April 30, 2016

Originals by Adam Grant

Originals by Adam Grant
How nonconformists move the world

“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.” George Bernard Shaw

Four students who were buried in student loans, had lost their and broken their glasses and were outraged at how much it cost to replace them. They decided to go against Luxottica - 800-pound gorilla of the industry, that controlled more than 80% of the eyewear market (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDdq2rIqAlM( . That was the beginning of Warby Parker - the online eyeglass company.

Years ago, psychologists discovered that there are two routes to achievement: conformity and originality. Conformity means following the crowd down conventional paths and maintaining the status quo. Originality is taking the road less travelled, championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better.

The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. Child prodigies, it turns out, rarely go on to change the world. While they have the intellectual chops, they must lack the social, emotional and practical skills to function in society. Less than a quarter of gifted children suffer from social and emotional problems. They conform to the codified rules of established games, rather than inventing their own rules or their own games. All along the way, they strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers. Teachers tend to discriminate against highly creative students, labeling them as troublemakers. In response, many children quickly learn to get with the program, keeping their original idea to themselves. In the language of author William Deresiewicz, they become the world’s most excellent sheep.

The drive to succeed and the accompanying fear of failure have held back, some of the greatest creators and change agents in history. While they may seem to have possessed the qualities of natural leaders, they were figuratively lifted up by followers and peers.

The word ‘entrepreneur’ as it was coined by economist Richard Cantillon, literally means, “bearer of risk”. Successful people hedging the risk like any successful stock dealer. eBay founder started it as hobby while keeping his day job, T S Eliot kept his clerical work for many years while working on some of the classics, Bill Gates kept an option to go back to Harvard, if his business fails,...

If there are three risk options (1: making $5 million with 20% chance of success, 2: making $2million with a chance of 50% & 3: making $1.25 million with 80%), the entrepreneurs were significantly more likely to choose the last option, the safest one. However, in their teenage years, they were nearly three times as likely as their peers to break rules and engage in illicit activities.

The unique combination of broad and deep experience is critical for creativity. In a recent study comparing every Nobel Prize-winning scientist from 1901 to 2005, with typical scientists of the same era, the Nobel Prize winners were dramatically more likely to be involved in the arts than less accomplished scientists. The odds for Nobel Prize winners relative to typical scientists: 22x greater for Nobel prize winners who were performing amateur actor, dancer and magician.

The most creative fashion collections came from houses where directors had the greatest experience abroad, but there were three twists. First, the time working abroad had an impact (being actively engaged in design in a foreign country)). Second, the more the foreign culture differed from that of their native land, the more that experience contributed to the director’s creativity. Third, the amount of time spent working abroad. The highest originality occurred when directors had spent 35 years working abroad.

To accurately predict the success of a novel idea, it is best to be creator in the domain you are judging (Both Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos had heavy instinct and willing to invest in Segway transporter business that did not become mainstream. Their instincts lacked domain knowledge in transportation business).

In a classic study, marketing researchers Peter Golder and Gerard Tellis compared the success of companies that were either pioneers or settlers. The pioneers were first movers: the initial company to develop or sell a product. The settlers were slower to launch, waiting until the pioneers had created a market before entering it. They found a staggering difference in failure rates: 47% of pioneers, compared with just 8% for settlers. Even when the pioneers did survive, they only captured an average of 10% of the market, compared with 38% for settlers.

When originals rush to be pioneers, they are prone to oversteps, that is the first disadvantage. Secondly, there is reason to believe that the kinds of people who choose to be late movers may be better suited to succeed. Risk takers are drawn to being first and they are prone to making impulse decisions. Meanwhile, more risk-averse entrepreneurs watch from the sidelines, waiting for the right opportunity and balancing their risk portfolios before entering. Third, along with being less reckless ambitious, settlers can improve upon competitors’ technology to make products better. Fourth, whereas pioneers tend to get stuck in their early offerings, settlers can observe market changes and shifting consumer tastes and adjust accordingly.

This hold true beyond the world of business, where many original people, ideas, and movements have failed because they were ahead of their time.

The time at which we reach our heights of originality and how long they last, depends on our styles of thinking. When Galenson studied creators, he discovered two radically different styles of innovation: conceptual and experimental. Conceptual innovators formulate a big idea and set out to execute it. Experimental innovators solve problems through trial and error, learning and evolving as they go along. According to Galenson, conceptual innovators are sprinters and experimental innovators are marathoners.

Movers and shapers: Shapers are independent thinks: 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.

To counter apathy, most change agents focus on presenting an inspiring vision of the future. If you want people to take risks, you need first to show, what is wrong with the present. To drive people out of their comfort zones, you have to cultivate dissatisfaction, frustration or anger at the current state of affairs, making it a guaranteed loss. “The greatest communication of all time”, says communication expert Nancy Duarte, start by establishing “what is: here is the status quo”. Then they “compare that to what could be” making “that gap as big as possible”.

“Anger is a powerful mobilizing too” says Srdja Popovic  who was behind Serbia Otpor movement. “But if you make people angry, they might start breaking things. To channel anger productively, instead of venting about the harm that a perpetrator has done, we need to reflect on the victims who have suffered from it.

“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world”, E.B White wrote once. “This makes it difficult to plan the day”. In the quest for happiness, many of us choose to enjoy the world as it is. Originals embrace the uphill battle, striving to make the world what it could be. By struggling to improve life and liberty, they may temporarily give up some pleasure, putting their own happiness on the back burner. In the long run, though, they have the chance to create a better world. And that brings a different kind of pleasure / satisfaction. Becoming original is not the easiest path in the pursuit of happiness, but it leaves us perfectly poised for the happiness pursuit.


Individual actions:

A.      Generating and recognizing original ideas.
  1. Question the default
  2. Triple the number of ideas you generate
  3. Immerse yourself in a new domain
  4. Procrastinate strategically
  5. Seek more feedback from peers

B. Voicing and championing original ideas

  1. Balance your risk portfolio
  2. Highlight the reasons not to support your idea
  3. Make your ideas more familiar
  4. Speak to a different audience
  5. Be a tempered radical

C. Managing emotions

  1. Motivate yourself differently when you are committed vs. uncertain
  2. Don’t try to calm down
  3. Focus on the victim, not the perpetrator
  4. Realize you are not alone
  5. Remember that if you don’t take initiative, the status quo will persist

Leader Actions

A.      Sparking Original Ideas

  1. Run an innovation tournament
  2. Picture yourself as the enemy
  3. Invite employees from different functions and levels to pitch ideas
  4. Hold an opposite day
  5. Ban the words like love, and hate

B. Building cultures of originality

  1. Hire not an cultural fit, but on cultural contributions
  2. Shift from exit interviews to entry interviews
  3. Ask for problems, not solutions
  4. Stop assigning devil’s advocates and start unearthing them
  5. Welcome criticism

Parent and teacher actions

  1. Ask children what their role models would do
  2. Link good behaviors to more character
  3. Explain how bad behavior have consequence for others
  4. Emphasis values over rules
  5. Create novel niches for children to pursue


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