“Originals” by Adam Grant: A Study In What Turns a Great Idea Into a Legendary Success
Have you ever wondered how some ideas become wildly successful while others just fizzle out? Why is it so hard to spot the winners? The answer, as it turns out, is much more complex than the question. But Adam Grant has combed through mountains of research to find the answer in his bestseller Originals – and his insights will surprise you.
Adam Grant, and why he wrote this book:
This 2-time bestselling author is a 34-year-old professor at Wharton School of Business. He is the youngest person to ever earn tenure at the school at the ripe age of 29. His inspiration for the book was what he calls his “worst financial decision.” He was approached by a group of 4 of his students looking for investors for their online eyewear startup—and he didn’t invest. At the time they pitched their idea to him, he saw what he felt were early signs that the company would not make it. The company would sell eyeglasses online for $95 per pair while donating a pair to someone in a developing country with each purchase.
Fast-forward a few years, and Fast Company named this company, Warby Parker, the most innovative company on the planet in 2015. It was valued at over $1 billion.
This experience of his failure to recognize a good idea led Grant on a quest to study patterns throughout history, examining successful businesses, great artists, musicians, and athletes to illustrate the common threads among ideas that take off and the ideas that flop. He mixes research with entertaining illustrations of why Seinfeld was almost never created and the lessons that can be learned from the anti-climactic introduction of the Segway. Grant uses case studies to outline how to both generate and recognize original ideas, as well as how to encourage original ideas as a leader. He then gives strategies to build support for your ideas to help to make them reality.
Originals—those people whose ideas take off—aren’t necessarily the extraordinary geniuses of the world. They are just those who are more afraid of what happens if they don’t act on their idea, and less afraid of what happens if they do.
The mere premise of Originals challenges some common misconceptions about how to identify winning ideas. He disproves the widely accepted thoughts that successful entrepreneurs are free-wheeling risk-takers, first-movers, or just plain lucky. As I read, I found myself underlining what I thought were good insights, only to go back and de-underline them because the seemingly logical idea was disproved through Grant’s research in the next few pages. The book is full of “a-ha” takeaways of successful originals – here is a sampling of my favorites:
1. Great ideas come from regular people. What Grant finds is that originals—those people whose ideas take off—aren’t necessarily the extraordinary geniuses of the world. They are just those who are more afraid of what happens if they don’t act on their idea, and less afraid of what happens if they do.
2. Generating more ideas increases your likelihood of success. Grant found that a hallmark of originals is that they build a large body of work “to give them more variation and a higher chance of originality.” Their great ideas didn’t automatically blossom; for every one great idea they could have had a thousand flops—and even great masters like Beethoven and Picasso couldn’t accurately judge which version of their works would become a success. But the people who we accept today as the experts in their field and masters of their craft share the common bond that they kept creating, kept modifying, kept testing and re-creating.
3. You don’t have to be a first-mover to become successful. Grant outlines the flawed thinking that being a first mover is always the best way for an idea to succeed. In fact, he cites a study of over 3000 startups where 75% failed because the market wasn’t yet ready to support their idea. Instead, he outlines the benefits of waiting on an idea and learning from others, saying,
Being original doesn’t require being first. It just means being different and better.
4. Most successful entrepreneurs are risk-averse. Many think of extreme risk-taking as the hallmark of successful entrepreneurs because we tend to publicize the stories of risk-taking entrepreneurs who go on to fail. Grant reveals that entrepreneurs who keep their day jobs while pursuing their idea had 33% lower odds of failure than those who quit their day job to pursue their idea full-time. Overall, the entrepreneurs who throw caution into the wind have much more precarious odds of success. In fact, he writes,
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.
Originals is one of those books that I filled with underlines of takeaway insights. Whether you are an entrepreneur, a person with an idea, someone who is looking to gain support for your cause, a parent or a leader—you will find this book entertaining, personally challenging and intellectually insightful. And because of the extensive research that reveals the common threads between ideas that went on to become legendary successes, this book is inspiring. If you make Originals your next read, I guarantee you will not regret it.