Book Review: Originals by Adam Grant

11 Inspiring Lessons from Originals by Adam Grant

Originals – How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant is a wonderful inspiring book. Adam Grant has done an excellent job in communicating succinctly that creativity is something which is within the grasp of all of us. Yes there are some deja vu moments (“I’ve seen this before”) but as Adam Grant suggests we should look for vu jade moments (“I’ve never experienced this before”) as well. Originality is an act of creative destruction. Here are the 11 lessons I gleaned from the book. 

Question the default – In an interesting study in a call center they found that people who use Firefox and chrome browsers are more productive at work and are less likely to leave compared to IE and Safari users. This is because they took initiative and chose to change the default which is usually Internet Explorer. Rejecting the default is the starting point of curiosity which is a key to creativity. Vuja de is when we see things in a fresh perspective and only when we do that we can question the default. Another example sighted is Donna Dubinsky who stood up to Steve Jobs many times and still managed to get promoted. The example sighted here was in 1985 when Steve Jobs wanted to eliminate Apple’s warehouses and instead apply the Just in Time philosophy. Donna felt this wouldn’t work and stood up to Steve jobs requesting for 30 days to come up with an alternative plan which she did successfully. The greatest presidents are the ones who challenged the status quo – for example Abraham Lincoln agonized over 6 months whether he should sign the emancipation proclamation before doing it. I like this line which said, “He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.”

Don’t leave your day job – This is an interesting suggestion since most people think they have to leave everything they are doing now to pursue any entrepreneurial options. There are numerous examples sighted actually saying that past masters actually continued in their day jobs before they established themselves in their field. Pierre Omidyar worked in his day job even after founding eBay and only made it full time nine months after the company’s first auction launched. Larry Page tried to sell Google in 1997 and we wouldn’t know what would have happened if that had come through.

T.S. Eliot is an interesting study as he had to overcome some limitations physically which led to his isolation resulting in his deep love of literature. Eliot worked as a school teacher and to earn extra money he wrote book reviews and lectured at evening courses. Despite writing world renowned poems he remained in the publishing firm Faber and Faber till the end of his career. Being in a publishing firm gave him stability. In a study sighted in the book, entrepreneurs who kept their day job actually did better than those who went all in.  The key lesson here is to embrace danger in one domain whiling being careful in the other domain or part of your life. Stability in one area of your life can enable you take risks in another area.

Protect your downside – Again we think of entrepreneurs as being wild risk takers but what the research has found is that all successful entrepreneurs protect their downside. Taking calculated risks is the key which means you have enough oxygen canisters in case you fail. A great example is Bill Gates who took a leave of absence from Harvard to work with Paul Allen and didn’t just quit straight which showcases the protection of the downside. Richard Branson put it nicely when he said “It is only by being bold that you get anywhere. If you are a risk-taker, then the art is to protect the downside.” 

Have some interesting hobbies – A lot of the Noble prize winners were excellent in other domains like painting and they had the wonderful quality of openness which is being able to experience something without any strings attached. Charles Darwin was an active hiker in his youth which ties into his love of nature, Galileo was into inventing things and drawing and Einstein’s hobbies included hiking, sailing, biking and of course playing his violin.

Defensive pessimism – This is an interesting suggestion and the example provided here was Babble founder Rufus Griscom. When he was pitching investors for Babble, he started the presentation with “ the 5 reasons why you shouldn’t invest in this business”. This is totally counter intuitive but this is an excellent form of powerless communication. When others have to think hard to come up with things on why something should not be done it actually makes it positive from their point of view and it obviously worked big time for Rufus.  Leading with weakness disarms the audience.

Keep adding to your body of work – This suggestion is simple but vital. All the greats we know like Shakespeare, Picasso, and Mozart produced a great amount of work and we remember only a few. For example in a span of decades Shakespeare produced so many plays but we only remember a few and Einstein had more than 248 publications but many of them didn’t have impact. The lesson here is to do a large volume of work to have a higher chance of producing original work. I think this again proves the Pareto principle as 80% of your work could be ignored but it is the minority 20% that will get you all the credit. 

Put yourself out of business – “Kill the company” is a term credited to Lisa Bodell. The main aim of this strategy is to discuss how your company can be put of business and make detailed points on how this could happen. Then come up with answers on how that should be prevented. This is an excellent method to ensure you never go out of business.

Parenting Skills – I liked the section on parenting in the book. One of the examples provided is that a majority of the baseball players who stole second base were not first born. They were born later and though their ability was not too different from the first born, their propensity to risk was far higher. Another key for raising great children is to ensure they have positive role models – for example, Gandhi was the role model for Martin Luther King. For Elon Musk, reading the Lord of the Rings shaped his world view. Having kids read about heroes, real or fiction, helps them see great possibilities. One more suggestion I liked was if we see our child doing something wrong, rather than telling them directly to stop doing it we can instead say “By doing this you are going to hurt your sister. You don’t want to hurt her do you?” This generally generates a combination of empathy and guilt which results in reducing the negative action.

Don’t play devil’s advocate – Most of the time a lot of organizations make someone play devil’s advocate but this doesn’t work all the time. The better way is to genuinely find someone who doesn’t agree with what is being done and then have them play devil’s advocate. This actually ensures authenticity and fosters a more open communication. (Instead of pretending to be “for” something, find someone who actually is)

Become a procrastinator – This was interesting as all of us have heard things like procrastination is the thief of time or even as some say procrastination is the thief of life. However Martin Luther King prepared for his famous speech only 4 days before the actual event and he kept his close confidants working on it even the night before the speech. Apparently the original speech didn’t have the line “I have a dream” and he actually improvised on it when his favorite gospel singer Mahalia Jackson yelled “tell them about the dream Martin” and he uttered it only on the 11th minute of his speech. The point is sometimes we work better when we are closer to the deadline than planning it endlessly and we should improvise when needed. Another example is Abraham Lincoln who was preparing his Gettysburg speech even on the day it was going to be delivered.  In this section the Zeigarnik effect is mentioned which was named after the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik and it basically says that we have a better memory of incomplete items than the ones which are completed.

Power without Status – The example of the CIA analyst Carmen Medina is mentioned in this section. Basically she said the way information was being transmitted was not good enough within the organization and there has to be a way to enable information flow through the internet. Her proposal was rejected multiple times and she was constantly receiving opposition to drop her proposal due to her lack of status and power in the organization. The best part is that she never gave up and she spoke up again for an online system after she decided to relocate to the information/security division of the organization and gain status/power/followers that way. Finally, Intellipedia which is an internal Wikipedia within the CIA was formed and this was because she learned how to eventually convey her ideas by gaining status and merit within the organization.  Upon her retirement from CIA she received the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal.