“Originals” was one of the more entertaining (and informative) reads of my 2019. In this book, psychologist and author Adam Grant explores how creativity happens and sheds light on some unorthodox wisdom, backed by interesting stories and cases of well-known people, on how to foster it in yourself and others.
He outlines not only cases from the world of tech and business, but also highlights various well-known figures in history and the arts, and breaks down how they managed to make as huge an impact on our world as they did. Not only are the stories super interesting, Grant also presents them in a way that’s quite actionable, regardless of where you may be at in your life and career.
Why I Read It
I saw the TED talk by Adam Grant where he talks about his failure to invest in Warby Parker before they became big, and I thought there was a lot of great insight that were quite counter-intuitive but still made a lot of sense. Here’s the video:
I’m pretty self-aware that creativity is a personal weakness of mine. I do pretty well in betting and executing ideas and keeping things running smoothly, but when it comes to coming up with new bets, I’ve found much more success when I collaborate on ideas that come from other people.
This, of course, isn’t a bad thing. Every creator needs a “validator”, and this is one point Grant brings up in the book. Personally, I decided to read more into his insights partly for the interesting storytelling but also in the hope of developing a better compass when it comes to creating and spotting great ideas.
There are so many unique ideas in this book (and it’s all summarized neatly at the very last part). Here are a few of my favorite points:
Risk appetite and creativity
Grant suggests that the most creative people are often the most risk averse, contrary to romanticized images of creative geniuses taking on huge risks with (somewhat) reckless abandon. The fact is, while some have thrived on making incredible dives, most successful people have gotten better mileage on calculated and safe decisions. The founders of Warby Parker, now one of the top eye-wear retailers, didn’t leave school nor go all in on the business until it was evident that things would work out.
Being “risk averse” isn’t always about risk avoidance. Sometimes, it simply requires risk mitigation. Making certain bets are necessary to create something new, but safeguarding against losing more than you can handle is always worth the extra effort – even if it means working two jobs at the same time.
Value in volume
While some people preach about focusing your efforts on a specific thing, Grant suggests that to produce really creative ideas, it makes sense to churn them out in volume. Citing examples of famous artists like DaVinci and Mozart, it’s pointed out that we often forget how much work (in terms of volume) was created and how small the percentage of their entire body of work actually became timeless pieces.
Reading this part felt a little like vindication to me, as I’ve always been one to do a lot of different things at the same time. Sure, quality is better than quantity, but there’s also wisdom in not putting all your eggs in one basket. In the grand scheme, quantity does matter, and I’m glad this is brought up in the book.
Procrastination, the unlikely hero
I felt like I needed to highlight one takeaway that I had a difficult time agreeing with. Not that I never procrastinate as I do often find myself fighting that trap. But it’s always something that’s irked me as I believe that getting small things done sooner than later always results in the bigger work getting done in the end. If there’s anything I actively avoid, it’s last-minute heroics.
Nonetheless, the cases the book brings up – such as that of the Warby Parker website going live an uncomfortably short time before their launch – are compelling enough that I had to set that bias aside and realize there is, in fact, value in doing things at the last minute. It’s often called the “second mover advantage“, and it allows you to learn from the mistakes of those that came before. As with anything, take this advise with a grain of salt and use it extra wisely, as a race is still a race.
Raising kids to be original
A whole chapter in the book is dedicated to raising kids to be creative, something that engaged me as a new father. One key thing pointed out was that telling kids what to do or not do (e.g. “share your toys”) is less effective than telling them what to be and not be (e.g. “be a kind person”) The latter allows them to develop personal values and not simply follow rules.
Another point is that recognizing and allowing your kids to find their “niche” can encourage them to be creative. This is particularly important with younger kids who may (sometimes inevitably) find themselves growing up in the shadow of successful older siblings. If one can find a way to stand out in one’s own family, then standing out in the world isn’t too far out of reach.
Humor changes the world
Humor has always been one thing I value and as it turns out, it’s actually had the power to change the world at certain points. Srdja Popovic, a Serbian activist who was key in overthrowing a dictatorship in the 2000s, posed that one could start a revolution by releasing ping-pong balls into traffic (and true enough, that’s one of the things they pulled off in fighting for freedom in Serbia). He also frequently used humorous imagery to poke fun at the dictatorship, and through this, demonstrated that while there was plenty to be afraid of, it wasn’t impossible to have a laugh nonetheless.
Recommended reading for…
A lot of different people.
I’d personally recommend it to people who are itching to pursue an idea and turn it into something great. Likewise, it’s a good read for people who are deciding whether to invest and collaborate on someone else’s idea but isn’t too sure if it’s worth it. These things are always a gamble to some extent, but the points outlined in “Originals” helps identify possible green and red flags in the people you’re potentially going to work with.
This book is also a great read for managers on fostering a culture of creativity and feedback in an organization. And, of course, a particular chapter in the book (as I mentioned above), I’d recommend to parents who want their little ones to develop a sense of positive creativity.
Overall, the book does not disappoint in both storytelling and actionable lessons. So even if you’re just looking for a light read and want to learn something along the way, “Originals” might just be for you.
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Dexter is an engineering manager at Synacy, a co-founder of ATeam Business Software Solutions, and founder of TechManagement.Life. He loves to share his experiences and thoughts on managing software teams and running businesses.