Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

by Adam Grant

An insightful dive into the habits of originals, the hurdles they go through and the risks they take to successfully champion new ideas that challenge the status quo. Consisting of strategies that can help you generate creative and radical ideas while attracting mainstream support, to ultimately bring positive change to the world around you.  

Summary Notes

Creative Destruction

“Originality is taking the road less traveled, championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better”

Great ideas are a dime a dozen. There are many out there who have great ideas that can improve society. However, very few of us take action because of fear of criticism. As a result, we accept unsuitable default conditions instead of disrupting the status quo. This tendency to conform to societal expectations ultimately limits our creativity and innovation. However, there are a few originals who choose to openly reject the status quo and advocate for better alternatives. 

A study was conducted to find out why some customer service agents stayed longer in their jobs than others. The results showed that those who used their computer’s default web browser (Internet Explorer for Windows or Safari for Mac) had lower sales and were more likely to quit their job. Coincidentally, those who downloaded and used Chrome or Firefox stayed longer at their job and had higher sales. But what does a browser have to do with anything? 

The research showed that those who accepted the default web browser perceived their job descriptions to be fixed and didn’t bother to find creative ways to improve their work. Therefore, when they encountered problems at work, they either called in sick or quit instead of looking for innovative solutions. On the other hand, those who rejected the default web browser found novel ways to improve their work conditions and boost sales, even if it meant deviating from the company script. They took the risk of becoming originals by challenging company norms and finding better alternatives. But why are most people so afraid of shaking things up?  

This fear seems to be based on the false assumption that change-makers are biologically immune to risk. We mistakenly perceive originals as super-humans who are impervious to fear. But the truth is that many originals are ordinary people who also grapple with self-doubt and uncertainty. For example, contrary to what many believe, Bill Gates didn’t drop out of Harvard after creating his new software program. He waited a whole year to do so, and even then, he applied for a leave of absence from the university. This provided him with a safety net in case his idea failed. 

The truth is that you don’t have to take extreme risks to become an original. Even as you courageously stand your ground and advocate for new ways of thinking, you can still take active measures to avoid unnecessary risks.   

Actions to take

Blind Inventors and One-Eyed Investors

“When we’ve developed an idea, we’re typically too close to our own tastes—and too far from the audience’s tastes—to evaluate it accurately”

Despite the large number of innovative ventures coming to market every year, very few of them ever succeed in the long term. But the problem isn’t a lack of creativity or poor idea generation. The real problem is poor idea selection. Apparently, most people aren’t very good at accurately predicting the success of a new idea, whether it's their own or that of someone else. 

For example, when Beethoven was asked to evaluate 70 of his compositions, 15 of the pieces he identified as excellent pieces were rated as poor by both the audience and critics. Coincidentally, 8 of the pieces that he rated as being the most poor are what we today consider to be his masterpieces. But if creators don’t know when they have a great idea on their hands, then at least we can depend on the opinion of experts, right? 

Well, apparently not. If experts were so insightful, then movie executives would never have rejected Seinfeld, Star Wars, and Pulp Fiction. Book publishers would never have rejected Harry Potter, Gone With the Wind, and The Chronicles of Narnia. These creative masterpieces were all initially rejected by the experts because they were considered too unconventional. When it comes to creative innovation, it seems that so-called experts prefer to stick with familiar templates rather than take a gamble on something new. .  

So, what can you do to maximize your chances of creating a masterpiece? The simplest way is to generate a ton of ideas! Shakespeare created 37 plays and 154 sonnets within 20 years, most of which you’ve probably never heard of. You may know about classics such as Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, but there are many more like All’s Well That End’s Well or Timon of Athens that totally flopped. The bottom line is that originals tend to come up with many ideas, most of which end up being useless. Therefore, if you want to end up with a great idea, it’s better to have a large pool of ideas than a small one.

Actions to take

Out on a Limb

“Leaders and managers appreciate it when employees take the initiative…and seek feedback. But there’s one form of initiative that gets penalized: speaking up with suggestions”

The way you communicate an idea determines whether it’s accepted or not, especially if you’re expressing a minority opinion, proposing an unconventional solution, or objecting to an existing policy. Speaking up in such situations can sometimes cost you your career and relationships. You have to find ways to reap the benefits of speaking up without risking your credibility.

Your ability to speak up and be heard depends on two aspects of social hierarchy—your power and status. Power is the control you have over others while status refers to the respect and admiration others have for you regardless of your position. In most organizations, anyone who attempts to exercise power without first achieving status is quickly punished. For example, if you propose new ideas yet you haven’t earned people’s respect, your ideas will be dismissed. You must first earn your status before you begin planting seeds of change. 

However, sometimes your status isn’t enough. Let's say you want to propose an idea to people who have more power than you. In this situation, you’d probably highlight the strengths of your idea. However, this can only work if your audience supports the idea. If they are skeptical—which is the more likely scenario—then you have to find another way to convince your audience. One uncanny way to deal with skepticism is to fault your idea. People are naturally suspicious of salespeople. Therefore, by openly critiquing your idea, you appear more trustworthy. Furthermore, we tend to trust the accuracy of a critical review more than a complimentary one. 

