Adam Grant, author of Originals (2016), is described in the forward as an “informed optimist who offers insights and advice about how anyone – at home, at work, in the community – can make the world a better place.” (p. ix) Grant’s perspective complements another book I recently read/reviewed, The RationalOptimist (Ridley, 2010). The two books make good companions in a 21st century environment where innovation is so important.
Sometimes we think of innovation as mastery or expertise. By contrast, Grant invites us into a world where change is nurtured through breadth of perspective. The book is filled with examples of how new ideas bubbled up and became useful and marketable. One example is Warby Parker, a business that offers on-line eyewear. The creators of Warby Parker knew that the typical response to something like the expense of eyewear is resignation – an unwillingness to question, challenge, or do anything to address the problem of prohibitive cost. Although many saw their venture as doomed from the start, the creators found ways to overcome the blocks to the very personal and necessary purchase of eyewear – and doing it on-line for both convenience and cost purposes.
In order to overcome the resignation or acquiescence that discourages taking action, Grant proposes that innovation is borne of curiosity, a vuju de that allows us to see something familiar but with a fresh perspective (p.6). An example of vuju de drawn from social change is the women’s suffrage movement. For decades and generations women had accepted their diminished position in life as “just how it is” but suffrage brought the fresh perspective that the role ascribed to women was simply man-made and that it could be changed.
The problem with cultivating originality is that it is inconvenient – to teachers, peers, bosses, or anyone who prefers the comfort of accepted protocol or routine. Especially when achievement is placed as a high value, originality is thwarted because our desire to succeed encourages us to seek the easy and predictable way of looking good to those around us. Originality doesn’t require extreme risk taking but, instead, a comfort with some doubt that pushes us to work harder and be persistent in creating something that will be successful and lasting. In fact, “The more successful people have been in the past, the worse they perform when they enter a new environment.” (p. 53)
What are the things that are most often associated with people who are original in their thoughts and actions? The first is that they are more involved in the arts – music, sculpting, writing, performing (p. 46). The second characteristic of originals is that they lived abroad for an extended period – not traveled, not short-term study, but lived abroad in a culture very different than their own (p. 48). Originals tend also to be later or last-born children, a result of the impact of sibling rivalry and differences in the ways parents raise later-borns. In an organization setting, originals are people who not only champion new ideas but also they are people who have earned their stripes as being somewhat eccentric and idiosyncratic. A counter-intuitive pattern among originals is that they sometimes procrastinate; strangely enough, procrastinating allows the original to consider a wider range of approaches through daydreaming, questioning, and experimenting. Lastly, originals are more likely to be experimental rather than conceptual innovators, meaning that it isn’t just about the “up in the clouds” ideas but more about trying something, learning from mistakes, and working toward a better solution. Rather than leave you hanging, Grant provides a number of helpful ideas about how to attract, interview, and hire originals.
Originals debunks a number of myths about how to make original contributions in a variety of ways – business, social justice, political innovation, and others. That we need originals in the modern day is indisputable; it’s a matter of looking within ourselves to see if we have or can cultivate a perspective that brings that special originality to various problems that yearn for solutions. If any group or organization seeks to support originality, leaders will need to understand that originals or “’shapers’ are independent thinkers; curious, non-conforming, and rebellious” (p. 208). Rather than leaders succumbing to fear of failure when an original pushes the organization to do something different, realize that “Fear forces you to prepare more rigorously and see potential problems more quickly” (p. 214), an insurance plan that most organizations would love to acquire.