Adam Grant’s Originals: Book Overview

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Originals" by Adam Grant. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Adam Grant’s book Originals about? What do you think is the most important factor in generating original ideas?

In his book Originals, Adam Grant describes the habits and practices of innovators so you too can innovate. You’ll learn the most important factor in generating novel ideas, how procrastination can actually help you generate better ideas, and how to rally an organization to your new idea.

Here is a brief overview of Adam Grant’s Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

Many people want to be more innovative. But how do you generate good ideas? And do you execute to make them real?

That’s exactly what Adam Grant’s Originals is all about—figuring out what it is that makes originals tick, how to cultivate originality, and how to rally others to a disruptive idea.

Below is a quick summary of the key takeaways from Adam Grant’s Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.

Qualities of Originals

The first necessary quality for originals is to question the status quo, and generate concepts that are both novel and useful. Much of modern life is built around conformity – the structure and rules of schooling, uniform career tracks, the social recognition of status and accomplishment. However, this can be suppressive, pushing people into guaranteed success instead of venturing into the unknown, dreading failure instead of aiming for innovation.

Failure to go against the status quo is the reason that many innovative companies aren’t started earlier: people simply don’t take the time to question why the status quo exists, and how it could be better.

Myths of Originals

There are a few things originals are not, contrary to popular belief. Originals do NOT take extreme, uncontrolled risks. Rather, they hedge their risks – often keeping a source of stability (like their fulltime job) while working on their idea on the side. 

  • Sara Blakely, Steve Wozniak, Phil Knight (of Nike), and Larry Page/Sergey Brin all kept up their day jobs while starting the companies for which they’re famed. 
  • One study found that entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs had 33% lower odds of failure than those who quit.

This doesn’t mean they take moderate risks in all dimensions – instead, having one foot in stability allows more radical risks in the other, creating a balanced risk portfolio. The stability prevents the pressure of desperately launching half-baked ideas and publishing manuscripts that aren’t ready. In general, entrepreneurs prefer calculated, managed risks, rather than wild, dangerous, reckless risks.

Originals do NOT fearlessly go forward, as much as the media (and they) want you to believe. They face fear of failure and anxiety. Martin Luther King, Jr and Copernicus alike felt concern over taking on the duties expected of them.

Originals are NOT natural non-conformists who ignore social approval. Studies of entrepreneurs suggest concern for pleasing others wasn’t a predictor of success.

To start being an Original, consider why the world exists as it does, and how you might improve it with a new idea.

Originals: Key Takeaways

Idea generation

  • To generate good new ideas, the most important factor is to generate lots of ideas. Some of them will naturally be good. Don’t try to perfect a few mediocre ideas. 
    • Edison had thousands of patents and Mozart had thousands of pieces, only a handful of which are broadly remembered today.
  • As a habit, question why things are the way they are, and how they could be better. This lets you see the world in a different way and spot great ideas.
  • Broaden your experiences and look to orthogonal fields for inspiration. This facilitates lateral thinking and avoids incremental improvements on what you already know.
  • You’re a terrible judge of your own ideas. You overestimate your abilities. Instead, test your ideas with believable colleagues, and with your target audience.
    • Colleagues have the benefit of domain expertise without a personal stake in your idea.
    • Listen to the feedback you get – don’t get defensive or biased.
  • Procrastination has benefits of avoiding premature optimization. If you lodge a problem in the back of your mind and give it times to marinate, you attack it from a variety of angles and mindsets.

Executing on a new idea

  • First-mover advantage is largely a myth. Companies tend to overestimate the value of novelty, and underestimate the value of taking an existing idea and making it better. 
    • “Settler” companies have the benefit of learning from “pioneer” companies’ costly mistakes, like creating products that customers don’t want.
    • Notable exceptions are where network effects and intellectual property (like patents) apply.
  • Originals don’t necessarily take extreme, uncontrolled risks – rather, they build a balanced risk portfolio, with one foot rooted in stability and the other with more radical risks.
    • For example, many entrepreneurs kept their day jobs while working on their new ideas in free time.

Building new ideas in organizations

  • To push an unpopular idea through an organization, you need to have earned sufficient status and “idiosyncracy credits.” Without this social currency, others will resent you for exerting power without having earned the authority.
    • If you don’t have the status to push an idea through with force, don’t overcompensate by projecting confidence. Instead, practice powerless communication. You’ll lower the listener’s defenses, seem more trustworthy, and appear more analytical.
  • To recruit people, speak to the top and bottom of the totem pole. Senior people are confident in their status and willing to take risks; newcomers are able to take high-risk high-reward bets.
    • Middle managers have too much to lose and are thus conservative.
  • Repeat your idea over and over again. The more familiar it becomes, the easier it becomes to swallow.
    • Don’t build up to a single massive presentation with an immediate vote at the end. Instead, leak the idea in bits and pieces, 
  • To build a movement around a new idea, it needs to be radical enough to stand for something and attract strong missionaries, but not be so radical that it alienates the bulk of potential followers.
    • Grant argues that if “Occupy Wall Street” had instead been branded “the 99%,” it would have had much more enduring success due to less extreme tactics.