But what if your audience just doesn’t understand your radical idea? The problem may be that you’re assuming your audience can see the vision inside your head. You have to repeat your message over a long period of time so that people can become comfortable enough to buy into it. The more they hear about your radical idea, the less foreign or threatening it sounds. 

If your idea is totally rejected despite all your best attempts, then maybe it’s time to consider walking away. If you strongly believe that your idea is original enough and can bring positive change, then you have to find a suitable environment to actualize it. Sometimes, exiting a stifling organization is a better path to originality than simply persevering with the status quo. 

Actions to take

Fools Rush In

“You don’t have to be first to be an original, and the most successful originals don’t always arrive on schedule. They are fashionably late to the party”

Since childhood, we’ve always been told to finish our tasks on time and not wait until the last minute. An entire industry has been built around time management, with numerous self-help books devoted to combating procrastination. But what if we’ve been wrong all this time? What if procrastination does have its benefits especially when it comes to generating original ideas? 

In one experiment, college students were asked to create a business proposal on how to commercialize an empty lot that was previously occupied by a convenience store. The students came up with unoriginal ideas such as starting another convenience store. Some of these students were then asked to take time off from the task to play video games. When these students returned, they managed to come up with more creative ideas such as starting a tutoring facility. Overall, those who procrastinated by playing games generated ideas that were 28% more creative. 

But it wasn’t the break or the games that aided their creativity. The study went on to show that playing games before the beginning of the task didn’t lead to original ideas and neither did taking a break in the middle of the task. What helped them generate more creative ideas was starting the task and then deliberately procrastinating before going back to their task. Even as they procrastinated with games, their minds were actively thinking of more creative solutions than what they had already come up with. Leonardo da Vinci, a true original thinker, took this strategy to the extreme. He started painting the Mona Lisa in 1503 but finished it in 1519. During that 16-year interval, he dabbled in all kinds of experiments but still managed to create a work of genius. 

Society has trained us to believe that it’s more beneficial to rush and complete tasks ahead of everyone else. This is why entrepreneurs always rush to launch their product before their rivals. Unfortunately, this often results in failure because pioneers tend to make more mistakes, take more risks, and use untested technologies. However, those who procrastinate and enter the market a bit later get to learn from the mistakes of the pioneers. They avoid unnecessary risks, improve on the technology, and thus create better products and services for consumers. 

Actions to take

Goldilocks and the Trojan Horse

“To succeed, originals must often become tempered radicals”

One effective strategy to push for social change is to form alliances with others. An alliance can help you get your message across to a wider audience. However, building a coalition is not easy. Originals tend to be revolutionaries, and oftentimes their radical messages make it difficult to attract potential allies to join the movement. Therefore, originals frequently have to moderate their message to attract support from people who don’t share their goals. This is the Goldilocks theory of coalition formation.

Wouldn’t it be much easier to work with people who have similar ideals as your own? Contrary to popular belief, shared goals often drive groups apart instead of bringing them closer together. For example, people assume that vegans and vegetarians can easily form a coalition because they both share a similar goal—avoiding meat consumption. However, studies show that vegans are 3 times more prejudiced toward vegetarians than the other way around. Vegans think vegetarians are a bunch of sellouts that aren’t radical enough to give up animal products like eggs and dairy. This horizontal hostility based on taking extreme positions is why most movements fail.

When the extremists in a movement refuse to work with the moderates in the group, a split inevitably occurs. The radical members go out and look for external allies who are just as extreme as they are even if they share different ideologies. Similarly, the moderates seek out allies who employ moderate tactics even if their causes are dissimilar. History shows that originals that tone down their radical ideas are more successful at appealing to a mainstream audience than the extremists. A good example of this is the women's suffragist movement of America.

In the 1860s, the three founders of the suffragist movement parted ways because Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton felt that Lucy Stone was not being radical enough in fighting for women’s right to vote. Anthony and Stanton preferred confrontational tactics and formed an alliance with other extremists, including white supremacists. Stone, on the other hand, forged an alliance with a women’s union that advocated for traditional values. She also included men and Black advocacy groups in her coalition. Stone’s coalition employed moderate tactics such as public meetings and speeches to spread their message of social change.

Ultimately, it was Stone’s coalition that persuaded several states to give women their right to vote. Therefore, when pushing for a radically new idea, you have to tone down your messaging to be accepted by a mainstream audience. This can even help you recruit groups that previously opposed your goals.

Actions to take

Rebel with a Cause

“By explaining moral principles, parents encourage their children to comply voluntarily with rules that align with important values and to question rules that don’t.”

Why do some individuals rebel against social norms despite the inherent risks while others willingly conform? Research shows that it may have something to do with their birth position within the family. Studies reveal that laterborns (younger siblings) have a higher propensity to take risks compared to their older siblings. For example, laterborns participate in riskier sports such as ice hockey, auto racing and ski jumping while firstborns prefer safer activities such as golf, cycling and tennis. This tendency toward risk-taking and originality may be due to the way younger siblings grow up.

