February 15th, 2016

_Originals_, Adam Grant

Subtitled: How Non-Conformists Move the World

Sheryl Sandberg wrote the foreword. The author has been producing shorter, essay outtakes from the book at a variety of places. It seemed okay, so I got it, and I _did_ finish it, which says a lot.

He starts by talking about the founders of Warby Parker, who apparently offered him (one of their b-school professors, if I understood correctly) the opportunity to invest. He declined, in part because he didn't think the four had high enough "commitment" (they were taking other jobs as backup plans etc.), also because he was skeptical of the basic idea (buy eyeglasses online?).

This error on his part -- thinking that "real" entrepreneur founders are "all in" -- leads to a substantial discussion on managing one's life risk portfolio. It's a good discussion, with a major weakness. He spends a bunch of time talking about how people who "accept the defaults" do "worse" by a number of measures in call center jobs (miss more days of work, take longer to get good at the job, leave the job sooner). In this case "accept the default" was measured in part by, do you use IE/Safari, or do you use Chrome/Firefox. I would not characterize this as "accepting the default". I would characterize this as, "having a higher threshold before perceiving a problem and/or problem solving". That would result in this discussion fitting in better with one of the last sections of the book, which has a two axis scheme involving "voice" and "agency" (do you stay or not, do you agitate for change or not). Interestingly, it would _also_ offer the opportunity to fit both of these sections in with the commitment vs. star vs. professional culture analysis of founding cultures.

This is sort of a technical complaint. However, it's sort of NOT a technical complaint. Social science folks have a tendency to look around, spot something interesting, think of a story to explain it, do some (or find some) shitty research that lines up with the story they have in mind, and then basically ignore other frames. They HAVE other frames, which they will deploy the NEXT time they look around, spot something interesting and need a story to explain it. It's sort of like ST:TNG -- constantly inventing civilization changing new technology on the fly and then never mentioning it again. It's lazy story telling. It's shit for analysis. Given that all social science folks typically have on offer is analysis, it is constantly surprising to me that they keep doing this.

(Gonna say Not All Social Science Folks? Yeah, sure you are. Good luck with that.)

If he _had_ gone with a where-is-your-threshold-for-perceiving-a-problem and where-is-your-threshold-for-engaging-in-problem-solving, that would ALSO have connected well with the power and status discussion involving the woman who set up Intellipedia, a wiki for intelligence services. Of course, it is apparent from the story that what really sold people on the idea was not just time passing and 9/11 happening. If she had still been blowing off the security issues, they'd have found someone else to implement. But by that point, she'd placed herself in the security issue chain, and was thus already having to meet those criteria. I don't know why Grant ignores the legit objection that the agencies had to her proposal the first time around, much less why he blows past how important it was for her to plausibly address that concern. But that process fits BEAUTIFULLY into a collaborative problem solving framework. It fits ill into a "nonconformist" framework.

And that, probably, is the problem here. When Grant describes Bridgewater and Dalio, it becomes apparent pretty rapidly that Grant thinks there is a Real Reality (and for some purposes, there is, but NOT HERE), and that it could be investigated with Experimentation. He specifically wants a hierarchy of principles, rather than the list and collaborative, ongoing amending of the list that is the bizarre corporate apologetics that Bridgewater/Dalio apparently have created. Given that Grant's particular beef is that he wants an authoritative answer to what is essentially the question of whether privileged actors should self-muzzle to avoid having a chilling effect on less-privileged actors (and this in an explicitly meritocratic when it comes to Believability organization!), I think leaving this question open says really good things about Bridgewater. If the group can come to some sort of solution, great, but that's an open question in our culture and shutting down debate to have some sort of Definitive Answer is almost certainly an error.

As business books go, this is definitely well above average. But I can't say that I would recommend it, unless it _really_ seems fascinating to you. I think that the overall frame is the error. It's not _precisely_ the same old same old romantic conception of non conforming genius yada yada yada, but it has entirely too much of that built in. Next time I'm tempted to read a book like this, I'm gonna remind myself that it is almost always more worthwhile to read books about better approaches to group problem solving than it is to read books about Not Being Like Everyone Else.

As always, YMMV.