this book is full of juice – originals by adam grant

I’m inspired by Mark Zuckerberg’s annual projects and decided to have one of my own.  Read a non-fiction book every week and write about it. Subscribe to my newsletter.

#18 – Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant

Part 1 – Chapters 1-4

Friends! Faithful Readers! This book is juicy, juicy, juicy. Why should you read it? Because your brain deserves juice and this is full of it. It is so full of juice that I have to break it down into Part 1 and 2. Part 2 arrives next week.

I define juice as something that makes you smarter, think more, busts myths, correct errors and changes lives. This book has all that but I cannot guarantee it will change your life. Only you can change your life.

Key ideas:

1. The world has many default settings.

2. These default settings do not always offer the best life. They were created by people and can be removed by people.

3. Originals want these default settings removed. They seek a better option.

4. It is not easy for originals. People want the default settings even though they suffer from them. This is because by accepting the default settings, they feel better about themselves since it’s not their fault but simply because it’s “how the world works”.

5. The problem is not the lack of original ideas. The problem is selecting the right ones and making sure they succeed.

6. When it comes to accepting your original and status quo breaking ideas, middle managers are the worst. They have a lot to lose and hence, prefer to be conservative. Avoid them and garner support from above and below.

7. Procrastination is good when it comes to creativity. Provided you let ideas sit in the back of your mind while you work on other things. It leads to more divergent thinking and novel ideas.

8. First-mover advantage may be a myth. It’s better for others to start and for you to learn from their mistakes.

Did I say it’s…

Full of juice:

Your internet browser says a lot about you. The economist Michael Houseman had data from over 30,000 employees who worked in call centers. He noticed that employees who used Firefox or Chrome “remained in their jobs 15 percent longer than those who used Internet Explorer or Safari.” The former were also 19% less likely to miss work and had customers who were more satisfied that the latter’s. 2/3 of these employees used the default browser (Internet Explorer or Safari). So in order to use Firefox or Chrome, you need to take initiative and be resourceful enough to download a superior option. The study found that the default browser users stayed on their sales script, followed standard operating procedures and saw their job descriptions as fixed (as a result were unhappier and started to miss working days). The Firefox or Chrome users looked for different and new ways to sell to customers and deal with their issues, and fixed situations they didn’t like. “We live in an Internet Explorer world. Just as almost two thirds of the customer service reps used the default browser on their computers, many of us accept the defaults in our own lives.”

This was surprising. The theory of system justification: “people are motivated to rationalize the status quo as legitimate—even if it goes directly against their interests.”A study found that people in the lowest income bracket were 17% more likely than people in the highest income bracket to “view economic inequality as necessary.” I love these 2 sentences: “Justifying the default system serves a soothing function. It’s an emotional painkiller: If the world is supposed to be this way, we don’t need to be dissatisfied with it.”

Being original means rejecting the status quo and seeking an option that is better. You start by asking: “why the default exists in the first place.”

Definition of Vuja de – “we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.”

This is an important thought. Many of the defaults in the world are rules and systems created by people. It’s not because those are the best ways to live our lives. This awareness gives us the courage to reject these defaults and change them. For example, women were not allowed to vote. That was a default. It was not an acceptable way for society to function but a rule created by men.

Many child prodigies become experts in their fields. But very few become original thinkers who revolutionised their fields. They are hindered by “achievement motivation” which values success and avoid failure. To be original and revolutionary, you cannot avoid failure.

Rejecting the status quo and seeking out a better way is very difficult. We hold back because we do not want to “rock the boat”. There are many real life examples of originals such as Steve Wozniak, Michelangelo, Martin Luther King, Jr who almost did not work on their crowning achievements because they were afraid and unwilling.

It is a myth that originals take extreme risks. In fact, they hate risk. One study’s conclusion: “We find that entrepreneurs are significantly more risk-averse than the general population.”

“Entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs had 33 percent lower odds of failure than those who quit.”

We don’t suffer from a shortage of novel ideas but we have the problem of selecting the right ideas. For example, many ideas that were rejected and did not see the light of day (Seinfeld, Harry Potter, etc.) turned out to be huge hits.

Your volume of work is important. Creative geniuses are not necessarily better than their peers but they do much more work and that increases their chances of success. “When the London Philharmonic Orchestra chose the 50 greatest pieces of classical music, the list included six pieces by Mozart, five by Beethoven, and three by Bach. To generate a handful of masterworks, Mozart composed more than 600 pieces before his death at thirty-five, Beethoven produced 650 in his lifetime, and Bach wrote over a thousand. In a study of over 15,000 classical music compositions, the more pieces a composer produced in a given five-year window, the greater the spike in the odds of a hit.”

Bob Sutton: “Original thinkers 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.”

Seek feedback for your original ideas from your peers. Managers and test audiences are risk-averse. Peers have “enough distance to offer an honest appraisal”.

“People who started businesses and contributed to patent applications were more likely than their peers to have leisure time hobbies that involved drawing, painting, architecture, sculpture, and literature.”

