Book Summary

Originals By ADAM GRANT


Adam Grant starts up the book by explaining that there are two routes to achievement: conformity or originality. Conformity means following the crowd down a conventional path and maintaining the status quo originality is taking the road less traveled, champion a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better.

It’s okay to simply conform but if you want to be a leader, if you want to leave this world better than you found it, you need to find a way to be original. But you may think: I’m not the creative type or I just don’t have the guts to go against the grain. But Adam says after spending years studying them and interacting with the ‘originals’ that, “I’m struck that their inner experiences are not any different from our own. They feel the same fear, the same doubt as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action any way. They know in their hearts that failing would yield less regret than failing to try.”

To chart the course towards originality you need to hone your creativity. After reading Adams book, I gathered five ways anyone can use to foster their creativity.

  1. Question the default
  2. Protect your downside
  3. Get domain experience and then broaden
  4. Become an idea machine
  5. Procrastinate on purpose

An economist named Michael Houseman looked over data of 30,000 customer service agents at a call center and he found something peculiar. He found that the customer agents who used the web browsers Firefox and Chrome were much more likely to have increased job satisfaction, to have better customer satisfaction and to stay in their jobs longer as well as miss fewer days of work.

How is it possible that a browser selection would be an indication of increased job performance and increased job satisfaction? Well, it turns out that you’re a chrome user or you’re a Firefox user, then you’re naturally going away from the default. You see, when you get a Windows PC or when you get a Mac Book, you’re given a browser by default. Windows has the Explorer, for Mac it is Safari. The simple act of not accepting the default browser was an indication for how they approach their work in general.

Adam says, “The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. I’ve spent more than a decade studying this and it turns out to be far less difficult than I expected. The starting point is curiosity; pondering why the default exists in the first place.” Adam says that when you remember that the rules and systems were created by people it becomes clear that they’re not set in stone and you begin to consider how they can be improved.

The second step to defining your creative and original self is protecting your downside. What do you think of when I say the word entrepreneur? Personally, when I first encountered entrepreneurs I thought they were rebellious risk takers going against the grain, really standing out. It’s either they made it or they’re busted.

In fact the word entrepreneur literally means ‘bearer of risk’ so it’s not uncommon to think this way. So what do you think the results were of a 14 year study that compared 5000 entrepreneurs, some of whom were risk takers and some of whom were risks adverse? Who was more successful in the end; those who were risk adverse or those who put it all on the line?

The study showed that the entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs, who protected their downside, had 33% lower odds of failure than those who quit their day jobs. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs in history have elected to play it safe and keep their jobs as they pursue their original ideas.

Take Bill Gates for example. You may think of him for being famous for dropping out of Harvard to start Microsoft but Adam says that when Gates sold a new software program as a sophomore, he waited an entire year before leaving school. Even then he didn’t drop out but balanced his risk portfolio by applying for a leave of absence that was formally approved by the University and having his parents bankroll him.

Google founders had a solid search algorithm in 1996 but they didn’t leave their Graduate Studies at Stanford until 1998. They said, “We almost didn’t start Google because we were too worried about dropping out of our PhD. Program.”

Henry Ford stayed working for Thomas Edison for two years after making the carburetor; an invention that should have propelled him to start a business but he remained cautious.

Why were these so-called risk takers so risk adverse? Their advantage came from having psychological insurance, giving them permission to be wild and original in one part of their life while having a solid fallback plan in case their ideas don’t work out.

Adam says that we should embrace danger in one area and exercise caution in another. He says, “if you’re about to bet aggressively in blackjack, you might drive below the speed limit on your way to the casino.”

Next, you must gain domain expertise but then learn to broaden your views. The act of being creative is the act of recognizing patterns and combining things in a novel way. To do so, we need to trust our intuition; our pattern recognizing supercomputer. But Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and decision expert Gary Klein explained intuitions are only trustworthy when people build up experience making judgments in a predictable environment.

