Originals: A book review by Bob Morris

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
Adam M. Grant
Viking/An Imprint of Penguin Random House (2016)

How and why originality starts with creative thinking, is driven by a vision, and can eventually have global impact

Some books (not many) have even greater value years after they were first published. For example, in Originals, Adam Grant wants to “debunk the myth that originality requires extreme risk-taking and persuade you that originals are actually far more ordinary than we realize…the people who move the world forward with original ideas are rarely paragons of conviction and commitment… They, too, grapple with fear, ambivalence, and self-doubt. We view them as self-starters, but their efforts are often fueled and sometimes forced by others. And as much as they crave risk, they really prefer to avoid it.” He goes on to suggest that originality itself starts with creativity: “generating a concept that is both novel and useful. But it doesn’t stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality…This book is about how we can all become more original.”

So, there are valuable lessons to be learned from an original thinker. For example, Ray Dalio, the billionaire founder of Bridgewater Associates, a firm that has “the strongest culture they had ever encountered in an organization, the landslide winner” by those most familiar with it. It handles almost $200 billion in client investments. Dalio is also one of those featured by Al Pittampalli in Persuadable: How Great Leaders Change Their Minds to Change the World. “Dalio doesn’t hold a mysterious almanac from the future that tells him which bets to make, like Biff Tannen from Back from the Future II. In fact, the secret to Dalio’s accuracy doesn’t lie in what he knows. The secret is in [begin italics] how he thinks.” Dalio is wholly committed to what Roger Martin characterizes as “integrative thinking”: be receptive to and welcome the best available information (including opinion) from the most reliable sources and then subject it to a crucible of analysis. Dalio is what Grant characterizes as a “shaper,” an independent thinker: “curious, non-conforming, and rebellious. They practice brutal, nonhierarchical honesty. And they act in the face of risk, because their fear of not succeeding exceeds their fear of failing…The greatest shapers don’t stop at introducing originality into the world. They create cultures that unleash originality in others.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Grant’s coverage:

o Warby Parker (Pages 1-3, 7-8, 14-17, 20-22, and 57-60)
o Dave Gilboa (7-8, 20-22, and 58-59)
o Martin Luther King, Jr. (11-14 and 241-242)
o Steve Jobs (12-14 and 87-90)
o Entrepreneurs (17-18, 22-23, 33-34, and 68-69)

o Idea generation (35-38, 136-137, and 245-246)
o Intelligence community (62-64 and 78-79)
o Carmen Medina (62-68, 70-71, 78-82, 84-87, and 89-91)
o Babble (68-74)
o Lifecycles of creativity (108-113)

o Conceptual innovators (109-112)
o Lucy Stone (114-116, 118-119, 127-131, and 133-134)
o Elizabeth Cady Stanton (115-116, 118-119, and 126-131)
o The Lion King (134-135, 137-138, and 189-195)
o Jackie Robinson (146-148, 153-154, 159-160, and 171-172)

o Birth order (148-159)
o Parenting (159-171 and 252-254)
o Edwin Land (175-1176 and 183-187)
o Groupthink (176-179 and 185-186)
o Dissenting opinions (185-187, `189-1q90, 193-195, and 201-202)

o Ray Dalio and Bridgewater Associates (187-191, 194-1986, and 199-209)
o Devil’s advocate (191-195)
o Culture of advocacy (197-198)
o Resistance movements (219-220 and 225-227)
o Actions for impact (245-254)

Here in Dallas, there is a farmer’s market near the downtown area where several merchants offer fresh slices of fruit as samples of their wares. In that spirit, I now include three brief excerpts from Grant’s insightful an eloquent narrative.

On the power of vuja de: “The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists…The starting point is curiosity: pondering why the default exists in the first place. We’re driven to question defaults when we experience vuja de, the opposite of déjà vu. Déjà vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we’ve seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse – we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.” (Page 7)

On building coalitions across conflict lines: “Harvard psychologist Herbert Kelman observed that conflicts between two groups are often caused by conflicts within the groups…Kelman finds that it is rarely effective to send hawks to negotiate. You need the doves in each group to sit down, listen to each other’s perspectives, identify their common goals and methods and engage in joint problem-solving…and thereby avoid the narcissism of small differences” that could preclude resolving the given issues. (142-143)

On what research reveals about how founders’ hiring decisions shape the destinies of their companies: “Across industries, there were three dominant templates: professional, star, and commitment. The professional blueprint emphasized hiring candidates with specific skills…In the star blueprint, the focus shifted from current skills to future potential, placing a premium on choosing or poaching the brightest hires…Founders with a commitment blueprint went after hiring differently. Skills and potential were fine but cultural fit was a must. The top priority was to employ people who matched the company’s values and norms…When founders had a commitment blueprint, the failure rate of their firms was zero – not a single one of them went out of business…Founders cast a long shadow. Skills and stars are fleeting; commitment lasts.” (179-180)

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the wealth of information that Adam Grant provides when explaining how and why non-conformists move the world with original thinking. However, I hope I have at least indicated why I think it is a brilliant achievement. Those who share my high regard for Originals are urged to check out an earlier work, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (2013), also published by Viking and now available in a paperbound edition.

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