About Adam Grant
Grant’s written works follow a pattern of academics who have taken a Gladwellian approach to thought leadership. What I mean is, they recognize the status quo, see their limitations, and think bigger. And honestly, who better than Adam Grant, a Wharton School of Business professor, a former junior Olympic springboard diver, and a magician — can’t forget magician. When it comes to range and understanding the campestral of society, I’m not sure Malcolm Gladwell can compete.
His Originals explores how innovators break the shackles of humanmade structures and create things truly beautiful. I was skeptical at first, another book about how Mozart, Elon Musk, and Tiger Woods have the genius gene and you… well, you so don’t. But that’s not our author’s style. Contrary to many academics, Grant is an eternal optimist. Through his experiences consulting for groups like Disney, UN, NFL, and Goldman Sachs, he has concluded that there is no reason why we can’t all be originals.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
— Margarete Meade
Should you buy this book?
Yes, it’s a quick read and the lessons about idea generation are practical and immediately applicable.
Who’s it for?
Anyone willing to read with an open mind. Entrepreneurs, managers, and young professionals will greatly enjoy the book.
The World Needs More Innovators
I recently watched Challenger: The Final Flight — a new documentary series on Netflix. Most of us weren’t born during the tragedy, but Challenger was a failed space shuttle launch in 1986 that killed seven astronauts, including what would have been the first citizen in space — a school teacher from Massachusetts.
The mission failed partly because the shuttles were so heavy that something was bound to go wrong eventually. But also because the senior staff at NASA was unable to respect dissenting opinions. The temperature was abnormally cold that morning, and there had been several complaints about the O-Rings’ sturdiness during colder temperatures.
Up to that point, NASA was humanities greatest gift. They put a man on the moon and hadn’t lost a soul since the ’60s — a miracle. That morning, they were cocky and did not consider original ideas.
Who Are Originals?
By Grant’s definition, an original person understands that the forces in our lives, government, and companies are flawed. She’s then creative enough to find the holes and courageous enough to fill them in.
In that regard, originals are a two-sided coin. One side contains idea creation, the other, the courage to act.
Let’s first explore how to generate ideas.
How to Have an Original Idea
Original ideas do not form in a vacuum. In other words, light bulb moments only exist in fiction. Two Reasons for this:
- Just because an idea looks good on paper doesn’t mean it’s practical.
- Just because you love it doesn’t mean your audience will.
What to do? Here are 3 surprising lessons from Adam Grant about idea creation.
1. Make a lot of crap
Instead, Grant says the key to creativity is to come up with as many ideas as we can, even if it’s shit. Grant points to the sheer volume of content produced by creative heroes like Edison’s 1,093 patents, Mozart’s 600 pieces, or Beethoven’s 37 plays.
“…when it comes to ideas generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality. “Original Thinkers,” Stanford professor Robert Sutton notes, “will come up with many ideas that are strange mutations, dead ends and utter failures. The cost is worthwhile because they also generate a larger pool of ideas — especially novel ideas”
I found Mozart’s story particularly interesting. He tried to predict which of his pieces would be hits vs. duds — He almost always got it wrong. There’s usually a disconnect between the artist taste and what the audience craves.
Grant’s next theory will be a fan favorite. Procrastination, though the arch-nemesis to productivity, is a valuable ally to creativity. Setting aside tasks leaves space for the brain to formulate new insights and forces the brain to improvise, causing creative bursts.
Did you know that two of the greatest speeches in American history were products of procrastination?
Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address during the commute, and Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “I Have A Dream” speech the night before from a hotel room. In fact, the I have a dream part was improvised.
3. Ask a friend to look at your work
Now that you’ve procrastinated and have papers filled with crap, the next step, and perhaps the most difficult, is selecting the right idea. Idea selection requires help, a second opinion to draw the big picture out of your head and into reality.
Grant suggests peer reviews are the way to go, but not just any peer review. The wrong reviewer can have devastating results. Bosses and managers are the worst; they stick too closely with their existing narratives. Seinfeld was rejected at first because “shows about nothing” had never been sold before. Focus groups aren’t sufficient either because they know they are judging something and tend to focus on the negatives rather than the positives.
It turns out there’s a happy medium. Fellow creators, or people in the same field but not in competition with you, are the best. They know what they’re looking at and will be objective with their critique.
Now for the other side of the coin. The courage to voice your ideas
Speaking For Your Ideas
If you have ever been part of an organization, you know the dangers of voicing constructive ideas.
“In one study across manufacturing, service, retail and nonprofit settings, the more frequently employees voiced ideas and concerns upward, the less likely they were to receive raises and promotions over a two- year period”
Grant breaks down the likely hood of success when voicing our ideas into a simple equation.
No Status + New Ideas = Fail
Status + New Ideas = Success
A harsh reality of any hierarchical structure, but there are options.
- Exit — Completely remove yourself from the situation or quit.
- Voice — Actively trying to improve the situation.
- Persistence — Smile through your teeth, grind it out.
- Neglect — Staying in your current status but reducing your effort, doing just enough work to get by.
The choices you make reflect your commitment to the cause. There’s a severe risk involved with quitting or voicing opinions, but if you believe and care enough to speak up, then the courageous will see it through to the end.
Challenger 1986 is puzzling. The NASA leaders who granted the green light said they made the best decision they could with the present information, but there was a disconnect between the real data and the data they choose to consider. In the end, they read the story they wanted to read and formulated a plan that allowed them to hit their deadlines — a classic tale of groupthink.
Adam defines groupthink as the “tendency to seek consensus instead of dissent.” It is the enemy of originality and happens because people feel pressure to conform instead of championing thought diversity. In NASA’s case, there was the pressure of a deadline and meeting expectations.
Groupthink will forever haunt our organizations, but like anything, recognizing a problem is the first step to a cure. Grant says we need to build organizations that welcome criticism and unearths people who have headstrong perspectives opposed to our own.
“Originality comes not from people who match the culture, but from those who enrich it.”
Yes, buy the book. Adam is an excellent scientist and storyteller. His work will leave you both enlightened and entertained — That’s what you want out of books, right?
More importantly, our world needs innovators. Too many smart people are stuck doing things online, so worried about status and material possessions that we’ve turned inward. We care too much about what others think, and forget we have the mental capacity to make our marks on this world — to create something truly beautiful.