Nurturing new ideas in organizations

  • Groupthink stifles new ideas and dissent. Groupthink can originate from a calcified culture that is overconfident about its beliefs; punishing actively dissenting voices and relying on confirmation bias.
  • Encourage culture values of surfacing non-consensus opinions and transparency.
    • Bridgewater and Ray Dalio’s Principles are a good model for this.
  • To have more constructive disagreements, don’t assign a devil’s advocate. These people aren’t fully sincere when arguing the other side, and the opposition knows it. Instead, discover the true devil’s advocate to push the other side.

Childcare

  • To cultivate originality in children, lower the number of rules you enforce, and justify the rationale behind the rules.
  • Generally, lower-born children tend to be more rebellious and original. 
    • This stems from niche selection (older children take the achievement, rule-abiding niche, and younger children differentiate by breaking the mold) and from parents relaxing their rules as they gain parenting experience.
    • However, variation among individuals and environments usually outweighs the general population-level trends, so this is certainly not prescriptive.
  • Notably, child prodigies tend not to be hugely influential. They’re very good at mastering the rules of the game, but not good at inventing totally new games.

When espousing original ideas, you’ll face opposition, setbacks, and anxiety about failure. How do you best cope with this? 

Originality and Pessimism

The final chapter of Originals teaches a variety of tactics to manage uncertainty and anger. The better you can manage your emotions, the more effectively you’ll push your original ideas.

People seem to deal with stress and uncertainty in two ways – strategic optimism and defensive pessimism. Strategic optimists reinforce the belief that things will work out; defensive pessimists predict the worst that could happen in excruciating detail. 

The popular belief is that optimism is preferable, but studies suggest that defensive pessimists do not perform worse than optimists. Despite having more anxiety and less confidence, pessimists visualize all the things that could go wrong, and by controlling their risk, they feel in control. They don’t become paralyzed by fear – once they’ve imagined the worst, they’re driven to avoid it. In a state of anxiety, uncertainty is actually worse than fear or failure. If you want to sabotage a defensive pessimist, just make her happy.

More subtly, optimism and pessimism are optimal with different levels of commitment. When uncommitted to a particular action, defensive pessimism can be destructive – you visualize the failure conditions and can paralyze. It’s better to be optimistic about your chances and reconsider the reasons you’re doing it. Once you’ve committed to an action, it’s better to think defensively and confront them directly.

Framing Your Emotions

Anxiety and excitement provoke the same sympathetic nervous system responses – elevated heart rate, shaking, faster breathing. How you feel about it can change your performance.

In short, telling yourself “I am nervous” makes you perform worse than when you tell yourself “I am excited.” The former reinforces that you’re afraid and applies the brakes. The latter recognizes your uncertainty, but propels you forward

Strength in Numbers

When working on controversial ideas, there is strength in numbers. “The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader.”

No one wants to be the lone dissenter, castigated by all. In the famous Asch experiments, people who worked independently made errors was less than 1%. When confederates unanimously gave the wrong answer, 37% of responses became incorrect. 75% of participants gave at least one incorrect answer. But when a single confederate dissented, the error rate dropped down to 5.5 %.

Make people feel less alone when supporting an unpopular idea. In dictatorship overthrows in the Middle East, dissenters guarded their opinions, scared of being disappeared if they became too public vocally. To combat this:

  • The rebellion strategists used public symbols of closed fists to give the impression that other rebels existed, even if they weren’t publicly visible.
  • Instead of outward public dissent, they organized peaceful protest signals, like turning their lights on and off at a predetermined time, or carrying their TVs in wheelbarrows. 

Outsourcing Inspiration

When communicating the vision of your company or organization, bring in the people affected by your work, rather than relying solely on the company leaders. An experiment related to college fundraisers showed that bringing in a student who benefited from scholarships raised motivation and funds raised significantly. 

Similarly, when the Skype founder stressed the need for video calls on a tight timeline, the team questioned the technical feasibility and felt anxious. But they framed the problem around connecting people. Each week they brought in people whose lives were made possible only by Skype – a couple who rekindled their relationship, a serviceman who was with his family virtually over Christmas. This transformed anxiety to excitement.

Adam Grant’s Originals: Book Overview

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  • How to generate innovative ideas
  • Why quantity is the key to quality
  • How rules can inhibit a child's originality

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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