One study found that the more ideas and concerns employees raise, the less likely they were promoted and given raises over a 2-year period. When you try to exercise power without the appropriate status, you get punished. People without status who try to change things often fail. If you belong to a minority group, “it’s particularly important to earn status before exercising power.”

Idiosyncrasy credits – you are given latitude to deviate from a group’s expectations if you make enough contributions for people to respect you. In other words, they forgive you because you are good.

Rufus Griscom sold Babble to Disney for $40m. In his pitch, “one of his slides read: “Here’s Why You Should Not Buy Babble.” When you present novel ideas, your audience is likely to be skeptical and will raise their “mental shields”. By talking about your weaknesses, you “disarm your audience” where the first natural reaction is laughter. Griscom argues that investors will discover the company’s problems during due diligence so by being upfront about weaknesses enable him to build trust with the investors.

“I often ask executives to judge how happy they are after thinking about the positive features of their lives. One group is tasked with writing three good things about their lives; another group has to list twelve good things. Everyone expects the twelve group to be happier: the more blessings you count, the better you should feel about your circumstances. But most of the time, the opposite is true. We’re happier after we list three good things than twelve. Why would this be?” It’s because it’s easier to come up with 3 things rather than 12. Some people struggle to come up with 12 things and as a result, they think their lives are not as good. When Griscom shares the company’s weaknesses, it makes it harder for investors to come up with their own ideas and what was wrong and they then perceived the company’s problems as not so severe.

When you want people to change, you have to communicate often. “When Harvard professor John Kotter studied change agents years ago, he found that they typically undercommunicated their visions by a factor of ten. On average, they spoke about the direction of the change ten times less often than their stakeholders needed to hear it.”

The mere exposure effect: “the more often we encounter something, the more we like it.” Howard Tullman: “Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. It breeds comfort.”

“Exposures (to ideas) are more effective when they’re short and mixed in with other ideas, to help maintain the audience’s curiosity. It’s also best to introduce a delay between the presentation of the idea and the evaluation of it, which provides time for it to sink in. If you’re making a suggestion to a boss, you might start with a 30-second elevator pitch during a conversation on Tuesday, revisit it briefly the following Monday, and then ask for feedback at the end of the week.”

“Whether you’re unhappy with your job, your marriage, or your government, decades of research show that you have a choice between exit (removing yourself from the situation), voice (actively trying to improve the situation), persistence (continue with the status quo and bearing it), and neglect (stay in the situation but reduce your effort).”

Disagreeable (critical and skeptical towards others) managers are often the best advocates for our original ideas. Agreeable (cordial and harmonious towards others) hate conflict and do not want to upset interpersonal relationships. Hence they may not be willing to support  your ideas which attack the status quo and will upset many in your organisation.

I agree with this, since it’s true for me as a disagreeable person. “Agreeable people were happiest in the moments when they doled out compliments and praise, smiled and laughed with others, expressed affection, reassured others, and compromised or made concessions to please others. Disagreeable people, in contrast, experienced the greatest joy when they were criticizing, confronting, or challenging others.”

“Research shows that when managers have a track record of challenging the status quo, they tend to be more open to new ideas and less threatened by contributions from others.”

Complete agreement again. Middle managers are so scary. “Social scientists have long demonstrated this middle-status conformity effect. If you’re perched at the top, you’re expected to be different and therefore have the license to deviate. Likewise, if you’re still at the bottom of a status hierarchy, you have little to lose and everything to gain by being original. But the middle segment of that hierarchy—where the majority of people in an organization are found—is dominated by insecurity. Now that you have a bit of respect, you value your standing in the group and don’t want to jeopardize it. To maintain and then gain status, you play a game of follow-the-leader, conforming to prove your worth as a group member. As sociologist George Homans observed, “Middle-status conservatism reflects the anxiety experienced by one who aspires to a social station but fears disenfranchisement.” The fall from low to lower hardly hurts; the fall from middle to low is devastating.”

“Middle-status conformity leads us to choose the safety of the tried-and-true over the danger of the original.”

Spend more time to share your original ideas with people on the top and below you and spend less time trying to convince the middle managers.

Good news for procrastinators. There is much evidence that procrastination is more of a virtue than a vice. But there is a proper way to procrastinate. And procrastination is fruitful for creative work, not routine tasks.

Mark Twain: “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. did not start writing his “I had a dream” speech until 10 pm the night before.

There is a proper way to procrastinate. It doesn’t mean you push a task aside completely without thinking about it. Deliberate procrastinators put tasks in the back of their minds. “Delaying progress enabled them to spend more time considering different ways to accomplish it, rather than “seizing and freezing” on one particular strategy.”

“In ancient Egypt, there were two different verbs for procrastination: one denoted laziness; the other meant waiting for the right time.”

“Scholars estimate that da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa on and off for a few years starting in 1503, left it unfinished, and didn’t complete it until close to his death in 1519.”

