Creative Vacuum

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World BY Adam Grant. edited by Sheryl Sandberg. Viking. Hardcover, 336 pages. $27.

The cover of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

It’s 2016, and another management guru is revealing the secrets of the creative mind.

It’s not really a very original thing to do. The literature on encouraging corporate nonconformity is already enormous; it goes back many years, to at least 1960, when someone wrote a book called How to Be a More Creative Executive. What was once called “the creative revolution” in advertising got going at around the same time. I myself wrote a book about that subject—a history book!—nearly twenty years ago.

There have been slight variations in the creativity genre over the half-century of its ascendancy, of course. The cast of geniuses on whom it obsessively focuses has changed, for example. And while the study of creativity has always been surrounded with a quasi-scientific aura, today that science is more micro than macro, urging us to enhance our originality by studying the functioning of the human brain.

In the larger literary sense, however, it is now clear that the capitalist’s tribute to creativity and rebellion is an indestructible form. There is something about the merging of bossery and nonconformity that beguiles the American mind. The genre marches irresistibly from triumph to triumph. Books pondering the way creative minds work dominate business-best-seller lists. Airport newsstands seem to have been converted wholly to the propagation of the faith. Travel writers and speechwriters alike have seen the light and now busy themselves revealing the brain’s secrets to aspiring professionals. I started my own career criticizing this genre; every now and then I wake up in the middle of the night absolutely certain that—as conventional modes of earning a living as an author dry up—I shall end my days contributing to it.

The specific creativity book that is our subject here, Originals, will probably someday be considered a landmark in its field. Its author, Adam Grant, is a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton business school; according to the biography on his website, he is its “top-rated professor,” a whiz kid who was “tenured at Wharton while still in his twenties.” In fact, his website also notes, he is “one of the world’s 25 most influential management thinkers” and even one of “Malcolm Gladwell’s favorite thinkers.” Originals boasts a foreword by Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In fame, as well as a flattering front-cover blurb from the aforementioned Gladwell, the reigning king of the creativity-science genre. Grant talked about Originals at the big TED conference in Vancouver, our society’s greatest showplace of approved ideas. It was excerpted in the New York Times. This is a man who is clearly hitting the zeitgeist bull’s-eye.

For all that, the contents of Grant’s new book are fairly unremarkable. As with so many other entries in the genre, it offers tips about how to be a more creative person and how to get your nonconformist way in various tricky situations. As per the requirements of business-advice handbooks, the guidance Grant dishes out is ritualistically counterintuitive: He advises us to procrastinate more; he suggests that we “welcome criticism”; he informs us that child prodigies are rarely very creative later in life; he announces that old people can be really creative if they try; he suggests that when proposing some new idea, you “highlight the reasons not to support your idea.”

What intrigues me about Originals is not so much the advice Grant offers his readers as the technique by which he assures us that his advice is sound. His main characters are, of course, the various inventors, executives, artists, activists, and CEOs whose cases we are asked to study and whose creativity we are supposed to emulate. But what convinces the reader is the book’s cast of secondary characters: The array of academic experts who apparently spend their days studying entrepreneurs and creativity and the amazing complexities of the capitalist brain.

For example, on page 3, Grant tells us that “years ago, psychologists discovered that there are two paths to achievement.” What is interesting here is not the two paths themselves (“conformity and originality,” in case you wanted to know) but the depiction of psychologists as people who spend their time studying “achievement.” A short while later, Grant gussies up a statement about entrepreneurs by telling us, “It’s the rare conclusion on which many economists, sociologists, and psychologists have actually come to agree.”

And so it unfolds throughout the book. Professional authority of the most conventional sort is marshaled to prove this or that point about unconventionality and rule-breaking. We all want to escape the cage of the establishment—and just look at all the careful, traditional, peer-reviewed experts who stand ready to help us do so! Grant is hugely impressed by academic status, always taking pains to reference a scholar’s prestigious employer.

But this unthinking credulity before academic credentialism is only a foothill in the Himalayan elitism of the creativity genre. Consider this statement from Albert Einstein, a hero beloved of creativity gurus everywhere, which Grant uses to introduce one of his chapters: “Great spirits have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds.”

“Great spirits” versus “mediocre minds”: Here is the basic dialectical tension of the genre, the character conflict that crops up wherever you look in the creativity literature. Had he chosen to, Grant could just as easily have sourced this idea to Ayn Rand, who made the war between the great and the mediocre the obsessive subject of her literary career. As Rand’s writing suggests, this doctrine is not a particularly democratic one. It is, among other things, a succinct distillation of the Great Man school of history, in which nothing matters except the lives of geniuses and the methods by which these noble figures arrive at their decisions.

