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1-Page Book Summary of Originals

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...

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Originals Summary Chapter 1: Creative Destruction

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. Possibly for this reason, child prodigies who show mastery at an early age tend not to become agents of massive change - they are very good at learning established rules, but not at breaking them or designing a totally new game.

(Unfortunately, studies suggest that the poor tend to accept the status quo more readily. This might be a defense mechanism termed “system justification” - if the system exists for a good reason and people deserve their fate, then life becomes a bit more bearable and sensical.)

And so the reason that many innovative companies aren’t started earlier is that many people simply don’t take the time to question why the status quo exists, and how it could be better. (Shortform note: This is one antidote to the common criticism, “if it’s such a good idea, why doesn’t it exist already?)

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...

Originals Summary Chapter 2: Blind Inventors and One-Eyed Investors

How do you come up with good ideas?

By far the most important way is to generate LOTS of ideas. Most of them won’t be very good, but some of them will be gems. You increase your chances of getting a gem by creating more ideas. Despite being widely known for just a few seminal works, Mozart, Picasso, and Edison each had thousands of compositions/pieces/patents. This is much better than generating few ideas and trying to perfect them.

You can also increase your creativity by having a breadth of experience in orthogonal fields (like engineering x art) over a sustained period of time. The more different, the better. A popular study found that Nobel prize winners were more likely to be thespians and creatives than non-Nobel-winning professors.

But if you generate lots of ideas, you have limited resources and you can’t pursue them all. How do you tell which ideas are good?

First off, you’re a terrible judge of your own ideas. We generally all suffer from overconfidence in our own abilities. Like the Lake Wobegon effect, we tend to believe we and our ideas are better than they really are, and we find it hard to let go of our favorite ideas. When confronted with opposing evidence, we fall prey to confirmation bias, more readily accepting evidence that reinforce our prior beliefs. And we falsely believe that a new idea is unique and immune from criticism for previous failures - those were bad ideas, this one is different.

Instead, test your ideas with believable colleagues and with your target audience. Colleagues have the benefit of domain expertise (making them credible evaluators) and lack of a personal stake in your idea (preventing them from being risk averse and closed to new ideas). Therefore, they’re the best positioned to point out flaws in your idea, which you should openly consider without being defensive or biased.

Similarly, your target users will openly tell you how your idea will fit into their lives and whether it might be pointless. (However, it’s important that users be observed in a natural environment, rather than a focus-group...

Shortform Exercise: Generating and Testing Ideas

Use this exercise to create more novel ideas and validate them.

Generating more ideas is important to finding the few good ones. What are some ways you can generate more ideas in your daily life?

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Originals Summary Chapter 3: Out on a Limb - Speaking Truth to Power

Once you have an idea, you’ll likely need to bring other people onboard, whether as investors or teammates. How do you become most persuasive?

First, you have to earn status to exert power. Status is earned through real contributions, credibility, and reputation. Earning status gives you “idiosyncracy credits,” or the latitude to deviate from norms.

  • (This also seems to work in reverse - college professors who dress casually are accorded more authority than those who don’t. A student infers that the casual professors have earned their idiosyncracy, whereas the formal dressers need to work harder to compensate for lack of authority.)

In contrast, if you try to exert power without status, you will be resented as speaking out of turn. You’ll also be punished, since you challenge others’ authority and they seek to put you back in your place. (An interesting study shows that research subjects who are told their peer looks down on them make the peer do more degrading tasks, compared to those who are told their peer admires them.)

Second, if you’re likely to get a skeptical, defensive reaction, try powerless communication. Many people, when threatened, try to bluff their way through it. They flash badges of authority, present only the best evidence, and hide their weaknesses. This actually evokes the opposite reaction - you feel like you’re trying too hard, and you must be hiding something.

Instead, do the opposite - express doubt and highlight weaknesses. Tell your audience why your idea might fail; signal that you don’t know everything. This makes listeners more receptive to your ideas because:

  • It lowers their defenses. Hostile listeners are aware that someone is trying to persuade them, and unbridled optimism seems too sales-y and dishonest. If you attack yourself, the listener is content that his points are addressed and is put into a more constructive mindset.
  • It makes you appear smarter. Presenters who don’t explicitly consider counter-arguments seem to have done only a cursory analysis. By pointing out possible weaknesses, you...

