Adam Grant (author of Originals) says that there are two paths to achievement. One of those paths is conformity, and the other is originality. They’re the two paths that Robert Frost describes in his poem “The Road Not Taken.” While I can understand Frost’s decision like I can understand Emerson’s decision to write “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist,” I had no clear answers as to why one would choose one path over another. Grant doesn’t address this question in his book either, so I started digging.
From the point of view of evolution, we evolved to be social creatures, and social creatures by their very nature are created to be concerned with what others think. (See The Righteous Mind for the foundations of morality which lead us to our social nature.) Conformity is going with the flow and staying in society’s main stream. Originality sometimes runs counter to the culture and creates the potential to be kicked out of the group. Historically, getting kicked out of a community was a death sentence, as we needed the relative safety of the community to protect us from predators. Groups and the conformity that they engender are safer.
It’s All About the Safety
After turning over my thoughts and reviewing my notes on dozens of references, including Creative Confidence, Creativity, Inc., The Innovators DNA, and others, I came to the conclusion that the fork in the road between conformity and originality is all about licking and grooming. Before you wonder if I’ve lost my mind, stick with me for a moment because it’s this licking and grooming that helps us – or at least helps rats – feel safe.
Perception of Safety
Michael Meaney studied rats. That’s not all that unique amongst researchers of biological psychiatry and neurology. What’s unique is that he stumbled across a small behavior – licking and grooming – that had a profound impact on the adult lives of his rats. Mothers who licked and groomed their rat pups left them with lower stress and greater confidence for their entire lives. A simple act had a dramatic impact, quite literally changing the course of their lives. They were more independent and traveled further from their mother. (See How Children Succeed for one coverage of Meaney’s work.)
When it came time for Sapolsky to write Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, he didn’t miss the work of Meaney as he described the impacts of stress on anatomy. He notes that the stress hormones (glucocorticoids) were lower in Meaney’s rats that had been given extra licking and grooming. In short, the rats had a greater perception of safety than they should have had. (After all, they lived in a lab and, as Taleb in The Black Swan pointed out, any day could be their last day.) Perception of safety is what matters, because it controls how our bodies respond and how we respond.
While rats and zebras started exposing clues to how we perceive safety, it was Reiss that revealed another piece of the puzzle by talking about the different motivators that people have.
Need for Safety
Reiss was trying to figure out why people were different. He was trying to boil the ocean of personalities down to a set of factors that could be considered. He was trying to find a small set of dimensions that could describe a person. In the end, he found sixteen motivators that he believes drives human behavior. (See The Normal Personality and Who Am I? for more details on his thoughts.) There are a few of the motivators that appear – at least on the surface – to be related to the need for safety.
Reiss’ motivators are supposed to be independent variables. They’re supposed to be unrelated; that’s the whole point of distilling the possibilities into the essential motivators. However, when you look at the motivators from the lens of safety, you see several that have influence on perceived safety. Independence is a desire for self-reliance – and therefore a greater tolerance for a lack of safety. Acceptance is the need for inclusion – and thus a higher need for safety. Status is the desire for social standing, which is complicated by originality. Status motivated people must be different – but not too different.
This need to temper differences comes from Everett Roger’s work, as revealed in Diffusion of Innovations. Rogers is famous for his bell curve with innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. He explains how some people will naturally seek out innovation – and some will resist. However, buried in the wealth of knowledge from Roger’s research is the key that, for innovations to take hold, the innovators must be different from the rest. They’ve got to be different enough to try something now but at the same time not too different. They need to be cosmopolitan but not too much so. The risk at a personal level and at the level of the diffusion of innovations is that the innovators will be too different, and the early adopters will never identify with them.
The motivators that Reiss’ distilled combine to show us a perspective of risk. Some people will have a high-risk tolerance and therefore a low need for safety, while others will have a small risk tolerance and will have a relatively higher psychological need for safety. Our need for safety and avoidance of risk isn’t a fixed point.