Firstborn children spend their initial years without any siblings. Therefore, they rely on their parents as their only role models. When a younger sibling comes along, the firstborn feels threatened and responds by becoming authoritarian. They act like a little parent and enforce the rules, thus causing the younger sibling to become rebellious. Since the younger one cannot directly compete against their older sibling, they have to find innovative ways to gain attention.

For example, if the older sibling excels in one position of a football team, the younger one will play a different position. If the firstborn is good at baseball, the younger one will play basketball. Since firstborns often choose conventional careers to please their parents, laterborn children seek unconventional careers that require originality. This is why the majority of your favorite comedians are likely to be lastborn. After all, if you can’t compete against stronger and smarter older siblings, you might as well be the clown of the family.

Furthermore, laterborns are raised with greater freedom and aren’t punished as severely as their older siblings. A study showed that when parents discipline their child through rational explanation rather than yelling or spanking, the child developed more generosity, empathy and risk-taking tendencies. When the child made a mistake, the parents asked them to consider how their negative actions impacted on others. When they did something good, their character was praised and the parents used the opportunity to instill moral values. Therefore, parents who want to inspire the next generation of originals should raise their children in a more conscientious way. 

Actions to take

Rethinking Groupthink

“Dissenting opinions are useful even when they’re wrong”

You’ve probably heard of Edwin Land, the creator of the instant camera and a man Steve Jobs referred to as one of the great inventors of our time. Land is well-known for his original ideas that transformed the tech industry. But despite all his accolades, he made one mistake that every original should avoid—he allowed groupthink to become part of his company culture. After successfully dominating the field for years, Land began rejecting all dissenting opinions and sidelined anyone who challenged his ideas. Sadly, it didn’t take long before his company, Polaroid, went bankrupt.

But where does groupthink in organizations originate from? The answer could lie in a company’s hiring practices. Generally, there are three templates that organizations use when hiring staff. Some companies hire according to professional skills, others look for bright superstars with potential, while some seek candidates who can commit to the organization’s culture. Research shows that companies that hire for commitment have a lower failure rate than those that hire for skill and intellect.

It is precisely this commitment to culture that allowed Polaroid to eclipse its rivals during its early years. Its employees shared the same goals and passions, thus creating a strong cohesive unit. But there’s one major problem with commitment culture. It’s only effective during a company’s initial stages of growth. Once the company matures, it’s massively outperformed by those that hire for skills and future potential. In other words, what got you up the mountain cannot keep you there.

The reason for this decline in performance is that commitment organizations become too homogenous. They only recruit employees that think the same way, thus preventing any kind of diversity in thinking. This may work well in stable and predictable industries where change happens slowly. However, it’s a recipe for disaster for any company in the tech industry. Land refused to see the digital revolution happening around him and none of his closest advisers dared challenge him. Even after he was removed by the board of directors, the company still retained its commitment culture, thus guaranteeing its demise.

Groupthink results from overconfidence and lack of divergent thinking. After years of market dominance, Polaroid thought that customers would never abandon the film camera. The lack of diversity ensured that anyone who held a dissenting opinion was a minority who could easily be dismissed. Therefore, if you want to build a company that will stand the test of time, you must make diversity and dissent a core part of your values. 

Actions to take

Rocking the Boat and Keeping It Steady

“In the quest for happiness, many of us choose to enjoy the world as it is. Originals embrace the uphill battle, striving to make the world what it could be.”

It takes a lot of courage and emotional fortitude to stand apart from the crowd. After all, nobody likes to be perceived as a rabble-rouser who wants to needlessly rock the boat. That’s why most people choose to go along with the majority opinion, even if they know that the opinion is wrong. But it’s not just ordinary people who suffer from this. Originals also struggle with self-doubt, anxiety and fear of ridicule when contemplating how to change the status quo.

However, they overcome this fear by looking for partners to support them. Just a single fellow dissenter is all it takes to reduce the pressure to conform to the majority. When people realize that there are a few individuals who are not afraid to rebel, they also find the courage to speak out. This is how mass movements have toppled many dictators all over the world. These few rebels don’t even have to take drastic action like calling for mass protests to gain public support. They can start by encouraging people to engage in simple and safe forms of resistance such as driving slowly down the street or turning your house lights on and off.

Humor can also be an effective way of helping people overcome their fear of challenging the status quo. For example, making fun of a dictator or mocking oppressive laws helps people release their fear of speaking up. But laughing at a problem can only get you so far. If you want to inspire people to take real action, you also have to create a sense of urgency. You must convince your followers that the change needs to happen immediately. You must let people know the price they’ll pay if they do nothing. This will force people out of their comfort zone and remind them of the need to make sacrifices.

You can also cultivate their anger by pointing out the intolerable conditions of the status quo. However, this anger should be channeled properly to avoid inciting people to violence against those who support the status quo. There needs to be a cool-headed approach when it comes to converting action into viable and long-term change. If you have to use public anger to inspire change, then channel that anger in an empathetic way so that energy goes toward helping rather than harming people. 

Actions to take

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