Shortform Exercise: Presenting Ideas

Use this exercise to learn how to present ideas that might be controversial.

In the near future, are you going to present something where you expect skepticism from your audience? How could you specifically try powerless communication? Tips: express doubt, highlight weaknesses.

Originals Summary Chapter 4: Fools Rush In - Timing, Strategic Procrastination, and the First-Mover Disadvantage

This Originals chapter deals with three loosely related themes on the benefits of waiting: procrastinating, the myth of first-mover advantage, and innovation at older ages.

The Creative Benefits of Procrastinating

The consensus around productivity states that procrastinating is a disease that should be stamped out, that we should always plan our work on timelines and get a head start.

But procrastination is useful to avoid too early of a commitment to an idea. If you lodge a problem in the back of your mind and give it time to marinate, you attack it from a variety of angles. You consider it in relaxed states, free from time pressure, which allows divergent thinking (hence the pattern of coming up with best ideas in the shower or on the toilet). You make incremental progress by testing and refining different possibilities.

By procrastinating, you also allow for greater input from your colleagues. If you decide early and set a strict timeline, there’s little strategic flexibility.

Then, as you near the deadline, you assemble the breadth of options you’ve considered, and then you can then focus down on the best one.

Importantly, for procrastination to have these creative benefits, you need to be intrinsically motivated to solve the problem. Procrastinating when you hate the problem and feel little urge to solve it likely doesn’t end up with better ideas.

(Shortform note: You might also get the best of both worlds through structured creativity - enforce a timeline of activities that will take you to your deadline, but force yourself to have midpoint brainstorming to broaden your possibilities.)

The Myth of First-Mover Advantage

An entrepreneurial myth is that the first mover will seize the spoils. Businesses that move first should seize brand recognition, gain size quickly, and ward off new entrants. The myth is also confounded by its truth in select industries, like patent filing priority and academic publications, both requiring novelty.

The data suggest otherwise **- “pioneer” companies...

Originals Summary Chapter 5: Goldilocks and the Trojan Horse - Creating and Maintaining Coalitions

When you try to gather support for your new idea, you need to strike a Goldilocks zone in radicalism - radical enough to stand for something and not be tepid, but conservative enough to avoid alienating a mainstream audience. People external to the movement tend to identify it with its most radical position, not its median. As the originator of a movement, you’ll tend to be on the radical side, and you may need to temper the cause, or at least how you present it to the outside world.

Occupy Wall Street largely faded out, partly because its insistence on the disruptive,radical behavior in its name alienated many who otherwise would have aligned with the cause. Not many people want to camp out to effect change, nor might they think it the most effective method. Instead, if they had instead rallied around the “we are the 99%” theme, it would unify groups of people using their own preferred tactics, and the movement might still be ongoing.

Being just right in radicalism can be a difficult balance. The more radical people within the group tend to accuse the more moderate ones of selling out or not doing enough. Counter-intuitively, the radicals dislike moderates (who largely agree on the fundamentals) more than they dislike people on the other side of the spectrum. To wit, members of the black community sometimes pull down others for not being black enough, radical environmental activists decry Greenpeace for being too corporate, vegans dislike vegetarians more than meat-eaters. In the extreme, this can splinter your group into separate factions.

When trying to find allies for your cause, find overlap between your desired outcomes. Instead of trying to change someone’s ideals, present your values as a means of pursuing their goals. The women’s suffrage movement found an unlikely ally among the temperance movement, who were mostly female but socially conservative and preferring traditional gender roles. The overlap was this: women’s suffrage would allow temperance voters to be a greater advocate for alcohol abuse. Achieving suffrage would allow temperance supporters...

Shortform Exercise: Building Alliances

Do you need to attract followers to your idea? Think about how to best approach them.

Which person or group of people would be a valuable partner for what you’re trying to do? How does your mission allow them to reach their own goals? Can you explain this to them to recruit them?

