I love baseball, so I am excited the season opens next week. Anytime I read a book that has a baseball reference, I am instantly intrigued. That happened recently when I read about how Jackie Robinson’s birth order contributed to him being the perfect person to break the color barrier in baseball – more about Robinson in a moment.
The book is Originals by Adam Grant. In this book, which I found fascinating, Grant explores dozens of studies and concepts that contribute to where personal originality comes from. (Steve Tip – I first listened to the book, but then purchased the hard copy so I could more easily understand the context of the many research studies Grant tries to fold into his story.)
Risk-Taking and Birth Order. One of Grant’s observations about what influences originality is how birth order, especially if you are the youngest of three or more children, impacts risk-taking. The more comfortable a person is with taking risks, the more likely they are to develop original ideas and do original things. Two groups of people Grant wrote about were baseball base stealers and stand-up comedians.
The baseball player Grant focused on was the great Jackie Robinson. Robinson was the first black major league baseball player and endured years of prejudice. He was also a fearless base stealer and still holds the record for stealing home plate more than any other player in history (stealing home is the most risky steal because the pitcher is right in front of you.) By the way, Robinson was the youngest of five children.
Base stealing is a high-risk athletic effort and Grant writes about the interesting correlation between base stealing and birth order. Younger brothers, for example, are about 11 times more likely to attempt to steal a base than their older brother. Seven of the ten highest base stealers of the last 60 years fall between birth-order positions of three to 14 and half have at least four older siblings.
Grant was also curious whether there was a birth-order correlation for stand-up comics, arguably the most difficult and “risky” job in the entertainment business. Grant studied the Comedy Central list of 100 greatest stand-up comics. I’ll save you the statistics and just say that the number of these comedians who are the babies of their families is staggering. A few examples – Stephen Colbert is the youngest of 11, Jim Gaffigan is youngest of six, and even Mel Brooks was the youngest of four. And it is quite amazing to read how many of these comedians have successful older siblings who are doctors, lawyers, professional managers, etc.
The two primary reasons later born children are often more comfortable with risk are (1) their “experienced” parents are far less nervous about letting the child explore and do new things, and (2) their older siblings look-out for and protect them from real dangers.
Another interesting point Grant makes is that many of us make decisions based on “logic of consequence” – what result will happen if I do this and what does this mean to me. Later born children are more likely to follow “logic of appropriateness” – what should a person like me do in a situation like this. Notice how this subtle difference would influence a “steal or not steal” decision.
Five Tips for Unleashing Your Originality. At the end of the book Adam Grant shares what he describes as “Actions for Impact.” Altogether he proposes 30 actions that could help us improve ourselves, help our organizations, and he closes with five actions to help parents develop the originality in their children.
Here are five tips from Grant for “generating and recognizing original ideas:”
- Question the default. Instead of accepting the status quo, ask “why” it exists. Remember the status quo was created by “people”, who are not infallible.
- Triple the number of ideas you generate. The greatest artists and musicians created hundreds of pieces you have never heard about. Come up with three new ideas and talk about them with others, explore and modify the ideas.
- Immerse yourself in a new domain. Try something completely new and work on it. It can be a new hobby or new task, but it should be something new that you haven’t done before.
- Procrastinate strategically. When you want to generate new ideas, deliberately stop when your progress is incomplete. Then come back later and focus again. The best ideas often come after you let things percolate a little.
- Seek more feedback from peers. Recently I watched on television the Penn & Teller reality magic show where guest magicians came on stage and tried to fool the two famous magicians. Once in a while the guests did fool them and everyone knew it was a great trick. For many reasons described by Grant in the book, often the best assessors of your ideas are not bosses and managers, not subordinates, but rather your peers. So, ask them.
This is my 200th article and I thank you for reading these ramblings! While I know they are not often “original,” I trust they add a little food for your thoughts.