“…the most successful originals are not the daredevils who leap before they look. They are the ones who reluctantly tiptoe to the edge of a cliff, calculate the rate of descent, triple-check their parachutes, and set up a safety net at the bottom just in case.”

 

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant (2016, WH Allen)

1. INTRODUCTION

The organisational psychologist Adam Grant (born 1981, Harvard and Michigan alum, @AdamMGrant) holds the distinction of being the youngest tenured and the highest rated professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. A LinkedIn influencer and New York Times contributing opinion writer, he is also, as of 2015, one of the world’s top 25 management thinkers with a consulting client list that includes Google, Pixar, the U.S. Army and Navy, the United Nations and the World Economic Forum. Previously, he was an advertising director, a springboard diver and a professional magician. Grant happens to be a close friend of Sheryl Sandberg – COO of Facebook and founder of LeanIn.org (in fact, I first learnt about him when Sandberg shared this particular post of his on Facebook) – who has penned the Foreword to his second and latest book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World – a collection of fascinating insights on the habits of creative thinkers and actors (whatever their area of operation; business or politics or science or art) gathered over a decade. How can we champion novel ideas and values without risking it all? How can we generate new policies and practices without jeopardising our relationships, reputations and careers? This book gives us guidelines to go against the grain, battle conformity, buck outdated traditions, identify which proposals will actually work, pitch concepts with confidence, close the gap between insight and action – and, through all of that, to improve the world in which we live.

2. STRUCTURE AND SALIENT POINTS

Firstly, what is “originality” and who exactly is an “original”? Grant clarifies:

Of course, nothing is completely original, in the sense that all of our ideas are influenced by what we learn from the world around us…By my definition, originality involves introducing and advancing an idea that’s relatively unusual within a particular domain, and that has the potential to improve it. Originality itself starts with creativity: generating a concept that is both novel and useful. But it doesn’t stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality.

The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. Originality is fueled by dissatisfaction and curiosity. That originality requires radical risk taking is a huge misconception. In fact, originals have pretty balanced risk portfolios. They always have backup plans. They offset extreme risk taking in one area of their lives with extreme caution and conventionality in another area. This may sound surprising but many successful entrepreneurs continue with their day jobs even after the profits begin to pour in [I. Creative Destruction]. Next, how can companies, communities and countries assess the viability of ideas? How can potential investors avoid the errors of false positives (overvaluing an idea) and false negatives (undervaluing an idea)? One way would be by checking the idea generator’s enthusiasm for the execution of and not just passion for the idea. Also, writes Grant, originals tend to maximise their odds of creating a masterpiece when they come up with a large number of ideas. Shakespeare wrote 37 plays! Edison held 1093 patents! – There’s hardly a trade-off between quantity and quality. Quantity, in fact, helps one to stumble upon quality. Greater volume of work gives them variation and consequently, a higher chance of originality [II. Blind Investors and One-Eyed Investors].

In III. Out on a Limb, Grant discusses the importance of timing. When should an employee voice their suggestions in an organisation? When they have enough of a “status”, that is, respect and admiration. “Power”, which involves control or authority over others, should never be exercised before a certain status is attained. The subsequent chapter [IV. Fools Rush In] explores “strategic procrastination”. Originals may be quick to start but slow to finish. When you delay and postpone “you buy yourself the time to engage in divergent thinking rather than foreclosing on one particular idea”. Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity but it can be a resource for creativity.

Originals may have groundbreaking ideas but how can they form alliances to advance their goals? How can they effectively maintain coalitions? How can they overcoming the skepticism of key stakeholders? Grant says through the practice of tempered radicalism. Your ideas may make sense to yourself but not to others. Start with small requests, moderate demands, give people a point of reference, something they can relate to – otherwise you will appear incomprehensible and lose them [V. Goldilocks and the Trojan Horse]. In VI. Rebel with a Cause, Grant explains how we can instill a strong sense of ethics in children and help them cultivate their ability of taking initiatives. Disciplining them by highlighting the consequences of their actions for others (rather than just punishing or scolding them) and giving them access to stories of other originals (historical or fictional) are just two ways.

The penultimate chapter deals with the enemy of originality – groupthink – that tendency to seek consensus instead of fostering dissent. This normally happens due to overconfidence and reputational concerns and can be mightily costly for companies. That’s why leaders must unearth Devil’s Advocate – someone who can oppose the majority [VII. Rethinking Groupthink]. Finally, in VIII. Rocking the Boat and Keeping It Steady, Grant examines the emotional drama involved in going against the grain and provides valuable observations on pessimism and anger.

3. WHAT I APPRECIATED/WHY YOU MAY WANT TO READ THIS BOOK

The tips provided are genuinely practical; most will be able to apply them. I enjoyed the wide range of examples used – from Leonardo da Vinci and T. S. Eliot to Martin Luther King Jr. and Larry Page and Sergey Brin. There was much to learn. One point that particularly stood out for me was the issue of gender and race when it comes to getting your opinions heard and accepted. Unfortunately, Grant is honest and brave enough to point out, in male-dominated organisations, woman still pay a price for voicing new ideas, even when revenue-generating. Members with double minority status (females of colour) face double jeopardy. When women of colour fail, they are evaluated much more harshly than coloured male and white leaders of both sexes. Grant gives examples of Puerto Rican- and African-American women facing problems at work. At this point, I was immediately reminded of the celebrated Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid (1950-2016) who claimed she had been the victim of “xenophobia, racism, misogyny, you name it”. Notable also was Grant’s discussion of child prodigies. Despite early success (in music or chess or science or language), they rarely go on to change the world. Why is that? Because precocious kids tend to “focus their energy on consuming existing knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to the codified rules of established games, rather than inventing their own rules or their own games.” Practice might make perfect, but it doesn’t make new.

4. DEFICIENCIES, AMBIGUITIES AND OTHER PROBLEMS

Originality, for Grant, is not a genetic condition (fixed trait) but an act of the will (free choice) – I agree. At the heart of Originals is the argument that anyone can learn to be a creative leader/non-conformist if they simply follow the guidelines provided – which, I think, is certainly an empowering thought. At the same time, I feel that this line of reasoning could be challenged by those theories of psychology that take into deep consideration the contextual and situational factors behind the behaviours and achievements of individuals. As this Guardian article “The mistake we all make…and the simple experiment that reveals it” observes, behind many successful people lies a string of lucky breaks and dumb luck that we have no inkling about (examples given are those of Bill Gates being from an affluent, well-equipped background and economists who get their PhDs in a “fat year”). The article is an excerpt from the book Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking by the American social psychologist Richard Nisbett which Grant himself has recommended (I haven’t read the whole book and it may not, overall, be opposed to Grant’s ideas). Anyway, what I mean to say is that when circumstance is used as a reference point a whole new set of questions can crop up regarding when who where can “afford” to be a non-conformist. To what extent can we emulate which successful non-conformist of this world?

5. CONCLUDING REMARKS

I would rate Originals 8.5/10. It is an elegantly written book that will be as pertinent to the stay-at-home parent as it will be to the established CEO. Given that Adam Grant has a long career before him, I hope he releases many more interesting psychological studies in future. Originals makes me want to pick up another important book of his – Give and Take (2013).

 

Additional Resources:

Here is Grant’s TED talk and an episode of the New York-based Good Life Project (host is Jonathan Fields) in which he discusses his book. Grant’s New York Times articles “Raising a Moral Child” (April 11, 2014) and “How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off” (January 30, 2016) are also worth a read.

 

Featured Image Credit: Pixabay

 

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Preview Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant.

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