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Original thinkers and doers

Management professor Adam Grant says that contrary to popular belief, people who break new ground arer not risk takers

ORIGINALS: HOW NON-CONFORMISTS CHANGE THE WORLD

By Adam Grant

W. H. Allen/Hardback/243 pages/ $27.95 with GST from Books Kinokuniya or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 153.35 GRA

One day in 2003, American management professor Adam Grant began studying why university students working at an on-campus call centre in the United States had a failure rate of more than 90 per cent.

Their job, which was the best paid in the university, was to call the university's alumni and ask them to donate a scholarship fund for students in need. Most of the alumni cut the callers off after two sentences.

The most successful originals are not those who leap before they look. They are the ones who reluctantly tip toe to the edge of a cliff, calculate the rate of descent, triple-check their parachutes and set upa safety net at the bottom just in case.

ADAM GRANT

Even the call centre's best workers were burning out and Grant spotted a notice on one of their cubicles that went: "Doing a good job here is like wetting your pants in a dark suit. You get a warm feeling, but no one else notices."

  • FIVE QUESTIONS THIS BOOK ANSWERS

    1. Why is it important to challenge received wisdom?

    2. What are the best ways to find out whether your idea will be a hit?

    3. Why is it crucial to mitigate risk instead of seizing or avoiding it?

    4. Why does it help to be good in science as well as in the arts if you want to succeed?

    5. In what ways do working with those who are different from you ensure your lasting success?

Grant got one of the fund's beneficiaries to meet the call centre workers so the workers could ask them how they were doing in their studies and how the fund was helping them - for all of five minutes.

 

  • THE GOOD

    1. The American organisational psychologist Adam Grant is a born storyteller, weaving facts into compelling anecdotes. He shows how Harvard dropout Bill Gates, so long branded a maverick by many, is one of the world's shrewdest "risk mitigators", or one who tries to minimise risk in other areas of his life so that he can gamble on the business ideas.

    2. Grant is a whiz at using examples that everyone can relate to. For example, he shows through the development of the hit television sitcom Seinfeld, how useless focus groups are and why the more effective way to poll consumers is to ask them how a new show compares with what they have seen before.

    3. His insights are nuanced, rarely glib and never linear. Compare Originals to best-sellers in a similar vein, notably the works of Richard Leider, The Power Of Purpose; and Joanne Ciulla's The Working Life.

    4. He knows the best ideas to cite to bolster his points. In Originals, they include Harvard University's Teresa Amabile on the process of creativity, his own PhD student Jihae Shin on how diversity enhances the quality of an idea and Joseph Raffiee and Jie Feng, who did a study of why budding entrepreneurs were likely to be more successful if they did not give up their day jobs.

    5. His ideas and views are free of the self-hyping mumbo- jumbo that plagues similar books.

  • THE BAD

    1. He might have practised what he preached a little more, by searching - or at least scanning - beyond American shores for examples to support his ideas. This book would have been further lifted by more anecdotes from non-Western cultures.

  • THE IFFY

    1. He makes a big deal of how risk-averse some geniuses are, by noting that they held onto their day jobs for a long time before pursuing their dreams. But the people he cites stayed on in their day jobs for three years at most and makes his point rather fatuous.

That was because, as he wrote in his best-selling first book Give And Take (2013), he believed that burnout had less to do with how effective their work was and more to do with how much feedback they were getting on how their work had an impact on others.

The result? Having met those who benefited from the fund in person, the workers spent twice as much time working the phones and, soon, 144 per cent more alumni were donating each week.

Each caller went from pulling in an average of US$412 (S$570) in donations to more than US$2,000 in fresh funds a week.

The 34-year-old now has a new book out, titled Originals, which refers to those who find nifty ways to overcome obstacles for the good of all. Their epitomes include Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, but also less obvious models such as British poet T. S. Eliot and PalmPilot pioneer Donna Dubinsky.

Contrary to what most people expect of such groundbreaking folk, his studies on Originals show that they are not risk-takers, like to put off making decisions, can seem inefficient, not prompt and are sometimes over-cautious.

"The most successful originals are not those who leap before they look," Grant says. "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."

As an organisational psychologist, or one who studies how you can be more fulfilled at work and contribute effectively to your organisation's success, Grant believes that the best way to boost productivity is to get into the habit of working to benefit others, and thinking broadly and deeply, around the clock.

He practises that faithfully. His wife Allison, a psychiatric nurse, says that he helps others "compulsively", be it a student in need of career advice or a stranger who wants Grant to take a look at his draft thesis.

A former advertising guru, Grant is especially good at helping you see the point of anything by weaving fascinating real-life stories around it and, if you read his two books, you will be getting the same advice as his clients, namely the top guns at Google, JPMorgan Chase and Facebook, among many others.

They seek him out because his ideas are fresh and the perfect antidote to lazy, linear thinking.

The core message of Originals, then, is that everyone can make a difference to the lives of others, by questioning why things are, what might make them better, and then finding out when might be the best time to make them better. It is, as he puts it, about how to avoid becoming "the world's most excellent sheep".

He does this by shifting everyone's focus from behaviour to building character because his studies have shown that doing so leads people to evaluate their options differently. For example, he says people will heed the instruction, "Don't be a drunk driver", which dents their ego, more than "Don't drink and drive".

The thrust of the book is about how to harness psychology effectively, which often means being seemingly counter-intuitive. In doing so, he busts a lot of assumptions and offers insights, such as: • Begin a task quickly, but do not fret about finishing it: That is because Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik found that the brain remembers incomplete tasks better than those which have been completed. So, keeping an idea at the back of your mind helps the brain think through how to improve it, and what the alternatives to it are • Procrastination is a creator's best friend: When you are close to a breakthrough, hold back. This helps the brain relax and, in relaxing, considers all the possibilities instead of its usual "seize and freeze" reaction that can cut off the creative process mid-stream.

As the examples show, geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin dallied before unleashing their powers on the world • Parents are not the best role models for their children: They would do their offspring a favour by introducing them to role models.

For example, Grant says, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books help children see that they should not discriminate against those who are different from them, such as her hero Harry and his school chum Hermione, who do not have pure wizard blood like their peers • Win investors by warning them against you: Rufus Griscom, co-founder of parenting website Babble, sold it to Disney for US$40 million, chiefly by "accentuating its flaws", notes Grant.

Griscom told Grant: "When I put up a slide that says, 'Here's why you shouldn't buy this company', the first response is laughter. Then you could see them relax. It's sincere; it doesn't smell, feel or look anything like sales. They're not being sold."

His bottom line: To boost your chances of achieving and sustaining success in life, you should be open to all and seek out varieties of experience. If you, like Grant, revel in "the happiness of pursuit", this book is for you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline 'Original thinkers and doers'. Print Edition | Subscribe