What it takes to be originals

“Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World” by Adam Grant

This is a well-researched book, written by a highly intelligent person. It challenges the common misconceptions of what it takes to be successful person in many different fields – from business, to social movement, politics, filmmaking, sports, even parenting – or as Adam Grant refers to as the originals.

So, what are the common misconceptions of originals?

Firstly, originals do not take a giant leap of faith or a high-risk-high-return strategy, where they risk everything they own into one basket. Phil Knight still works as an accountant when he first started to sell shoes out of the trunk of his car. Steve Wozniak still kept his job 1 year after he co-founded Apple. Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t drop out right away from their PhD program when they founded Google. Pierre Omidyar built eBay as a hobby, and he only left his job after his online marketplace was generating more money than his job. While Henry Ford still kept his job as a chief engineer for Thomas Edison, when he started his automotive empire.

Even Bill Gates, who is famous for dropping out of Harvard to start Microsoft, waited an entire year after selling his new software program as a sophomore before leaving school. Even then he didn’t “drop out” but instead applied for a leave of absence (which was formally approved by Harvard) and supported financially by his parents.

As Grant remarks, “Originals do vary in their attitudes toward risk. Some are skydiving gamblers; others are penny-pinching germophobes. To become original, you have to try something new, which means accepting some measure of risk. But the most successful originals are not the daredevils who leap before they look. They are the ones who reluctantly tiptoe to the edge of a cliff, calculate the rate of descent, triple-check their parachutes, and set up a safety net at the bottom just in case.” In fact, “[e]ntrepreneurs who kept their day jobs had 33 percent lower odds of failure than those who quit.”

Secondly, originals are not always that alpha character with convictions, and not the flawless beings with no negative emotions. Instead, they are humans with hopes, fear, doubts and fallibility just like the rest of us, but they make do with what they have. Michelangelo was initially scared when commissioned by the Pope to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. were not interested on being a public face, let alone a leader of a movement, but their respective circumstance inspired them to rise up to the occasion. And it took Copernicus 26 years to publish his findings that the Sun does not revolve around Earth, in fear of being ridiculed.

Thirdly, child prodigies, as it turns out, rarely go on to change the world. In fact many of history’s most prominent and influential people were not unusually gifted as children. This is because child prodigies excelled in their chosen field as the best in an already codified rules of established games, instead of coming up with something original or something new. In order words, they are masters of playing Mozart and Beethoven but they can not compose their own original music.

Fourthly, the first mover advantage is a myth, and that originals are “strategic procrastinators.” They are quick to start but slow to finish, or in other words they are more willing to let their ideas zimmer in procrastination until they got it perfectly rather than rushing in to be the first mover but with half-baked implementation (in fact, the first movers have 47% chance of failure, while improvers only have 8% chance of failure). Leonardo da Vinci is a prime example for strategic procrastinator, where, for example, it took him 16 years to finally finish the Mona Lisa painting. Or in business world, Facebook created a much long lasting social network after MySpace and Friendster, while Google waited for years after AltaVista and Yahoo have created their search engines but now they’re the undisputed number 1.

Indeed, originals procrastinate, they are scared, they are risk averse, most of them are ordinary people, and the book clearly shows how they become successful because – and not despite – of these traits.

The book also provides a lot of thought-provoking data findings that offer more dimensions into originals, which are just fun to explore. Such as why Firefox and Chrome users are likely to become more successful than Explorer and Safari users, the warning against premature scaling, how to use defensive pessimism, the case for being a tempered radical (where we disguise our radical goal into a trojan horse of temperance), the psychology of a first middle or last child, a cheeky point made using the Sarick Effect, why it’s often wiser to partner with enemies than frenemies, and in chapter 2 the book compares between a much-hyped start up that turned out to be bonkers (Segways) with a much-criticised TV concept that would become a global hit (Seinfeld) and why people judged these two completely wrong.

Perhaps the best feature of the book for me is that Grant is using a huge goldmine of data and conceptual theories in almost every other paragraph, and he illustrates them all using spot-on real-life examples to make his points across.

Theories such as the difference between conceptual innovator vs. experimental innovator: “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”, and which historical figures fall into those 2 categories, and how they made the most out of it.

Or one the most enlightening theories for me, especially in this age of extreme polarisations, the concept of horizontal hostility: why the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike can form the basis of the most hostility. Such as vegans towards vegetarians, a deaf woman who won the Miss American crown but was protested by deaf activists because she isn’t “deaf enough”, a radical eco group dismissed a more mainstream Greenpeace movement, or how extreme liberals are more harsh towards moderate liberals than conservatives. The message is clear, according to Grant, “if you were a true believer you’d be all in. The more strongly you identify with an extreme group, the harder you seek to differentiate yourself from more moderate groups that threaten your values.”

Adam Grant is an electrifying human being. Just listen to his many talks or interviews and you can hear his brightness, passion and confidence channeled through his words. This book is the culmination of all of that, the embodiment of his life’s work that teaches us to see things beyond the common perceptions, and understand that the incremental steps toward becoming an original is not reserved only for the gifted. It is an exhilarating read right from the start, one of the most enlightening books I’ve ever read.