Book Notes - Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
A summary of Adam Grant's 2016 bestseller.
Originals by Adam Grant is an excellent book about creativity that I recently re-read. You can check it out on Amazon or Goodreads. I've distilled what I thought were the most useful and striking ideas from it below.
I haven’t summarized the book’s insights in the order they appear, but instead have categorized them for easy reference. Although paraphrased, none of the ideas below are mine.
Creativity and Originality
Child prodigies often do not become originals as adults. Practice makes perfect, but it doesn't make new.
Having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another. No person could possibly be original in one area unless he were possessed of the emotional and social stability in all other areas of life. Eg. having a steady day job and personal life while pursuing a financially risky business, etc.
The best entrepreneurs are not risk takers, but more risk-averse than the general population.
We are overconfident when we evaluate our own performance. Eg. 94% college professors rate themselves as above average. See also: https://sive.rs/below-average
What separates creative geniuses from the rest in any field is simply prolificness. The most remembered artists simply produced more. Mozart crafted 600 different pieces, Picasso 1800 paintings, Maya Angelou wrote 165 poems, etc. Ergo, to create works of genius, simply produce more. And more. When it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality.
The best judges of creative work aren't the creator themselves (too positive), or their family and friends, or test audiences or managers (too many false negatives), but fellow creators judging each other’s ideas.
Just spending a few minutes developing original ideas makes us more open to novelty for some time.
A study was conducted to find out what made Nobel Prize winning scientists better than their peers. Collecting data from 1901 to 2005, the main difference was surprising: both types were experts in their fields of study, but the Nobel winners were drastically more likely to have serious artistic hobbies outside of work, such as acting, writing, woodworking, drawing, and playing an instrument.
The personality trait most associated with an interest in the arts is called openness. The best indicator of openness (across cultures) is agreeing with the statement: “Sometimes when I am reading poetry or looking at a work of art, I feel a chill or wave of excitement.”
The more successful people have been in the past, the worse they perform when they enter a new environment. This is due to overconfidence, unwillingness to see critical feedback, etc.
It takes longer to write a short speech than a long one.
Procrastination is bad for productivity, but it’s almost necessary for creativity. Genius cannot be scheduled.
There are two types of innovators and creatives:
They usually have one idea or thought pattern, and execute it to the end.
They are sprinters - often have early success in life because of their novelty, but can age badly, because they remain stuck in the same thought patterns. Eg. “Cummings is a daringly original poet, but his books are all exactly alike.”
No single idea or end goal dominates their mind. Rather, they solve and create things by trial and error, on the go, throughout their life.
They are marathoners, testing out different ideas throughout life, and generally tend to produce their best work late in life. They’re less constrained by past ideas. Eg. Leonardo Da Vinci started working on the Mona Lisa in his early fifties.
Human Nature and Behavior
The easier it is to think of something, the more common and important we assume it is. We use ease of retrieval as information.
‘Behavior modification typically takes about 18 months of constant reinforcement.’ - Ray Dalio
Deep acting > surface acting. Surface acting burns us out: faking emotions we don’t feel is exhausting. If we want to express a set of emotions, we need to actually experience them.
Dealing with scary or important situations:
Saying “I am excited” before a speech, instead of “I am calm”, works much better.
In a state of fear, trying to relax yourself is like slamming breaks when you're driving at 80. Rather than suppress fear, it’s more useful to convert it into a different, more useful emotion like excitement.
If you’re not committed to a particular action, be an optimist. But if you’ve settled on a course of action for a problem, think like a defensive pessimist. Instead of trying to turn worries and doubts into positive emotions, channel them.
One technique when pitching to investors is to state roadblocks upfront:
When trying to sell a company to investors, it can be a good idea to state your roadblocks, problems, and negatives upfront in your presentation. (Only do this if your work is actually good, though.)
Everyone is used to being sold, and is skeptical. By stating problems upfront, it relaxes people and stops them from actively looking for flaws. It shows you’re genuine, and (presumably) not hiding anything. Puts people’s guard down.
“The job of the investor is to figure out what’s wrong with the company. By telling them what’s wrong, I’m doing some of the work for them. It establishes trust.”
We under-communicate our ideas. Because they’re already so familiar to us, we underestimate how much exposure an audience needs to comprehend and buy into them.
The more people are exposed to a new idea, the more they like it. (Exposure up to twenty times (!) works.) People rarely oversaturate their audiences. Familiarity does not breed contempt.
The early bird doesn't eat the worm. In the free market, there doesn't seem to be much advantage for being a pioneer. In a study of hundreds of brands, pioneers were six times more likely to fail than settlers. Being original doesn't require being first. It just means being different and better. (Eg. Google was far from the first search engine to exist.)
When outstanding US government leaders described their most difficult decisions, they reported struggling not with complex problems, but with choices that required courage.
“Did I self-doubt? Always, for ten years.” - revolutionist Srđa Popović.
Organizations, Social Hierarchies, and People
People are punished for trying to exercise power without status. When people seek to exert influence but lack respect, others see them as difficult, coercive, and self serving. Since they haven’t earned our admiration, we don’t feel they have the right to tell us what to do.
In an experiment, when people in power were told that they weren’t respected, they doubled their chances of using their power in ways that degraded others.
Status cannot be claimed. It has to be earned or granted.
“Idiosyncrasy credits” - factors that allow you to deviate from the group’s expectations because of your contributions.
Handling a dissatisfying situation:
There are four options for handling any kind of dissatisfying situation, such as a job you hate. They are: neglect, persist, exit, or voice.
These four choices are based on two criteria:
do you think you can affect change?
do you care enough to try?
