Being Original Can Take You Far In The World

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, March 14, 2016

I have been to the mountaintop.

And when I got there I found my guru – not a swami, yogi, mystic or maharishi – but a 35-year-old Wharton professor by the name of Adam Grant. And folks, he is the real deal!

You need to read his latest book – “Originals – How Non-Conformists Move the World.” A year ago, I wrote about his first book, “Give and Take,” in which he proves that givers have more success than takers or matchers. And now Grant has come back with a double dazzler.

He tells the story of Warby Parker, founded by three Wharton graduate students – his students – and they asked him to invest. In the book, he gives all the good reasons why he did not invest. And you nod along with him and agree that it was never going to make it. And then he tells you that it was the worst financial decision he had ever made. (After all, Warby is now valued at over $1 billion – and Grant could have been the very first investor). And then to drive home the point about “originals,” he then tells you all the reasons that his initial reasons were wrong. He is honest and humble. And you wonder if you would have invested if given the chance.

He argues that there are two roads to achievement – conformity and originality. One is maintaining the status quo; the other is taking the road less traveled, going against the grain.

He studies originality – and how you can spot it. Grant tells of a study that shows that the browser you use is an indicator. Firefox or Chrome users are more creative than Explorer. They do not choose the default option.

He explains parenting. (That alone should qualify him for a Nobel Prize.) And it matters not only to whom you were born, but also in what order. The first-child syndrome turns out to not be so great for creativity and originality.

He explores Polaroid and why it failed. And he makes a persuasive case for strategic procrastination. And my favorite section (about my favorite show) is on how “Seinfeld” almost never got made. And he explains how the best venture capitalists in the world made the worst mistake with Segway.

And then there is Beethoven. Not a bad composer, so they say. But what is fascinating is that Ludwig was a terrible judge of what was great and what was ordinary. He didn’t think much of his 5th Symphony and nearly scrapped the ending of the first movement. There are similar stories about Picasso and “Guernica.” But the defining characteristic of the above originals is that they produced a very large amount of work. In other words, they went to the plate a lot of times and swung at a lot of pitches. Beethoven, 650 works; Bach, more than 1,000; and Picasso, 1,800 paintings and 1,200 sculptures. Not a single “one and done” in the group.

You want to win a Nobel Prize in science? Study art. It turns out that your odds are 12 times greater if along with some science, you also write poetry, novels or short stories.

Grant measures intuition against domain expertise. And he argues that originality rarely comes from the comfort of insiders. After all, why rock the boat? And he talks about “speaking truth to power” in a strong story about a CIA operative, Carmen Medina.

And he tricks you with the “Sarick effect” – called putting your worst foot forward. Spoiler alert – there is no Leslie Sarick. Familiarity sometimes trumps rational observation. He explores “first mover disadvantage” – the difference between pioneers and settlers. Kozmo raised $250 million, but failed. Netflix came second and was the winner.

Grant has a chapter on “Rebel with a Cause.” Ask yourself, how many baseball players have stolen home successfully – and who were they. He has a chapter on managing anxiety, apathy, ambivalence and anger. It is better than 30 years of psychoanalysis (and believe me, I know whereof I speak.)

In his own words – “becoming original is not the easiest path in the pursuit of happiness, but it leaves us perfectly poised for the happiness of pursuit.”

There are dozens of discussions and programs and panels in this town about innovation and startups and creativity – stop the madness. Just read this book!

Rule No. 457

Just read the book.

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