“Da Vinci spent about fifteen years developing the ideas for The Last Supper while working on a variety of other projects.”

“I had a dream” was not written in King’s speech. He came up with it on the spot. “During the address, King’s favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, shouted from behind him, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!” He continued with his script, and she encouraged him again. Before a live crowd of 250,000, and millions more watching on TV, King improvised, pushing his notes aside and launching into his inspiring vision of the future. “In front of all those people, cameras, and microphones,” Clarence Jones reflects, “Martin winged it.”

“Years ago, Berkeley psychologist Donald MacKinnon discovered that the most creative architects in America tended to be more spontaneous than their technically skilled but unoriginal peers, who rated themselves higher in self-control and conscientiousness.”

“when strategy researchers Sucheta Nadkarni and Pol Herrmann studied nearly two hundred companies in India, the firms with the highest financial returns were the ones whose CEOs rated themselves the lowest on efficiency and promptness.”

“The CEOs who planned carefully, acted early, and worked diligently scored as more rigid: once they formulated a strategy, they stuck to it. The CEOs who tended to delay work were more flexible and versatile—they were able to change their strategies to capitalize on new opportunities and defend against threats.”

Great procrastinators also succeed because they have a lot of experience and may have many opportunities to share their ideas and practice their craft. “During the year of his “dream” speech alone, it is estimated that he (King) traveled over 275,000 miles and delivered over 350 speeches.”

“After being involved in starting over one hundred companies, Idealab founder Bill Gross ran an analysis to figure out what drove success versus failure. The most important factor was not the uniqueness of the idea, the capabilities and execution of the team, the quality of the business model, or the availability of funding. “The number one thing was timing,” Gross reveals. “Timing accounted for forty-two percent of the difference between success and failure.”

“In a classic study, marketing researchers Peter Golder and Gerard Tellis compared the success of companies that were either pioneers or settlers. The pioneers were first movers: the initial company to develop or sell a product. The settlers were slower to launch, waiting until the pioneers had created a market before entering it. When Golder and Tellis analyzed hundreds of brands in three dozen different product categories, they found a staggering difference in failure rates: 47 percent for pioneers, compared with just 8 percent for settlers. Pioneers were about six times more likely to fail than settlers. Even when the pioneers did survive, they only captured an average of 10 percent of the market, compared with 28 percent for settlers.”

Being a first-mover has many disadvantages.

“In home video-game consoles, the pioneer was Magnavox Odyssey in 1972, which mostly featured rudimentary sports games. A settler, Nintendo, acquired the Odyssey’s distribution rights for Japan in 1975, and then blew Magnavox out of the water in the following decade by creating an original Nintendo Entertainment System that featured games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Nintendo transformed gaming with a user-friendly controller, sophisticated characters, and interactive role-playing. Being original doesn’t require being first. It just means being different and better.”

“Wouldn’t you rather be second or third and see how the guy in first did, and then . . . improve it?” Malcolm Gladwell asked in an interview. “When ideas get really complicated, and when the world gets complicated, it’s foolish to think the person who’s first can work it all out,” Gladwell remarked. “Most good things, it takes a long time to figure them out.”

“As physicist Max Planck once observed, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.”

“The key lesson here is that if you have an original idea, it’s a mistake to rush with the sole purpose of beating your competitors to the finish line. Just as procrastinating can give us flexibility on a task, delaying market entry can open us up to learning and adaptability, reducing the risks associated with originality.”

“When companies run suggestion boxes, there is evidence that older employees tend to submit more ideas and higher-quality ideas than their younger colleagues, with the most valuable suggestions coming from employees older than fifty-five. ”

“Why do some (creative geniuses) peak early and others bloom late?”

There are 2 radically different styles of innovation: conceptual and experimental. “Conceptual innovators formulate a big idea and set out to execute it. Experimental innovators solve problems through trial and error, learning and evolving as they go along. They are at work on a particular problem, but they don’t have a specific solution in mind at the outset. Instead of planning in advance, they figure it out as they go.”

“When he (David Galenson) studied economists who won the Nobel Prize, on average the conceptual innovators did their most influential work at forty-three, whereas the experimental innovators did theirs at sixty-one.”

“Conceptual innovation can be done quickly, because it doesn’t require years of methodical investigation.”

“Conversely, while experimental innovation can require years or decades to accumulate the requisite knowledge and skill, it becomes a more sustainable source of originality.”

Advice for old people – “To sustain our originality as we age and accumulate expertise, our best bet is to adopt an experimental approach. We can make fewer plans in advance for what we want to create, and start testing out different kinds of tentative ideas and solutions. Eventually, if we’re patient enough, we may stumble onto something that’s novel and useful.”

“The more experiments you run, the less constrained you become by your ideas from the past. You learn from what you discover in your audience, on the canvas, or in the data. Instead of getting mired in the tunnel vision of your imagination, by looking out into the world you improve the acuity of your peripheral vision.”

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