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Originals Summary Chapter 6: Rebel with a Cause - How Siblings, Parents, and Mentors Nurture Originality

Here Originals takes a turn away from how to execute as an original, to how originality is cultivated. How do our childhood environments affect our tendency for rebelliousness and risk-seeking?

Birth order has a very strong effect - firstborn children tend to be conscientious and dominant, showing achievement along classical lines - income, academic achievement, Nobel Prize winning (but apparently only until age 30, when the differences even out). Lastborn children are more likely to be risk-seeking, rebellious, and unconventional. (Middle children tend to be more diplomatic, having to negotiate between the extreme members of the sibling group.) This tends to be true regardless of child gender.

Suggestive observational studies:

  • in baseball, stealing bases is a very risky, not necessarily optimal play. Younger brothers are 10.6x more likely than older siblings to steal a base.
  • laterborn children are more likely to adopt revolutionary scientific ideas like Copernican astronomy and Darwinian evolution, even controlling for the mentally calcifying effects of age
  • rebels were twice as likely to be lastborn as firstborn
  • of a list of the top 100 comedians, 83% were more likely to be lastborn than chance would predict. (why is this relevant? not only is comedy an unconventional career, it requires humor, explained below)
  • riskier jobs tend to be taken up by lastborn

A few models try to explain this pattern. First is niche picking. Like animal species in ecology, children try to find a niche to thrive in, avoiding direct competition with their siblings when there’s little hope of outshining them. Free of competition, the firstborn child models after the parents, based on rules and authority. This child performs well in school and traditional structure. When a new child arrives, the older child, risking being dethroned, emulate their parents, enforcing rules and authority over the younger sibling. **The younger child, seeking an identity, finds it difficult to compete with the firstborn...

Originals Summary Chapter 7: Rethinking Groupthink

Groupthink suppresses dissenting opinions, for the sake of social harmony and conformity. In organizations, this can become toxic. The best ideas should always surface, regardless of what fraction of people believe it and how threatening it can be to any portion of the company.

Company culture is cheered as pivotal in company success. In reality it can be a mixed bag.

  • Pros
    • An emphasis on culture leads to recruiting people who share beliefs on mission and tactics, making work feel invigorating and possibly improving retention.
    • Hiring for culture also allows spotting of underpriced talent who lack credentials but have energy and growth potential.
    • In stable industries, large companies with strong cultures have more reliable financial performance.
  • Cons
    • By its very stabilizing nature, culture can become calcified over time, making a company obsolete in volatile industries. If people come together for a mission and strategy, upheaving this is difficult.
      • In the 1980s Xerox became dominated by a sales culture, pushing product innovation to the wayside as microcomputers disrupted the industry.
    • Culture can limit diversity, as hirers progressively filter people for fitting their stereotype of the model employee. You’ll have a team of people who reinforce rather than challenge each other’s perspectives.

How does groupthink occur?

At one point, organizational theory experts had a consensus was that groupthink came from team cohesion - too-friendly relations between teammates. The theory proposed: if people became too chummy, they’d resist voicing dissent to avoid upsetting their friend. So for some time, managers distances coworkers from one another. But this idea wasn’t supported by research - cohesive groups weren’t more likely to dismiss divergent opinions; cohesive groups were more likely to be secure enough to challenge one another. So this theory fell out of favor.

Others proposed that groupthink came from the practice of withholding criticism during brainstorming. This, too, was rejected: a...

Originals Summary Checklist: Brainstorming Effectively to Reduce Groupthink

Refer to this checklist the next time you need to practice brainstorming.

  • Stress how the group shouldn’t be overconfident about their position. Try to feel like an underdog, and be worried about what you’re missing.
  • Don’t worry about restricting criticism - dissenting opinions are useful.
  • Discover true believers for the...

Originals Summary Chapter 8: Rocking the Boat and Keeping it Steady - Managing Anxiety, Apathy, Ambivalence, and Anger

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

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.

The Benefits of Pessimism

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...

Shortform Exercise: Managing Emotions While Innovating

Innovation is hard. Here’s an exercise on how to manage your emotions as you try to innovate.

Strategic optimists reinforce the belief that things will work out; defensive pessimists predict the worst that could happen in excruciating detail. Do you consider yourself naturally a strategic optimist or a defensive pessimist?