Adam gives us an example of what happens when we fail to do so. Back when the Segway was coming out Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos threw the most brilliant minds in the technology field; they invested heavily in the Segway. The inventor of the Segway projected 10,000 sales a week. After six years, it only sold 30,000.

So how could Jobs and Bezos be so wrong? For an original idea to be a success, it must be both novel and practical. Jobs and Bezos were so rich and so out of touch with what the average consumer finds practical that their intuitions mislead them. They weren’t creators in the transportation space and therefore they couldn’t accurately predict a creative idea.

To be creative in a given field you must have experience trying to create something in that field much like the saying, ‘to be in business you need to be in business.’ Only an interaction with the real landscape can allow you to see creative solutions and opportunities for innovation.

However, Rice University Professor Erik Dane says that the more expertise and experience people gain, the more entrenched they become in a particular way of viewing the world. He points to studies showing that expert bridge players struggled more than novices to adapt when the rules were changed and that expert accountants were worse than novices at applying a new tax law. As we gain creative expertise within the domain we become prisoners of our prototypes.

To combat this we need to broaden our interests. A recent study comparing every Nobel prize-winning scientist from 1901- 2005 found that scientists who were engaged in the arts were much more likely to win the Nobel Prize.

Drawing and painting made you seven times more likely to have a creative breakthrough to win a Nobel. Writing plays or short stories made you 12 times more likely to have that creative breakthrough and performing arts or dancing made you 22 times more likely to have the creative breakthrough to win a Nobel Prize. One of the best physicists of our time, Richard Feynman, was also a stand-up comedian, a bongo player, an artist and a safe-cracker.

Next, become an idea machine. In the realm of creativity, quantity equals quality. Shakespeare, over the span of two decades produced 37 plays and 154 sonnets. Mozart composed over 600 pieces before he was 35. Einstein wrote papers on general and special relativity that transformed physics but he also had 248 publications that had minimal impact.

Adam says that, “It’s widely assumed that there’s a trade-off between quantity and quality. If you want to do better work you have to do less of it but this turns out to be false in fact when it comes to idea generation quantity is the most predictable path to quality.” It’s best to think of yourself like a baseball batter as Randy Komisar puts it, “If I’m hitting .300, I am a genius.” So get in the habit of running down ideas.

The last step to systematically becoming more creative is to procrastinate on purpose. Adam tells a fascinating story about Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King didn’t start writing his ‘I have a dream’ speech until 10:00 p.m. the night before. As he approached the stage he was still scribbling down edits to his speech.

It made Adam wonder, “Was the act of procrastination the reason why King gave such an original speech?” Adam and one of his doctoral students tested this hypothesis. They collected a group of people, they had them learn about a creative task and then play a game called minesweeper to procrastinate before actually doing the task. What they found that those who played the game, those who procrastinated on purpose, had a 28% increase in creativity.

It turns out that if you’re intrinsically motivated to solve a problem and you start working on that problem but then take a break, you are much more likely to have creativity because of what is called the Zeigarnik effect.

In 1927, Russian psychologists, Bluma Zeigarnik demonstrated that people have a better memory for incomplete than complete tasks. Once a task is finished, we stop thinking about it but when it is interrupted and left undone, it stays active in our minds thus allowing you to make more lateral connections to different information you encounter throughout the day. Adam says that procrastination may be the enemy of productivity but it can be a resource for creativity.

If you dare to be original and creative, question the default: remember the call agents who didn’t accept the default browser. Protect your downside: remember gates and Ford who played it safe. Gates got a leave of absence and Ford kept his job. Get domain experience then broaden: remember Steve Jobs failure of intuition and the increased success of the Nobel Prize winners who were engaged in other activities. Become an idea machine: if you’re batting .300 you’re doing great and finally procrastinate on purpose: remember Martin Luther King writing a speech at 10:00 p.m., but also remember that he worked on that speech for an entire year.

Those are the five principles of creativity that I gathered from Adams book


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