Grant recalls at one point that several of the Founding Fathers were not enthusiastic revolutionaries, leading him to conclude that the Declaration of Independence “nearly didn’t happen.” Why? Although Grant doesn’t say so, it is clearly because revolutions are expressions of the world-historic genius of this or that extraordinary leader. So are economic recessions. In a remarkable footnote, Grant suggests that the economic health of the nation can be predicted and maybe even directly affected by the level of optimism expressed in a president’s inaugural address. “When presidents are too optimistic, the economy gets worse,” he writes. Unemployment goes up, GDP goes down. Negativism, on the other hand, pays off because it “direct[s] our attention to potential problems.”

This peculiar assertion implies that speeches offer important insights into the will of the creative individual. And so Grant writes at length about Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the most famous pieces of oratory of all time. But Grant doesn’t really study the rhetoric of the speech itself, or what made it so powerful—all that stuff is taken for granted. What intrigues him is the process by which King went about writing and delivering the speech: how he prepared for the big day, how he did a lot of the work at the last minute, the mental techniques that allowed him to improvise parts of the speech while standing at the podium.

History, then, is not so much the biography of great men as it is the psychology of great men, the mental habits of great men, the leadership secrets of great men—and also, weirdly, the childhood experiences of great men. This last turns out to loom large in Grant’s world. He tells us that “there are studies showing that when children’s stories emphasize original achievements, the next generation innovates more.” But it is birth order that really brings it all together: expertise, the history of expertise, the great men of expertise, and lessons for managers. “Laterborns aren’t just more likely to take risks in baseball,” Grant writes—

the difference also shows up in politics and science, with serious implications for social and intellectual progress. In a landmark study, [psychologist Frank] Sulloway analyzed more than two dozen major scientific revolutions and breakthroughs, from Copernican astronomy to Darwinian evolution and from Newton’s mechanics to Einstein’s relativity. He enlisted over a hundred historians of science to evaluate the stances of nearly four thousand scientists on a spectrum from extreme support of prevailing views to extreme advocacy of new ideas. Then, he tracked the role of birth order in predicting whether the scientists would defend the status quo or champion a revolutionary new theory.

It’s not just great men, either. Grant includes a chapter that is concerned largely with the nineteenth-century women’s-suffrage movement: how its leaders disagreed with one another, fought over this and that, made alliances that were sometimes wise and sometimes foolish, and eventually struggled on to victory. Again, of course, it’s the personalities of the leaders that matter and the “organizational model” they chose to advance their goals.

It’s worth remarking that when Grant studies historical movements, they are always leftish or liberal ones: women’s suffrage, the civil-rights uprising, people who helped Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, a former student leader from Serbia who took part in a movement that overthrew Slobodan Milošević and whose clenched-fist logo Grant reproduces on page 223. These are whom we must look to in order to derive lessons for how to manage employees and come up with new business ideas.

One reason for this distinct liberal bias is that it serves to camouflage the essential elitism of the creativity genre. Another is that Grant, like so many other management thinkers, feels he must call bosses “radicals” and compare their role in our civilization to those of protesters and revolutionaries who overthrow “the status quo.” Naturally, someone looking for lessons in capitalist radicalism would start his inquiry by examining genuine radicals.

Sometimes, though, it just feels like the author is trolling us. Officers in the US Navy aren’t “radicals” or “tempered radicals,” as Grant refers to them, even if they do think software is more important than hardware. The low point comes in chapter 3, where Grant describes the struggles of an executive at the CIA to get that agency to put more information on its “classified internet,” presumably so its agents can go about spying, subverting, and droning with more efficiency than before. Fair enough. But what perverse urge makes the author describe this quest as a “countercultural” one? Or as an effort to “speak truth to power”? Or as a project that involves “building a network of rebels within the CIA”?

I mentioned before the incipient Ayn Randism of all creativity literature, and what interests, or rather alarms, me most about Originals is that, even though Barack Obama, the archenemy of libertarians everywhere, sits in the White House, Rand’s heroic new creative order seems to be getting closer all the time. When so much of the academy is given over to the study of creative minds; when revolutionary movements are so easily transformed into management lessons; and when liberals abase themselves before “innovators” and the “creative class” (phenomena that Grant does not mention but that have a place in any historical consideration of creativity), one starts to understand why inequality is increasing at a gallop and why our leftish party seems uninterested in doing anything about it. The future toward which this book points, I fear, offers only a simulacrum of national unity, inside the great managerial church of hero worship.

Thomas Frank is the author of Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened To the Party of the People?, recently published by Metropolitan Books.