Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant & Sheryl Sandberg

How highly I recommend:
This is a study of the truth about originality and its benefits in society. It is a great research-driven effort to describe how originality actually works, and how we can foster it in ourselves, mixed with many practical takeaways. For any creative professional, this is a must-read.
Published on:
October 15, 2020
Written by:
Sebastian Hallqvist

In the deepest sense of the word, a friend is someone who sees more potential in you than you see in yourself, someone who helps you become the best version of yourself.

“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

When we become curious about the dissatisfying defaults in our world, we begin to recognize that most of them have social origins: Rules and systems were created by people. And that awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.

The more you value achievement, the more you come to dread failure. Instead of aiming for unique accomplishments, the intense desire to succeed leads us to strive for guaranteed success.

As economist Joseph Schumpeter famously observed, originality is an act of creative destruction.

Having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another. Entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs had 33 percent lower odds of failure than those who quit. In the face of uncertainty, our first instinct is often to reject novelty, looking for reasons why unfamiliar concepts might fail.

Simonton finds that on average, creative geniuses weren’t qualitatively better in their fields than their peers. They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality. The most prolific people not only have the highest originality; they also generate their most original output during the periods in which they produce the largest volume.

Upworthy’s rule is that you need to generate at least twenty-five headline ideas to strike gold.

Our first ideas are often the most conventional—the closest to the default that already exists. It’s only after we’ve ruled out the obvious that we have the greatest freedom to consider the more remote possibilities.

It is when people have moderate expertise in a particular domain that they’re the most open to radically creative ideas.

As Chip and Dan Heath write in Made to Stick, “The listeners can’t hear that tune—all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of bizarre Morse Code.” This is the core challenge of speaking up with an original idea. When you present a new suggestion, you’re not only hearing the tune in your head. You wrote the song. This explains why we often undercommunicate our ideas. They’re already so familiar to us that we underestimate how much exposure an audience needs to comprehend and buy into them.

As a Google employee put it, disagreeable managers may have a bad user interface but a great operating system.

Parents and teachers are constantly imploring children to begin their assignments earlier instead of waiting until the last minute. In the self-help world, an entire cottage industry of resources is devoted to fighting procrastination. But what if the very act of procrastinating was the reason that King gave the best speech of his life?

You don’t have to be first to be an original, and the most successful originals don’t always arrive on schedule. They are fashionably late to the party.

Procrastination didn’t always fuel creativity: if the employees weren’t intrinsically motivated to solve a major problem, stalling just set them behind. But when they were passionate about coming up with new ideas, putting off the task led them to more creative solutions.

Along with providing time to generate novel ideas, procrastination has another benefit: it keeps us open to improvisation.

One study of over three thousand startups indicates that roughly three out of every four fail because of premature scaling—making investments that the market isn’t yet ready to support.

“It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them.”
– Sigmund Freud

The message was clear: if you were a true believer, you’d be all in. The more strongly you identify with an extreme group, the harder you seek to differentiate yourself from more moderate groups that threaten your values.

With absolute originality, you can lose people. To form alliances, originals can temper their radicalism by smuggling their real vision inside a Trojan horse. The most promising ideas begin from novelty and then add familiarity, which capitalizes on the mere exposure effect we covered earlier. Instead of assuming that others share our principles, or trying to convince them to adopt ours, we ought to present our values as a means of pursuing theirs.

When we use the logic of consequence, we can always find reasons not to take risks.

When a younger sibling arrives, firstborns risk being “dethroned” and often respond by emulating their parents: they enforce rules and assert their authority over the younger sibling, which sets the stage for the younger child to rebel. When older siblings serve as surrogate parents and role models, you don’t face as many rules or punishments, and you enjoy the security of their protection.

Good explanations enable children to develop a code of ethics that often coincides with societal expectations; when they don’t square up, children rely on the internal compass of values rather than the external compass of rules.

In some cases, fictional characters may be even better role models. (Archetypes are more real than reality itself).

Groupthink is the enemy of originality.

Founders cast a long shadow. Skills and stars are fleeting; commitment lasts.

Minority viewpoints are important, not because they tend to prevail but because they stimulate divergent attention and thought.

“No one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it.”
– Ray Dalio

The greatest tragedy of mankind comes from the inability of people to have thoughtful disagreement to find out what’s true.

Argue like you’re right and listen like you’re wrong.

In later studies, I found that people are inspired to achieve the highest performance when leaders describe a vision and then invite a customer to bring it to life with a personal story.

Research shows that surface acting burns us out: Faking emotions that we don’t really feel is both stressful and exhausting. If we want to express a set of emotions, we need to actually experience them.

If you’re seeking to unleash originality, here are some practical actions that you can take:

Question the default.

Triple the number of ideas you generate.

Immerse yourself in a new domain.

Procrastinate strategically.

Seek more feedback from peers.

Balance your risk portfolio.

Highlight the reasons not to support your idea.

Make your ideas more familiar.

Speak to a different audience.

Be a tempered radical.

Motivate yourself differently when you’re committed vs. uncertain.

Don’t try to calm down.

Focus on the victim, not the perpetrator.

Realize you’re not alone.

Remember that if you don’t take initiative, the status quo will persist.

Building Cultures of Originality 6. Hire not on cultural fit, but on cultural contribution.

Ask for problems, not solutions.

Stop assigning devil’s advocates and start unearthing them.

Ask children what their role models would do.

Link good behaviors to moral character.

Explain how bad behaviors have consequences for others.

Emphasize values over rules.