Originals: How Non-conformists Move the World

After I read Adam Grant’s Give and Take a few months ago, I added his next book Originals to my reading list. The day before my trip to London, I decided to have this book as reading companion for the long haul flight ahead. Over the last decade, I have become used to long-distance flights between Europe, North America and Asia. It is ritual to choose a couple of books before a trip. Once or twice I have chosen the wrong one. By the time I realised that I did not enjoy reading the volume in hand or disagree with the writer so profoundly, the rest of the flight became intolerable. Flipping through the alternative reading material (flying magazine or newspaper supplied by the airline) made me feel that I was wasting my time and energy. From those bad experiences, I learned to choose my flight companion very carefully. I invest more strict scrutiny on the selection process based on the potential value and readability of the book. I always have the fantasy of boarding the long-haul flight as one person and landing as another, in the intellectual sense. That strong urge of acquiring the knowledge and understanding that I do not possess before the flight would keep me reading throughout the entire flight. (My apology to the unfortunate passengers sitting near me for using the overhead reading lights before the kindle era.) Like in Hamilton, “In New York you can be a new man”; to me, at the end of the flight, arriving at a new continent, I can be a new person. It does not matter how many times I have landed there before. That remarkably refreshing feeling has not failed to excite me.

Suffice to say that Originals made it onto my list for this trip, together with the other two that I shall write about in next two entries. Originals proved to be a good flight companion to me. In short, unsurprisingly its writing style is about the same as the Give and Take. As the author is both an academic and an avid practitioner, this book similar to the previous one and shares a vast collection of stories, experiments, analysis and insights from other researchers besides the ones of his own. Because of this particular trait of the book, the reading process felt like conversing with many dozens of leading scientists, being part of the real events involving great entrepreneurs and their adventures, and participating in the psychological/social studies described. I would not be surprised that some readers might find that the book is cluttered or could be shortened. That said, I do not think anyone without a curious and investigative mind would pick this book up. In this sense, it is safe to bet that you will find this book a great read if you voluntarily choose to read it.

You wonder now what is Originals about. The book’s webpage summarizes it as follows: “Originals is about how to champion new ideas and fight groupthink. Using surprising studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment, Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt; how parents and teachers can nurture originality in children; and how leaders can build cultures that welcome dissent.”

Next you are curious to know what I have learned from it, if you are still reading this blog entry. A lot. But let’s start with sharing a few.

  • Do not blindly accept the default options. Take some initiative to look around and seek out an option that might be better than the default. Initiative is the key here. I would not over-exercise this one though. In my opinion, we need to evaluate whether the matter is trivial enough to go with the default or significant enough worthy taking more initiatives to explore and challenge the convention. If the latter, by all means, reject the default and find better or simply other alternatives.
  • Monitor the drive to succeed. Is it healthy enough that it still propels you to pursue originality? Is that drive becoming toxic such that your fear of failure forces you to want to maintain stability and only to follow conventional approaches? Quoting from two psychologists in the book, “once people pass an intermediate level in the need to achieve, there is evidence that they actually become less creative.”
  • Have a balanced risk portfolio. The portfolio here is not specific to financial investment. You can be very original in one part of your professional life but yet be very conventional in other parts. Examples and discussions in the book show that actually having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another and successful originals take extreme risks in one arena and offset them with extreme caution in another.
  • Feel the fear, do it anyway. In Adam Grant’s word: the originals’ inner experiences are not any different from our own. They feel the same fear, the same doubt, as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action anyway. They know in their hearts that failing would yielding less regret than failing to try.  
  • Cultivate the right startup/corporate culture that rewards originality and encourages heterogeneity. We live in a society with regional characteristics. When friends and family elsewhere in the world ask me what I do not like about Silicon Valley after I rave about how much California has grown on me, usually I bring up its homogeneity, in the sense that many professionals I meet in the valley work in the computing industry or related to it. It takes some effort to be among a diverse group of people. Today has been a good day though. I met a painter and a photographer while out hiking along the coast. Conversations with them were delightfully new and offered interesting perspectives, creative and artistic in a different way other than that of a typical computer scientist. I think being among people who are different from ourselves help broaden our view and enhance our creativity. Professionally, we should always encourage people to speak up, to disagree, to criticize (with good intention) at work. It is a great piece of advice of this book to hire people based on their culture contribution rather than culture fit. A culturally enriched work environment is significantly more robust and productive than a homogeneous one where people share the same view most of the time. One wonders why an organisation should ever keep one out of two employees who agree with each other all the time.
  • Immerse yourself in a new domain. I was very pleased to see this one was recommended in the book, because I have always wished for that whenever a career change is underway. Originality increases when you broaden your frame of reference.
  • Be more descriptive about my thoughts on an idea or a piece of work during a discussion. For instance, try not to say: I like, love or hate it; instead, try to explain the reasoning. For example, this is a better approach because it gives a clearer view of the gain and loss than the other metrics; the other one could be improved if X, Y, Z. Being descriptive invites other people to contribute to the discussion, point out what is wrong in one’s reasoning and generate new ideas.

The book includes a section on Actions for Impact consisting of three parts. The first one is for individuals to generate, recognize, voice and champion original ideas, and also how to manage emotions. The second part is for the leaders to spark original ideas and build cultures of originality. The last part offers suggestions to parents and teachers, such as to emphasize values over rules, explain how bad behaviors have consequences for others, praise good characters rather than good behaviors, and others.

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