May, Part 1: Originals, How Non-Conformists Move the World

In Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant proposes that the most creative of us — the ones who make and innovative — are those who don’t conform to society’s expectations. As Grant states, “…the hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.” Throughout the book, we are introduced to a variety of stories, examples, and research of original thought processes and how they were gained.

For educators, Grant’s work is both a great resource for understanding one’s own creativity and practice, as well as a critical interpretation of traditional schooling. What makes a student a “great student”? Many educators would describe: listens well, learns quickly, performs well (on tests), a great writer, quiet, respectful. But what if we were actually limiting the possibilities of the students who are most receptive to traditional work? For example, despite the inclinations of child prodigies who have talent and ambition beyond measure, most do not ever become “game changers” in society. It is explained:

“Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities in ordinary ways, mastering their jobs without questioning defaults and without making waves. In every domain they enter, they play it safe by following the conventional paths to success. They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken systems that prevent many patients from affording health care in the first place. They become lawyers who defend clients for violating outdated laws without trying to transform the laws themselves. They become teachers who plan engaging algebra lessons without questioning whether alegra is what their students need to learn. Although we rely on them to keep the world running smoothly, they keep us running on a treadmill.”


What’s the treadmill in traditional education? Grades, standardized testing, traditional coursework, and a fixed mindset. There’s a game to be played at school by knowing the rules, doing the bare minimum possible, and rarely questioning what you’re doing. Students are more concerned with achieving rather than learning — failure is not an option, although most learning requires failure, instead students only care about their final grade or SAT score.

Of course, all this implies that often the most stressful students for educators are the most creative. In fact, Grant states that adolescents who went into entrepreneurship later in life (a fundamentally creative profession) were much more likely to have skipped school, shoplifted, drank alcohol, smoked marijuana, and gambled. Furthermore, children who had more concrete rules from their parents tended to go into less creative professions. Those who flourished were ones taught a moral framework to live by — how their actions could negatively affect others. Therefore, although these adolescents may have taken risks — they were not any more likely than their peers to drive drunk or buy “harder” drugs.

From this, one could surmise that education is not effectively reaching students who don’t fit the norm (school, of all places, tends to be heavily rule focused with no feedback as to why?) And, those teachers who are trying to change the system through progressive thought are often met by roadblocks — whether it be administration, community culture, or fellow teachers. Originals offers sound advice for those progressive educators seeking to change the world.

Grant asserts, “ Advocating for new systems often requires demolishing the old way of doing things, and we hold back for fear of rocking the boat.” With a plethora of examples in history (Steve Wozniak, Michelangelo, Copernicus, Martin Luther King Jr.), Originals establishes that many creative people are terrified or unwilling to effectively change the system (at least at first.) Instead of making real change, we tend to find other safer ways to express ourselves:

“We find surface ways of appearing original — donning a bow tie, wearing bright red shoes — without taking the risk of actually being original. When it comes to the powerful ideas in our heads and the core values in our hearts, we censor ourselves.”

Many educators are wrapped up in this phase: finding new ways to get students to “eat their peas and carrots” of traditional, outdated education rather than pushing to really change the norm. In any bookstore, one can browse through multitudes of teaching books who claim to have found the best way to “get” students to “learn.” Instead of questioning why we must entice students to learn this information against their will — isn’t it a much more interesting question to ask, “why aren’t students wanting to learn?”

This would be a drastic risk for some — negative evaluations, an initial attack from peers, parents, and possibly students, even termination. However, it doesn’t have to be an “all-in” approach to tackle progressive education. Grant thoroughly explains that we usually paint creatives as gigantic risk-takers who are “cut from a different cloth.” Notably, it’s not that creatives take any risk, they take calculated risks. For example, 33% of entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs had lower odds for failure then those that went “all-in” and quit. It’s proposed that non-conformists view their mission as a portfolio: mitigate some risk by keeping some areas safe. It would be silly for us as educators to not have any back-up plan. Grant explains,

“Having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another. By covering our bases financially, we escape the pressure to publish half-baked books, sell shoddy art, or launch untested businesses.”

Furthermore, it is shown that there’s a greater risk for those who suggest new ideas very frequently if they don’t have status. That being said, status is earned through power (which tends to be a result of those who make calculated suggestions). This could be viewed as a “Trojan Horse” method of change: make small incremental changes that positively affects learning, gain political power, then start drastically making moves. Because progressive education is viewed as “extreme” by rote teachers — they won’t be willing to accept changing everything just because someone says it. However, they will eventually see the suggestion as legitimate if someone with status and whom they trust mentions it.

So what about those who don’t agree with your changes? Perhaps we need to band together as progressive educators to market, brand, and promote our strategies (such as the Deeper Learning Initiative.) The more familiar a concept is, the more likely people will buy into it. People are very traditional in most methods of their thinking and assume that they are correct (even when proven otherwise) — it isn’t until the “tide turns” that they turn around. And Grant proposes to be faithful to your skeptics. Invite them in, have conversations, and talk about your hesitations. The Human Restoration Project often states, “We don’t have all the right answers, but we do know some wrongs ones. We’re not certain our ideas are right, but we know what needs to change.”

Overall, we highly recommend checking out Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. For a progressive educator, it offers optimism, strategy, and confirmation of the methods we want to impose and dictate. For students, it legitimizes many of their beliefs about the world and questions the traditional narrative we’ve put them on.