So the four options can be interpreted by asking the above questions, as:
neglect (stay but reduce effort) = no and no
persist (grit your teeth and bear it) = no and yes
exit (leave) = yes and no
voice (actively try to improve the situation) = yes and yes
But: exit and voice are the only choices that lead to originality. Voice is the best of the four because although exit changes your own circumstances, it doesn’t do much for others.
Disagreeable managers can be our best advocates sometimes. Agreeable people hate conflict, so their desire to please others and preserve harmony makes them less likely to stick up for something novel.
“Disagreeable managers may have a bad user interface but have a great operating system.”
Middle-status conformity effect:
People at the very top and bottom of a status hierarchy have the most freedom to deviate and experiment to be original.
But the middle of a hierarchy (i.e. most people) is dominated by insecurity, because people don’t want to jeopardize what little standing they have.
Most people thus play follow-the-leader, and are conformist and not original.
In the long run, the mistakes we regret most are mistakes of omission, not of commission. If we could do things over, most of us would censor ourselves less and express our ideas more.
Both positive and negative experiences are amplified when we share them.
Best way to be an original is to be a “tempered radical” - believe in values that depart from the mainstream, but tone it down and present your ideas in ways that are appealing to the mainstream.
Ambivalent relationships are unhealthier than negative relationships. Negative relationships are unpleasant but at least predictable. Ambivalent ones keep you constantly on guard and exhaust you.
Our best allies aren't the people who supported us all along. They’re the ones who started out against us and then came around to our side. They’re also the best at persuading others to join our cause, because they understand the misgivings of the other side better than us.
Instead of trying to convince others to adopt our principles, we ought to present our values as a means of pursuing theirs. It’s hard to change other people’s ideas. It’s much easier to link our agendas to familiar values that people already hold.
The worse a company performs, the more CEOs seek advice from friends and colleagues who share their perspectives. They start to prefer the comfort of consensus over the discomfort of dissent, which is the opposite of what they should be doing.
Dissenting and minority opinions are extremely important in a discussion, even when they’re wrong.
In any business or government organization, just having one friend is enough to significantly decrease loneliness.
Dissent in groups:
Assigning a devil’s advocate in a discussion is useful, but unearthing one is much more powerful.
When dissent is genuine, as opposed to mandated or absent, the quality of discussion improves. People take a genuine dissenter more seriously than an assigned one.
Groups with an authentic dissenter generated 48 percent more solutions to problems than those with an assigned devil’s advocate, and their solutions tended to be higher in quality.
Authentic dissenters don’t make the group members angrier, and are actually liked more (at least they have principles).
When a group needs to choose between options:
Ranking them is better than directly voting for a single best one.
Choosing one option at a time can make a majority preference emerge too early.
When groups rank order the alternatives, instead of choosing the best alternative, they’re more likely to consider each option, share information about the unpopular ones, and make a better decision.
Conveying a vision:
The most inspiring way to convey a vision is to outsource it to the people who are actually affected by it.
Messages towards a cause are more effective when delivered by a beneficiary than a leader.
Most effective: when leaders describe a vision, and then get a customer to enliven it with a personal story. (Also happens in politics.)
Making things happen:
Executives underestimate how hard it can be to affect change in an organization. Without a sense of urgency, people won’t make the needed sacrifices.
If a change you want to make happen in a group is safe:
Emphasize all the good things that will happen if people do it immediately. Stress on the gains.
If the change you want to make happen in a group is risky:
Do the opposite: accentuate the bad things that will happen if they don’t make the change happen.
Cultivate dissatisfaction, frustration or anger at the current state of affairs, making it a guaranteed loss. Taking a risk is more appealing when people are faced with a guaranteed loss if they don’t.
Eg. Leaders weren't inclined to take risks on innovation opportunities till they considered how their competitors could put them out of business; then they realized it was a risk not to innovate.
Families and Parenting
Birth order among siblings doesn't determine who you are, but it does affect the probability that you’ll develop a certain way:
Firstborns: more dominant, conscientious, and ambitious.
Middle children: inclined toward diplomacy; usually better at persuasion, negotiation, and coalition building.
Later borns: more likely to be risk takers and embrace original ideas; also more prone to drinking and smoking habits, and less likely to buy insurance.
Only children: hardest to predict personality.
Birth order in scientists was more consequential than even age in determining receptiveness to rebellious ideas. “An 80 year old later born was as open to evolutionary theory as a 25 year old firstborn.”
“The more older brothers a man has, the more like he is to be homosexual. Each older brother increases the probability that a man is homosexual by 3 percent.”
Parents tend to start out as strict disciplinarians with firstborns and become increasingly flexible with later borns. “They were more exhausted. They forgot to say, ‘You can’t do that.’”
Researchers decided to find if parenting done on Holocaust rescuers (heroes) and bystanders was different. It was:
Parents of rescuers had placed an emphasis on moral values rather than specific rules.
Parents had “explained” and reasoned with the child if mistakes were made, rather than enforcing rules.
While the bystanders’ parents enforced compliance with rules for their own sake, rescuers’ parents encouraged their children to consider the impact of their actions on others.
When mothers enforce many rules but offer a clear rationale for why they’re important, teenagers are substantially less likely to break them.
Autonomy in kids:
Parents of creative children granted their children the autonomy to choose their own values.
However, the paradox of encouraging children to develop strong values is that parents effectively limit their own influence.
A dad jokingly says, “I screwed up. I raised you to have an opinion, and I forgot to tell you it was supposed to be mine.”
Character praise works much better than behavior praise on both children and adults.
When our character is praised, we internalize it more. Labels affect us.
Children between three and six were more likely to clean up if they were asked to be helpers instead of to help.
Cheating was cut in half in a team simply by saying “Please don’t be a cheater” instead of “Please don’t cheat.”
Don’t say: “don’t drink and drive.” Say: “don’t be a Drunk Driver.”