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Speed Review: Originals

How Non-Conformists Move the World

Speed Review: Originals
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Are You Ready to Move the World?

Throughout history, there have been extraordinary people who, in Wharton professor Adam Grant’s elegant phrase, “moved the world.” Grant calls these people “originals” because they are nonconformists who are unimpressed with the status quo and have the creativity and courage to forge and follow their own paths. As he explains in Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, originals can be inventors, entrepreneurs, authors and painters, leaders of political movements. Martin Luther King was an original. So was Leonardo Da Vinci, and so is Bill Gates.

Originals, however, are not just world-famous people who revolutionized their domains. Grant also tells the story of originals whose names would be unknown to most: Carmen Medina, the CIA employee who battled for years to finally incorporate the digital age into intelligence sharing; Rick Ludwin, the TV executive who, despite not working in the comedy department, championed a rejected sitcom by comedian Jerry Seinfeld; Ray Dalio, the billionaire founder of a company who encouraged employees to send him memos such as the one that begins, “Ray, you deserve a ‘D’ for your performance today … It was obvious to all of us that you did not prepare at all …”

In Originals, Grant not only offers stories of great accomplishments but also dissects exactly how these accomplishments were achieved. He debunks the idea that originals are great risk-takers. Most of America’s founding fathers were reluctant revolutionaries. Martin Luther King writes that he was pushed into service as leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott before he had a chance to say “no.” Bill Gates eventually dropped out of college but only after first securing a leave of absence from the university and ensuring that his parents would support him. Originals, Grant argues, are more risk-mitigators than risk-takers.

Grant also emphasizes that originals are not successful because they are creative and nonconformist but because they turn their ideas and their dreams into reality. They find a way to overcome resistance to change, sometimes through counterintuitive strategies. One creative entrepreneur collected millions of dollars in funding by explaining what was wrong with his company. Less surprising but equally effective is the strategy of “tempered radicalism,” a Goldilocks-like approach in which hot radical ideas are intertwined with cool, familiar ideas (through coalitions of different movements, for example) to create a combination that is just right for acceptance… eventually: Implementing originality is not for the impatient.

One of the most counterintuitive proposals in Originals is Grant’s concept of strategic procrastination. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci set aside the Mona Lisa after starting it in 1503 and didn’t complete it until nearly 16 years later, preferring to focus on other pursuits, such as optical experiments. Historians now recognize that the creative brainstorming during those years is what allowed Da Vinci to create a truly original work of art. Grant also challenges assumptions about groupthink. While groupthink does indeed stifle originality, he writes, the reason for groupthink is not the cohesion of a group but, rather, overconfidence and the fear of ruining one’s reputation.

Grant closes his thought-provoking tome with a set of individual, leadership, and parent and teacher actions for generating, encouraging and implementing ideas — by which time he will have convinced many readers that we all have the potential to move the world.

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