As we seek an acceptable level of risk – a risk homeostasis, as it were – we will adapt to taking more risk in some areas and less risk in others. (See The Medici Effect for more on risk homeostasis.) We will trade safety in some parts of our life for safety in other parts of our life, like swapping energy credits. The safer we feel in one area, the less need we’ll have for safety in other parts of our life. Effectively, we’re managing the gap between our perception of safety and our need for safety.
Mind the Gap
The driver for originality isn’t either the perception of safety or a person’s need for safety; rather, it’s the gap – or surplus – between these two. When you feel psychologically safe and have a low need for safety, you’ll tend towards being original. When you’re threatened and feel little safety, but have a high need for safety, you’ll be more conformist.
The decision between the two isn’t in the absolute of either value, but rather it’s in the relative location of your need for safety and your perception of the safety that you have. The challenge is the gap between them. The same ratio drives not just originality but all creativity.
Originality is Creativity
It’s not creative to be a conformist. It may have some psychological strain as you resolve the conflict between the world and your desires by submerging your desires. You may have to fight to keep your desires from reaching the surface like you would have to fight to keep a kick board submerged in a pool. There’s constant fighting. However, there’s no requirement to be creative when conforming. Conforming is straightforward and in some ways downright boring.
In Creative Confidence, the fear barrier – lack of safety – shows up as the primary barrier to people being more creative. The Medici Effect discusses the need for risk (perceived safety) in innovation. Beyond Genius implores you to find your courage (and lower your need for safety). Extraordinary Minds speaks about how geniuses reframe their failures to reduce their psychological impact. Creativity is risky. Creativity requires that the need for safety and the perception of safety are aligned. And originality is being creative – being willing to break the mold.
Mistakes and Mortals
No matter how much we may think of ourselves few of us think that we’re immortal. We recognize at some level that we’re human and mistakes come with the territory, though we’re painfully challenged to admit our mistakes and make changes. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) exposes some of the mechanisms that we use to protect our ego and save face. Change or Die shares the power of The Ego and Its Defenses. (All 22 major and 26 minor defenses).
One of the terrifying challenges with conformity is the possibility that it can lead to genocide. Stanley Milgram discovered that 65% of people would administer seemingly lethal shocks of electricity when they didn’t see the subject of the electrocution. (See Influencer for more about this gruesome finding.) This partially answers how people can be complicit in crimes and yet not feel the horror. (See Moral Disengagement for more on how this works.)
It would be wrong to draw a straight line between conformity and genocide. However, when conformity is wielded in the hands of an unscrupulous leader, the results can disastrous. Enron’s accounting scandal brought down both Enron and their accountants. It’s not genocide, but the result was the destruction of retirement savings of so many innocent people.
The commonality here is the inability of the right people to speak up. Their need for safety was too high or their perceived safety too low to respond in an original way to a difficult situation. Whistleblower laws aren’t enough to protect people from the harassment they’ll receive back on the job. Losing friendships with your work colleagues may be harder. That’s why it’s important to manipulate the system to create a surplus of perceived safety well in excess of the need for safety.
We’re All Original – In Our Own Minds
It’s the degree of originality that we express that’s the question. We can all point to examples where we’ve been originals. We can point to creative ideas. However, the question isn’t an either-or decision like a literal fork in the path. The question is the ratio between times that we’re compliant and when we decide to be original. It’s when we’re feeling safe enough that we’re willing to be original.
How do we create more original moments? We get our perception of safety higher and our need for safety lower. That’s manipulating our results by manipulating the factors.
Manipulating the Results
The same psychology that warns us of the dangers of conformity gives us clues on how to ensure that the need for conformity doesn’t overwhelm our ability to speak courageously when times call for it. (See Find Your Courage for more on speaking courageously.)
Faith in You
There’s an old Kenny Rogers song “She Believes in Me” that speaks of a guitarist performer who returns home to find a woman that believes in him. The song relates the strength that she imparts with her belief. His belief in his potential to be different and to be successful in changing the world is changed by her belief in him. She raises his perception of safety by reducing the chances of failure.
Having other people have faith in you increases your willingness to embark on a journey to change the world.
