5 Work Rules You Should Break

No offense to the little voice in your head, but she's not as smart as you think she is.
by Sara Austin
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1. Big risks reap big rewards.

Don't get us wrong—we want you to aspire to be fearless (the word is on the tagline of this brand, after all). But that doesn't mean you need to approach your career like a blindfolded cliff diver, cautions Adam Grant, PhD, author of the new book Originals: How Non-Comformists Move the World. "Everyone needs confidence—without it you might never take action. But there is also real value in self-doubt," says Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. As Grant's book outlines, the most successful creators are often more risk-averse than average, relentlessly grappling with ambivalence and questioning how their ideas will work in the real world.

"It's less about taking big risks and more about trying small experiments," Grant explains. If you are considering taking a leap—say, putting most of your money into a work venture—then try to offset that move with caution in the rest of your life. You don't have to quit your job or drop out of school. In fact, you probably shouldn't. Entrepreneurs who keep their day jobs while starting companies on the side (like the co-founders of those tiny brands Apple and Nike did) are 33 percent more likely to be successful than those who jump in full plunge, one study found. Shore up your social life too. "Work hard to have some friends who believe in you and will be at your side," Grant says. "That way, you'll feel less alone if this doesn't pan out."

2. Always trust your gut.

No offense to the little voice in your head, but she's not as smart as you think she is. "Intuition doesn't come from nowhere—it comes from unconsciously detecting patterns in our experience," explains Grant. "If the last four times I did something, things went badly, I develop that gut feeling and I feel kind of sick when I'm thinking about doing that thing." That said, the world is in constant flux, so "all the yesterdays that gave you that feeling in the pit of your stomach might not be relevant today." If you work in a field with a predictable environment (accounting or nursing), experience makes your intuition trustworthy. But for the rest of us (stockbrokers, judges, admissions officers, or um, magazine writers), decision-making is trickier than "follow your heart."

We tend to be terrible at judging our own work. In one study of college professors, 94 percent said they do above-average work. Managers' track record of predicting success is not much better, Grant says, maybe because boss types have incentive to stick to safe ideas that have succeeded before. Because we tend to be overconfident and our managers tend to be under-confident, the lesson is to seek more feedback from peers.

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And not only peers but even adversaries. "The instinct is to go to your peers for support, not critical evaluation. But when you are championing an original idea, you don't need just cheerleaders—you need critics," Grant says. "What's worse: listening to negative feedback on your idea or going forward and having it be a massive failure?" To find a group of peers who can have your back but also tell you the truth, Grant endorses signing up for a Lean In Circle (LeanInCircles.org).

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3. Don't put off what you can do today.

Actually, you should waste more time! Abraham Lincoln had about two weeks to prepare the Gettysburg Address but finished it only that morning. Martin Luther King Jr. had several months to write his address to the March on Washington but winged that whole "I have a dream" thing on the spot. When you start a project or paper, Grant says, your first idea will likely be a conventional one. If you set it aside while your brain keeps working in the background, the result may be more original ideas and more creative expression of them. Taking longer to settle on your plan could also leave you open to improvisation, as MLK proved.

The idea is not to put off work until the last minute but to begin generating possibilities and then take deliberate breaks. Do your most boring, mindless tasks—answering emails, running data—so you have mental energy in reserve. Then toggle back to the think-y stuff. "I will put writing away mid-sentence," Grant says. "When I come back a couple of days later, I have new ideas and the distance to say, 'Who wrote this garbage?'"

Studies also show that people tend to be their most creative when they are less focused. If you're a night owl, try writing first thing in the morning. If you're a morning person, brainstorm before bed. Knead around some ideas in your head, leave them to rise while you dream, and you may wake up with thoughts that are more fully baked.

4. A nice boss is your best ally.

Whatever our ambivalent feelings about "nice guys" in our off hours (great for moving couches, hard to get excited about), having one as a boss seems like an unqualified win. The hitch, per Grant, is that as much as an agreeable boss may love you, he may hate conflict more. "You are going to gravitate toward people who are warm and friendly," he says, "but they are at great risk for being doormats. They may have a hard time fighting battles for you."

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Further, says Grant, we tend to overvalue a coworker's outward style of interacting (Is she cuddly or spiky?) when we should consider her inward motives (Is she a giver who cares about you and the company, or is she a taker who cares only about herself?). As long as they have your best interests at heart, disagreeable people "make some of the best bosses," Grant says. "They show tough love." It's much better to work for a Chandler Bing (cynical hard shell with a sweet creamy filling) than for a Ross Geller (teddy bear stuffed with anger issues).

What if you want to build support for a left-field idea but you have a sweetheart boss who's unlikely to go out on a limb? Instead of going around or above her, ask for advice, says Grant. Say, "I appreciate that you have my back, and now I want to hear from people who are not disposed to like my ideas. Who in the company could give me some tough feedback?"

5. Pick one thing and do it well.

Some women have a wee tendency to over-edit. "Everyone has heard by now that men apply for a job when they are partially qualified, and women wait until they meet one hundred percent of the job criteria," Grant says. "That same tendency gets applied to idea generation." But if you want to increase your odds of doing great work, you need to do a lot of work, according to research by psychologist Dean Keith Simonton, PhD. Thomas Edison had 1,093 patents—not only the phonograph and a practical incandescent light bulb but also what Grant calls a "creepy talking doll." One reason history has fewer eminent women creators, Grant posits, is that caregiving gave women less time to churn out the pure volume of ideas needed to stumble on something brilliant (it's hard to spitball patents when you have 1,093 diapers to change).

Your challenge: Triple the number of ideas you generate, and expect a lot of them to fail. Build up a "micro-community"—a Facebook group, a couple of work friends—to help you decide which are worth pursuing. "Part of how you bond is making yourself more vulnerable," Grant says. "Everybody needs to surround themselves with people who can laugh at their dumb ideas."

***

This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.

PHOTO: Robert Whitman
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