Originals: How non-conformists move the world

The study of generation of new ideas by Adam Grant.

August 6, 2016 - 5 minute read -
blog book

The birthday gift for me from Alex!

Finally got around to read it. A pretty fun easy-to-read book with lots of examples. The book also has a lot of references to some other interesting research as well as documents, the Bridgewater Associates Principles by Ray Dalio for example.

The book is supposed to talk about the originals, those who are different from other people in appealing or interesting ways. But actually, I think it’s more about the generation of new ideas (creativity) and the successful execution of these ideas (strategy).

In the beginning of the book, Grant laid out the definition of “original”: being the origin or source of something from which something else springs, proceeds and grow from. This definition focused only on growth, and had nothing to do with being different from the status quo. But it was implied that originals are very frequently different from the status quo and challenge the established way of thinking. I think that’s the case only because it is when the established way of thinking stops generating growth that successful original ideas begin to come into the spotlight and generate further growth. Had the established way of thinking been successful in generating growth, people would simply call it expected or normal, rather than original.

But the execution of new ideas is not the sexy part. Being different is. I think Grant did a great job spicing things up by emphasizing the drama using catchy examples and vivid description. Each chapter starts with a detailed description of some historically known original figure, such as Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, etc., and pictured this dramatic process of how they rebelled and changed the world.

As a result of these drama and stories, the book has a very sexy appeal. This can even be found in the Chinese translation of the book title, “离经叛道”, which is closer to meaning being rebellious and deviant from the beaten path than “original”. I can see why this is a good translation in order to boost book sales, but I think in practicing originality, it is a danger to focus on the novelty factor rather than the growth factor.

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. – Scott Adams

The real devil is in the details when we try to execute the new ideas. Just look at the example of some great inventors fail to be great entrepreneurs. The skill sets needed to create something new is fundamentally different from making something new and pushing this new thing to be accepted by millions of people.

Allies and Enemies

In the later chapters of the book Grant focused on the social influences in generating new ideas as well as ways to persuade others to buy-in. One strategy talked about the differences between power and status. Grant pointed out that when people try to exercise power without status, they are punished. Speaking up or changing the status quo needs sometimes lacks status. In such cases, it is wiser to be “tempered radicals”, to build relationships and buy-ins from those who could make decisions, rather than flaming those and making your idea feel like a threat that can undermine their status or authority.

Another strategy in generating new ideas to listen to those who criticized your idea (your enemies). From an information science point of view, our enemies can turn into the best allies because they are most likely to be forming an information bridge the same way that weak ties bridges the information clusters.

Rebel as a Signal

Sometimes, behaving in a radical way can send a signal to a lot of other people to bring new idea to become the common knowledge. If that is not the case, then radical conflicts won’t do well to move the idea into reality.

Manage Emotions

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it… The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear. – Nelson Mandela

Realizing that emotion could be managed and should be managed is something (embarrassingly new) to me. Maybe the way I was brought up as a single child and a girl made me feel this way. Displaying emotion for me was probably a practical way to get what I wanted (I was so spoiled basically). I cry because in subconscious when I do that, people would usually listen to me.

But I am pretty sure that’s not how the current world around me works. Grant talks about the successful execution of original ideas is a clear and calm mind. Personally, I now learned that it is one of my biggest weakness. To get better at regulating my emotions, I will actively practice meditation and vinyasa yoga in the next year.

The Power of Pessimism

Grant mentioned two types of styles of handling anxiety in the last chapter of his book. He referenced the work of Julie Norem on the power of defensive pessimism. This is very stoic, in thinking that anger the result of stupidity. Because people only get angry when something bad and unexpected happens. Anger and disappointments only mean that you did not get a very good grasp on reality to begin with to make the right predictions and set the appropriate expectations. Norem showed that different styles of dealing with anxiety, strategic optimism and defensive pessimism. I know for sure that my style is probably defensive pessimism. People who use defensive pessimism imagine all the ways that things could go wrong a prior and set expectations to be super low. Then the anxiety would peak before the actual event taking place. When it happens, one then could be really calm and perform well.

Maybe twice in a year, one should set time aside to imagine all the bad things that could have happen in the next six months, as a strategy for true happiness.

Finally, it’s really ironic that I found it interesting that originality is encouraged here rather than repressed. This is something that I only got to learn in grad school. Before grad school, I strove for perfection, for excellence, for pride, for making an impression on others. Those are all the wrong things to optimize on in retrospective.