Opting for Originality:
Why Parents Shouldn’t Always Be the Go-to Role Models for Their Children

by Adam Grant

Photo credit: Mari, Vetta/Getty Images

The following is an excerpt from Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant.

We can afford to give children a great deal of freedom if we explain the consequences of their actions on others and emphasize how the right moral choices demonstrate good character. This increases the odds that they will develop the instinct to express their original impulses in the form of moral or creative actions, as opposed to deviant ones. But as they grow up, they often don’t aim high enough.

When psychologists Penelope Lockwood and Ziva Kunda asked college students to list what they hoped to achieve over the following decade, they came up with perfectly ordinary objectives. Another group of students was instructed to read a newspaper article about an outstanding peer and then list their goals; they aimed much higher. Having a role model elevated their aspirations.

Role models have a foundational impact on how children grow up to express their originality. When hundreds of women who graduated from Radcliffe College were asked in their early 30s to name the people who had the greatest influence on their lives, the vast majority mentioned parents and mentors. Seventeen years later, psychologists Bill Peterson and Abigail Stewart measured the women’s commitments to changing things for the better for future generations. Naming a parent as a major influence accounted for less than one percent of the women’s motivations to drive meaningful change. The women who were pursuing originality had been influenced a decade and a half earlier not by their parents, but by their mentors: Mentioning a mentor accounted for 14 percent of differences in women’s desires to improve the world.

The paradox of encouraging children to develop strong values is that parents effectively limit their own influence. Parents can nurture the impulse to be original, but at some point, people need to find their own role models for originality in their chosen fields. In comedy, Lizz Winstead drew inspiration from comedian Roseanne Barr — both for her talents on stage and her support of women off it. When Winstead went public with her rebellious political views, her father quipped, “I screwed up. I raised you to have an opinion, and I forgot to tell you it was supposed to be mine.”

If we want to encourage originality, the best step we can take is to raise our children’s aspirations by introducing them to different kinds of role models. “I might have become a full-fledged juvenile delinquent,” Jackie Robinson acknowledged, “if it had not been for the influence of two men.” One was the mechanic who explained how his gang behavior was hurting his mother. The other was a young minister, Karl Downs. Noticing that adolescents were being forced by their parents to attend church and many were dropping out, Downs instituted some unconventional changes, holding dances at the church and building a badminton court. Many of the members protested, clinging to the traditions of the past, but Downs persisted. Inspired by a man who was willing to challenge orthodoxy in order to engage children, Robinson volunteered to become a Sunday school teacher, and became determined to open doors for others as Downs had done for him.

In baseball, Robinson found another original mentor in Branch Rickey, the Dodgers owner who recruited him to break the color barrier. Robinson was already 26 when Rickey summoned him to his office. Rickey had been scouting black players who could run, throw, and hit, and once he had a group of candidates with similarly extraordinary ability, he started evaluating their character, inviting them to meet in the guise of starting a new Negro League. Once he chose Robinson, Rickey encouraged him to take some risks on the base path — “run wild, to steal the pants off them” — but urged him to be more cautious outside the lines. “I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”

Finding the right mentor is not always easy. But we can locate role models in a more accessible place: the stories of great originals throughout history. Human rights advocate Malala Yousafzai was moved by reading biographies of Meena, an activist for equality in Afghanistan, and of Martin Luther King, Jr. King was inspired by Gandhi, as was Nelson Mandela.

But in some cases, fictional characters may be even better role models. Growing up, many originals find their first role models in their most beloved novels, where protagonists exercise their creativity in pursuit of unique accomplishments. Elon Musk and Peter Thiel each chose Lord of the Rings, the epic tale of a hobbit’s adventures to destroy a dangerous ring of power. Sheryl Sandberg and Jeff Bezos both favored A Wrinkle in Time, in which a young girl learns to bend the laws of physics and travel through time. Mark Zuckerberg was partial to Ender’s Game, where it’s up to a group of kids to save the planet from an alien attack. Jack Ma named his favorite childhood book as Alibaba and the Forty Thieves, about a woodcutter who takes the initiative to change his own fate.

It’s likely that they were all highly original children, which accounts for why they were drawn to these tales in the first place. But it’s also possible that these stories helped elevate their aspirations. Remarkably, there are studies showing that when children’s stories emphasize original achievements, the next generation innovates more. In one study, psychologists tracked unique accomplishments in American children’s stories from 1800 to 1950. After original achievement themes in American children’s books rose by 66 percent from 1810 to 1850, the patent rate shot up sevenfold from 1850 to 1890. Children’s books reflected the values popular at the time, but also helped to nurture those values: When stories emphasized original achievement, patent rates typically soared 20 to 40 years later. As Dean Simonton summarizes, “It took time for the children exposed to the achievement imagery in school to grow up and contribute to the creation of new inventions.”

Unlike biographies, in fictional stories characters can perform actions that have never been accomplished before, making the impossible seem possible. The inventors of the modern submarine and helicopter were transfixed by Jules Verne’s visions in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Clipper of the Clouds. One of the earliest rockets was built by a scientist who drew his motivation from an H. G. Wells novel. Some of the earliest mobile phones, tablets, GPS navigators, portable digital storage disks, and multimedia players were designed by people who watched “Star Trek” characters using similar devices. As we encounter these images of originality in history and fiction, the logic of consequence fades away. We no longer worry as much about what will happen if we fail.

Undoubtedly, the next generation of originals will draw inspiration from the Harry Potter series, which is brimming with references to original accomplishment: Harry Potter is the only wizard who can defeat Voldemort. With his friends Hermione and Ron, he learns unique spells and invents new ways of defending against the dark arts. We see the children’s spirits rise when they succeed, and they are crestfallen when they fail. J.K. Rowling didn’t just give a generation of children role models for originality but also embedded a moral message in her novels. Recent experiments show that reading Harry Potter can improve children’s attitudes toward marginalized groups. As they see Harry and Hermione face discrimination for not having pure wizard blood, they empathize and become less prejudiced toward minority groups in their own lives.

When we have compelling role models for originality, they expand our awareness of niches that we had never considered. Instead of causing us to rebel because traditional avenues are closed, the protagonists in our favorite stories may inspire originality by opening our minds to unconventional paths.


Adapted from Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant. © 2016 by Adam Grant. Viking, Penguin Random House LLC.