A Dozen Things I Learned From Originals (by Adam Grant)

For anyone interested in building a meaningful career or looking to harness their inner creativity (hopefully all of you), this is a must-read.

The magic of this book is that it can be read through many lenses. Creativity is at the center of almost all work in today’s world. After reading this, it is now probably in the top 3 “must read” books for anyone serious about being a great leader/manager in an organization (Drive and Work Rules! are the other two).

1. Creative People Produce a Lot of Crap

Grant talks about the sheer volume of content that some of the most innovative people create such as Edison’s 1,093 patents, Mozart’s 600 pieces and Beethoven’s 37 plays. He notes:

“…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”

2. Expertise Can Lead to Better Intuition But Hold Back Your Ability to Adapt

If you have deep expertise in an area, you likely have developed an intuition for identifying patterns in that domain. A study with people who owned many designer handbags found that when asked to determine if bags were real or fake:

“Experienced handbag owners were 22 percent more accurate when they had just five seconds than when they had thirty seconds”

If you are an expert in your field save some time and trust your gut.

Expertise turns out to be domain-specific, which is limiting when it comes to identifying new ideas. People are limited by the models which carried them to success. He talks about how experts deal with change:

“…expert bridge players struggled more than novices to adapt when the rules were changed and that expert accountants were worse than novices at applying a new tax law.”

Given the speed of change in today’s world, it is no wonder that we have seen failures of experts across many domains.

3. Voicing New Ideas and Concerns Without Status Will Cost you $$

As many people have encountered in organizations, voicing constructive ideas to improve things may be counter-productive:

“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”

4. Focusing on Negatives Can Strengthen Your Message

If you are pitching an idea, consider highlighting the flaws or downsides of your opportunity. It will help disarm the audience and get them on your side. If you present something too positively, people naturally look to poke holes in the idea.

Sharing the negatives can also make the audience think more highly of the person delivering the message. In a study comparing book reviews with identical content but positive or negative adjectives:

“…people rated the critical reviewer 14% more intelligent”

Grant details this message more in the following TED talk

5. The More We Are Exposed to Something The More We Like It

Grant has a nifty little trick of introducing a fake word in his book and referencing it five times over a number of pages. He then asks the reader to choose between that word and another made up word for which one you like better. I found myself inevitably drawn to the word I had been exposed to.

He backs this up by pointing to studies that show we prefer photos of ourselves when they are inverted (like in a mirror) as opposed to normal photos of our friends (as we typically see them).

6. The “Middle” Is Risk Averse and Will Try to Kill Your Ideas

Grant discussed a concept calls “middle-status conservatism” which accounts for the anxiety that people in the “middle” feel about the risk of falling to the bottom. Think middle managers that are more worried about being fired or demoted than taking risks.

He points to the research of two MIT professors:

…security analysts were significantly less likely to issue negative stock ratings when they or the banks that employed them had middle status. Making a recommendation to sell a stock can anger corporate executives and investors who value the stock. Analysts with poor track records at minor banks have nowhere to fall by taking this risk, and star analysts at elite banks have a safety net.”

This is not very promising for innovation, creativity and new ideas in modern organizations as they get more complex and larger — with most people falling into the “middle status” category.

Grant notes a practical step to counter this is to look to junior colleagues who may be more open to supporting a new or novel idea. Building a following at the lowest levels can be more important over the long run.

7. Delaying tasks can increase creativity

Grant details the Zeigarnik Effect, which shows that unfinished tasks “stay active in our minds.” He talked about how Martin Luther King delayed writing and finishing his famous “I had a dream speech” until the day before the march.

To make this practical — you can take a break in the middle of a task and go for a walk or even “sleep on it.” It may help you generate better ideas.

8. First movers are not as successful

It is conventional wisdom that the “First mover” is often the one that captures success, but this happens not to be true. Grant details a study from Peter Golder and Gerard Tellis comparing the success of “pioneers” (first movers) and “settlers” (followers):

…they found a staggering different in the failure rates: 47 percent for pioneers, compared with just 8 percent for settlers. Even when the pioneers did survive, they only captured an average of 10 percent of the market, compared with 28 percent for the settlers”

A reason he offers for this is that the first mover often has to define what to offer, whereas the followers just have to decide how to do that better. Hence, the first movers are prone to making mistakes — either offering too much or the wrong things altogether.

9. Groups are judged externally by the most extreme views

Looking at the women’s suffrage movement, Grant highlights research by Blake Ashforth and Peter Reingen showing that internally groups identify with the people who are “most central and connected in the group.” At the same time, outsiders judge groups through the person with “the most extreme views.”

For any group trying to drive change, balancing these two competing identities can be a challenge. If the group associates with views that are deemed too extreme by the public or broader audience, the group may not accomplish what it sets out to.

This has played out in politics over and over. As the Republicans emerged from the primary to the general election and to Trumps victory, many politicians tried to distance themselves the “alt-right” as those views are not widely embraced by the broader public.

10. “The Oldest” in your family is less likely to be creative or a rule-breaker

Grant found that prior to Darwin publishing his theory of evolution, first born scientists were much less likely to support evolution and “laterborns” were more open to supporting the idea — even though it did not have broad consensus.

He showed that this trend is more important than age. He quotes historian Frank Sulloway:

“An 80 year old laterborn was as open to evolutionary theory as a 25 year old firstborn,” Sulloway writes, arguing that evolutionary theory “only became a hitorical reality because laterborns outnumbered firstborns 2.6 to 1”

He also looked at major league baseball and found a similar patter with regards to stealing bases:

“Younger brothers were 10.6 times more likely than their older siblings to attempt to steal a base”

11. “Commitment-driven cultures” become more homogenous, resistant to dissenting views and less able to adapt over time

Grant profiles the famous research around organizational cultures from James Baron and Michael Hannen

Grant highlights these “commitment cultures” in Originals or as Baron and Hannan put it, ones “which strong emotional bonds are the basis of employee attachment.” These companies will often prioritize “culture fit” over everything else.

While these cultures can be great to be part of during the startup stage,the challenge with these types of companies is two-fold:

First, they have a harder time cultivating a diverse workforce.

Second, they become homogeneous over time and less able to adapt and evolve, especially in more dynamic industries.

The danger of this is the fact that minority viewpoints disappear. Grant highlights Charlan Nemeth’s research showing that minority opinions are valuable even if they are incorrect. She conducted a study where participants had to choose between three candidates. Most candidates start out choosing an inferior candidate but only are willing to change their pick when they are challenged with an argument for a clearly wrong choice.

One of the most successful companies, McKinsey & Company, incidentally has a value that holds people accountable for “uphold the obligation to dissent.”

Looking for dissenting view can be tough. Research by Michael McDonald and James Westphal showed that in companies that were facing challenges, “CEOs sought advice from friends and colleagues who shared their perspective.”

12. The messages needed to change behaviors depend on how risky the new behavior is perceived

Grant highlights Peter Salovey’s research on how people perceive change:

If they think the behavior is safe we should emphasize all the good things that will happen if they do it…But when people believe a behavior is risky, that approach doesn’t work…Instead, we need to destabilize the status quo and accentuate the bad things that will happen if they don’t change. Taking a risk is more appealing when they’re faced with a guaranteed loss if they don’t

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.