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

This is a thought-provoking read– especially if you are of a mind to be an innovator of any sort.

It begins with a quote from GB Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” And the story of Warby Parker and what a set of constrained friends were able to achieve because they were unhappy with the status quo.

Parts of the book provide insights into case studies that are interesting, to say the least, as a way to illustrate some of the thinking Grant puts forward. And, through the book, Grant questions the basic premise of originality– white space. “Being original doesn’t require being first. It just means being different and better.”

He also delves into a few deep-seated ideas around originality– like child prodigies who rarely go on to change the world– and identifies a few new ones. “The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.” And contrary to common expectations, entrepreneurship and forgoing original paths is not really the purview of high-risk takers. “… the most successful originals are not the daredevils who leap before they look.”

The bias of overconfidence is another key topic with several interesting examples including those of Dean Kamen and his Segway and Seinfeld– which met with both interest and resistance from completely unexpected quarters.

Quoting Albert Einstein, “Great spirits have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds”, Grant draws attention to the fact that pioneering ideas need to garner support. Being in a minority while presenting an unfamiliar thought or idea to a new, unaware audience (seeking their support for it) means working against the tide to bring in the level of understanding and support you already have for an idea that has taken shape over time in your head. This also means going out on a limb to ensure your audience buys into the same big picture. Quite a tall order.

Counterintuitively, Grant makes a case for procrastination, as ideas foment in the subconscious to bring up the best in a way that staying focused may not bring in. The most famous words of Martin Luther King are attributed to the Zeigarnik effect– people have a better memory for incomplete than complete tasks.

Grant points out that the downsides of being the first mover are frequently bigger than the upsides. When originals rush to be pioneers, they are prone to overstep. The kinds of people who choose to be late movers may be better suited to succeed as they are more risk-averse. further, they tend to improve on existing ideas to make things better. They are also more likely to be more observant and responsive to changing markets and consumer tastes. Quoting Bill Gross, the founder of IdeaLab, “Timing accounted for forty-two percent of the difference between success and failure”.

Delving into the role of age in innovation, Grant points out the differences between conceptual and experimental innovation. “The real enemies of conceptual innovation are the establishment of fixed habits of thought”. Young achievers maybe more conceptual innovators while old masters tend toward more experimental work. Sustaining originality as we age and accumulate experience may necessitate a more experimental approach.

Coalitions and the “narcissism of small differences” require beginning from novelty with the addition of familiarity to ensure original ideas are judged as practical.
Birth order, as well as exposure to role models– real or fictional– impact awareness of niches that may never have existed, and foster originality.

“‘Shapers’ are independent thinkers: curious, non-conforming, and rebellious. They practice brutal, nonhierarchical honesty. And they act in the face of risk, because their fear of not succeeding exceeds their fear of failing… The greatest shapers don’t stop at introducing originality into the world. They create cultures that unleash originality in others.”

“Becoming original is not the easiest path in the pursuit of happiness, but it leaves us perfectly poised for the happiness of pursuit”.

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