Friday, March 18, 2016

One Long Ted Talk: Adam Grant's "Originals"

I want to like Adam Grant.

In a shorter medium (blogs and articles in places like HBR), he has written some smart things, and he has worked professionally with people I like.

His books seem to miss the mark though. His first, Give and Take, had some interesting ideas in it. It is just that Grant seems to have this thought where he should be publishing on a big idea. Therefore, in that first book, he created a trichotomy where people fit in one of three categories professionally – you were either a giver, a taker, or a matcher. The key was to be the matcher. However, there was a weird caveat that it was not all matchers. I liked the book well enough that I remember that taxonomy that he drew, but it felt like a letdown because it relied too heavily on a few examples.

It is as if he does take that big idea he wants to talk about, finds the examples, and then uses them as a highlight. Maybe it is a narrative thing he’s doing (he does call himself a social scientist in this book more than once), trying to use examples to tell a better story because data is not as fun to read on the train, I don’t know. But he makes the same choices in Originals as he did in Give and Take.

Therefore, that lead me, as I was reading, to try to think of this book and how I would describe it. In one sense, it does feel like it is pointed towards some self-satisfied liberal elite establishment pseudo-intellectual thing. I mean, look at the blurbs. Sheryl Sandberg helped edit it as per the acknowledgements, and she wrote the forward. It is blurbed by Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Branson, Ariana Huffington, and Peter Thiel, to show you what the intended audience is. For what it’s worth, it feels like an extended TED talk. For me, that is not a charitable comparison, but it may appeal to some people.

All this is not to say that there is not valuable information and insights embedded in the book. There is a part about Martin Luther King prepping his famous “I have a Dream Speech”. There is an extended section on the birth of the women’s suffrage that brought to my attention an important figure in American history I was very unaware of. The problem is that these sections were used to illustrate the broader points that Grant was speaking on and it may not have been the best fit (the lessons were “procrastination can be useful” and then “build coalitions”). It is as if Grant is just pulling in the things that are interesting to him and trying to apply them to the larger idea that being original is good.

This of course is true. But for me the most troubling thing was that originality as looked at in the book was focused mostly on business success, with a side of politics. The only originality that Grant wrote of in the arts was in comedy – nothing about Duchamp or John Cage, but we learn how birth order may influence how often a baseball player steals a base. My guess is that art is just too far outside of Grant’s domain for him to write cogently on it, but it is a huge blind spot in a book about the importance of originality (No “Make it new” or worrying about the anxiety of influence). Nevertheless, perhaps that is just showing my domain preferences.