If you were faced with an important mission that you believed that you were created to do, how much risk would you take to do it? How willing would you be to stand up on a soapbox and shout your truth to the rest of the world? Most of us would be emboldened with the sense of importance in our goal – in our mission – that we’d throw aside our fears and concerns and charge headlong into unsafe waters.
The importance of the mission can push down our need for safety. Our safety can seem small in comparison with the mission that we were created to fulfill. By pushing down the need for safety, we can create the opportunity for originality. It’s this ability to set people free that has authors and experts practically begging us to create a sense of importance in all we do with everyone around us. (See Start with Why for one example.)
Importance may be about the destination, but it’s passion that is the fuel that helps you get there. Passion is what prompts us to be original now. We may have something important burning inside of us, and it may on its own push down our need for safety and create the opportunity to be original; however, it’s passion that gives us the swift kick in the pants that says be original now.
When someone really buys into the compelling mission and releases themselves to the idea that it must be done, then passion can follow. This passion suppresses, reduces, or merely holds at bay our need for safety.
If you want to make a big change in your behavior from conformity to creativity and originality, the big lever is trust. Trust is the major way to directly impact our perception of safety. Trust creates safety. Trust is, however, not well understood.
Ask anyone what trust is, and you’re quite likely to get a response like “meeting commitments.” In other words, trust is earned. While trustworthy people are people who do what they say they will do, this is about someone being trustworthy – not about trust. Trust is a choice and a gift that is independent of whether the other person is trustworthy or not.
Being a choice, you get to decide whether you’re interested in trusting others – whether they are worthy of it or not. The confusing part is that by trusting others – appropriately – you’ll increase your perception of safety. Measured trust quite literally attunes our mind to a belief that the world is inherently safer. Making a conscious effort to gift others with our trust pays us rewards beyond the confines of our relationship.
Safety is an Abstraction
While we have spoken about safety as a single thing, it is really a collection of feelings about safety. We may feel safe driving our own car – so we feel like a safe driver. However, change the car, add snow to the road, or change the amount of traffic, and suddenly our sense of safety changes. And even if we believe we’re safe drivers we may—or may not – believe we’re safe boat captains or pilots. Safety is contextual and related to the things that we’re doing.
There are many factors that influence our perception of safety that are below our conscious awareness. We feel less safe at work, because we’re struggling with a child at home. We feel more comfortable in our favorite outfit and less comfortable when we must wear a dress suit. We can be more original by simply wearing our favorite clothes – even if that is a suit.
It’s easy to describe in broad terms the need for safety or explain the perception of safety. Both, however, work at a macro and a micro level. We can generally feel safe but feel less safe in a specific situation because of factors that we aren’t even aware of. Perhaps the person we’re speaking with wears a bow tie, and we were scared (traumatized) by someone in a bow tie in the past.
When considering safety, we have to remember that it’s much more nuanced and situational than one broad, sweeping statement. However, the overall perception and need for safety will influence specific circumstances. Some people with a high general perception of and a low need for safety can do something risky like sky diving where others could not. This is true even when they know the instructor personally, they’ve reviewed the safety record of the school, and looked at all the details. Their situational safety may not be powerful enough to override their overall temperament on safety.
If you want to change someone’s temperament for safety, the best thing you can do is create a safety net for them and wait. Wait for them to fall into the net. It might be a simple thing like a meltdown while moving into an apartment or something like buying a tank of gas when they’re completely out of cash. They’re small things, but when they’re well-timed – in a time of need – they’re powerful reprogramming of our minds. Suddenly the world isn’t a scary awful place, it’s a place where there are helpful people.
Safety nets are about helping others know they will be OK. It’s not about the tank of gas, it’s about the way that the support fuels their hearts and minds and reminds them that they don’t have to go through the world alone.
The people who were the most original could be considered polymaths. That is, they were experts in multiple areas. They chose to learn and grow and walk their own path. Da Vinci is perhaps the most well-known with his various forms of art; but don’t forget that he deferred painting the Mona Lisa until he had finished tinkering with optics. If you want to be more creative, more original, maybe it is found not by walking a path, but instead by wandering between passions and trying to figure out your own path from your interests.