceptual innovator—someone who begins with an idea and then attempts it. But the older nonconformist is more experimental, advancing through trial and error over the years. Therefore, if you want to continue possessing originality, ideally you will cultivate and accumulate expertise over decades.
Next, he engages the question of scale. It is one matter to advance with an idea, but implementing that idea on a broad front requires different techniques. Here we find the secrets for already-established leaders to champion new ideas. Many organizations already have a history and a culture. Not all are meant to self-start their own business. But all who work in the office can use Grant’s heuristics to measure their own culture of creativity. Here is a sampling of the strategies we receive from this work: Grant urges the counterintuitive notion of highlighting the weaknesses of your proposed culture change. Surprisingly, he notes that when fellow workers have to struggle to come up with additional objections, they begin to see the benefits of your desired shift. After his segments on individual and corporate originality, Grant segues into the territory of the future. Here, the expertise of a management guru seems the most out of place. Though he centers on maintaining originality and nurturing it among siblings, children, and future pioneers, citing the favorite childhood books of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos (“likely highly original children”) confuses correlation and causation. I’ve read Lord of the Rings and Ender’s Game before, but I can’t say it’s made me highly original.
Thus, despite the value of his business-oriented techniques, I cannot give Originals a whole-throated compliment. Part of the problem with Originals is the omnipresent reliance upon psychological and sociological models. The reader is repeatedly informed that people will act a certain way when attempting to manage or create originality, that laterborn children will generate more paradigm-busting projects.
Herein lies the chief concern I have with the work: its notion of progress and innovation. “Originality”, according to Adam Grant, must include “generating a concept that is both novel and useful.” The definition is notable, not so much for its emphasis on novelty but its focus on utility. What Originals lacks entirely is any moral evaluation, any heuristic for assessing the ethical worth of a given creation. This lacuna is not original to Grant, but is a common failing in the business and tech industries of our day. We simply do not consider the moral weight of our innovations. Rather, we assume that any ‘progress’ is beneficial, any change in efficiency, any expansion of the realm of human knowledge automatically equals beneficial originality. This implicit a priori lurks beneath the surface of this book, and we readers would do well to remember that the gap between technology and ethics is not so great as we may think.
And far greater landmines are seeded in this work. First among them is the ticking explosion of ambitious glory. Our Lord spoke of this to the Pharisees in John 5:43-44: “If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” Half of Originals is anecdotal evidence from boom or bust creatives. Why? Because it wakes up the glory-hound within our hearts, the beast that loves to bow and scrape before men and women, driven by the assumption that if we find the silver bullet for originality we can be as famous as anyone.
Fame is transient. But the glory that comes from Jesus Christ is neither transient nor unoriginal. And it is the most creative of all, for “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:3)” The desire to change the world in a new fashion is not wrong (Exhibit A—the Incarnation), but we must realize that middle-class obsession with ‘creativity’ easily can link with vain ambition and selfish pride.
Nonetheless, for the Christian who always uses the same anecdote to speak of her growth in grace, or the teen who obsesses over one doctrinal question, and thinks of none other, Originals may prompt and provoke needful reflection. For church leaders who seek to avoid the stagnation that can arise with ‘traditions of men’, here is a helpful set of stimulating ideas. And if you want to start a new business, publish that great American novel, or simply wish to survive the next office meeting with some semblance of humanity, Originals may provoke interest.
In sum, feel free to implement the practical wisdom placed throughout this work. Some of these business skills have already assisted my own productivity and may appear the next time our local church’s Session meets. But I am not putting my trust in originality for its own sake.
That would be unoriginal.
John Stovall (Ph.D. University at Albany) serves as Pastor of the Rock Presbyterian Church in Stockbridge, Georgia.
Looking for a more original take on contemporary theological discussions? Check out some of our recent articles, and then go to https://www.whitehorseinn.org/subscribe-to-modern-reformation-magazine/ to receive interesting and provocative takes on what’s happening in Christianity every other month.
 Originals, 3.