Book Review: Originals by Adam Grant

I had been meaning to read the book Originals, by Adam Grant, for a while, especially since I loved its colorful design on the front cover. But I never got around to it, like many great books. Finally, I stopped at a bookstore at lunch and thought, Sure I can get this at the library, but why not splurge on my own personal copy I can keep and write in? After all, a book about people who go against the grain sounds like it was written specially for me. So I bought my own copy, and oh my goodness, I devoured that book as if it was a molten chocolate brownie sundae from The Cheesecake Factory (not that I can eat that much sugar anyway, but you get the idea).

In Originals, Adam Grant examines how creative people think differently about success and the plans they take to make that success happen. One thing that stood out to me was that a lot of originals don’t quit their jobs, contrary to popular belief. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, musician John Legend and the creators of the glasses company Warby Parker are just a few originals who kept their day jobs while working on their creative pursuits. There’s this idea that if you quit your day job you will somehow have more time to “follow your passion”, but to be honest, even if I were to quit my day job (which I don’t want to, thank you very much) I would still need to work hard as a freelance musician. Being freelance would mean I would need to always be promoting my work, always negotiating my salary, and always practicing my instrument. Work is work whether you work for someone or work for yourself.

And Grant argues that while it may seem that day jobs distract us from our passions, they actually don’t, because “having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another.” (Grant 19). I needed money to buy the domain for this blog, I needed the time and money to read books, stream movies on YouTube and Amazon so I could write these fun movie reviews, and…well, okay, I didn’t have to buy Pandora because I can stream it free as long as I play ads, but I do have to have money so I can buy the sheet music for all the cool pieces I want to play (aka the pieces I can’t get on IMSLP). Even though at first I thought having a day job would mean less time for my passion, it has actually made me more creative. I find myself thinking of new ideas as I file emails and do a variety of repetitive tasks at the desk. I listen to Pandora at work and explore a variety of artists, like Youssou N’Dour, Bjork, Sufjan Stevens and ’90’s hip-hop artists like Biggie Smalls and Tupac. These artists help influence my own musical performance. After listening to the scores during films, I have gone from solely focusing on being in a professional orchestra to “Hey, what if I did music but also integrated it with film? What if I shot for the moon and got a Grammy? What if I played cello on a feature-length film score? What if I collaborated on a cello-voice duet with Lady Gaga?” Having this time to figure out what kind of musician I want to be is valuable and rare, and it took me quite a long time to appreciate this fact. I am also glad I went to college while pursuing music. While I could have majored in music, I didn’t, and I ended up loving philosophy and Africana Studies while still also loving my music and spending a lot of time in the Music Department after classes. My (albeit rather brief) jobs as a dishwasher and as a daycare teacher not only helped me make money, they were another thing that I did outside of my studies and music. Working with kids taught me that it’s ok to be silly sometimes and to not always read heavy stuff by Foucault and Descartes. I read so many children’s books while working at the daycare, and can say I felt quite nostalgic walking into that kids section in the local library basement. Working as a dishwasher taught me organizational skills and how to manage my time since I often had to sub for people. Basically, having a day job has helped me take risks in my writing: an f-bomb here, a messy draft there, a spoiled bratty character in that part of the story. Risks I wouldn’t dare take in my day job.

On that note, Grant says that what helps a lot of originals create new ideas is taking breaks while working on their ideas because taking time off from the project gives us time to process ideas. He also says that originals draw from a broad range of references and influences in their work, by always learning something new (i.e. learning about a different culture, learning a new craft, or even getting trained at their job to learn a different set of skills). When I feel stuck in my practice sessions, I take a break and read a book or watch a clip from Curb Your Enthusiasm (yes, I recently got into that show). Even learning how to code has helped me become more creative in my music, not just during my practice sessions but also in terms of what kind of career I want to have. By learning how to code, I have learned that I love numbers just as much as I love the written word. I am not always good at coding, and bombed more than a few projects in Javascript, and I might not get a coding job right away since I am taking my time learning all these programming languages. But it’s learning something outside of my comfort zone, and I think the job market needs people to do this. I can no longer entertain the fantasy that my music dream job is going to fall in my lap if I just spend my time saving money and mastering the Tchaikovsky pieces, the Dvorak pieces, that absurdly hard Kodaly Cello Sonata that requires you to tune down an entire string. That fantasy has gone bye-bye. It is no longer a reality because there are so many talented people out there who are not only playing their instruments, but brushing up on new skills. There are quite a few classical musicians who are also web developers making the salary they need to play gigs.

Originals also learn how to take criticism. Sometimes we have an idea and we want people to accept it so badly, but that’s not always the case. Many times people are going to reject your idea or think it’s not practical. Publishers were reluctant to sign on J.K. Rowling because they thought her book wouldn’t sell due to its length. They thought no kid would want to read something more than 35 pages, but they turned out to be wrong because that book sold like hotcakes, and guess what? It’s probably still selling like hotcakes because people still reference Harry Potter all the time. Also, the books were just good, end of story. In college I didn’t want to give my writing to professors or peers because I was worried they wouldn’t like it. I was so focused on pleasing people and getting them to agree with me that I wasn’t looking the cold and hard truth in the face: everyone is entitled to their opinion, and sometimes they may have a few good points you can use to improve your performance. This goes for any field, not just creative arts fields. Grant says that originals seek out people who don’t agree with them rather than sticking with people who agree with them on everything. This is the point of communication; it’s not to get people to agree with everything you say all the time. It’s important to not agree on everything because then you might find that person to agree with you on certain things.

Excellent book with a lot of great historical examples of originals in action. I highly recommend it. Oh, and watch Grant’s TED Talk because it is also really good.

Originals: How Non-Comformists Move the World. Adam Grant. 2016. 321 pp.

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