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>> Hey everybody, welcome to Impact Theory. Today's guest is organizational psychologist Adam Grant. He's a four-time New York Times bestselling author who's been called one of the top 10 most influential management thinkers of our time. He's been ranked Wharton's number one professor for seven years running and is one of the most sought after speakers on the planet. Additionally, this former Junior Olympics diver was named by Fortune Magazine to their prestigious 40 under 40 list. And everyone from Bill Gates and Richard Branson to JJ Abrams and Malcolm Gladwell have praised his work. And his TED Talks together have a collective view count north of 20 million views. Adam, welcome to the show man. >> Thanks for that, Tom, I can assure you it's all downhill from here. >> That's hilarious. It's funny how hearing one's accomplishments strung out like that can sound very weird at times. But it is pretty impressive, man. Like what you've been able to do is pretty extraordinary. And what I love is that it comes from a pretty aggressive approach to getting people to tell you what you're doing wrong so that you can get better.
Key Characteristics And Strategies Of Effective Leadership
What Makes a Great Leader? (01:08)
And right now we are living through some extraordinarily interesting times the tables being overturned. We're in the middle of a lot of protesting. There's going to be just tremendous change hopefully, tremendous change taking place. And to get us through that kind of change well, we're obviously going to need a lot of tremendous leadership. And I was wondering in your research, I know that you've focused heavily on what are sort of the universal principles of leadership. And I'd love to start there, like what do you think makes for a great leader? >> Where do we begin? How many hours do you have, Tom? >> As many as you'll give me to be honest. All right, I'm here, I am not a lot else on my agenda today. So when I think about leadership, the first thing I want to do is I want to break it down into values and skills. And I think the, for me, the values are table stakes, right? So you can't lead if you're a taker rather than a giver. If it's all about you, as opposed to saying, look, I care more about my people and the mission we're trying to advance than I do about glorifying myself. So that would be the first value I'd put on the table. >> So before we move off that one, just give people a quick breakdown of givers versus takers, you have a whole book on it, it's really extraordinary. You talk about the three types, I think it'd be useful for people to understand that. >> Yeah, happy to. So when I think about your style of giving and taking, the question is just when you interact with somebody new, what's your default instinct? Is it to give and say, what can I do for you? To take and think about what can you do for me or to match and say, okay, can we trade some kind of favor? And what I found over and over again is that most people default to magic. They don't want to be too selfish or too generous. And yet in the long run, the most successful leaders especially, are the servant leaders who are interested in helping others with no strings attached. And who will put other people above their own narrow self interest. And so I think that's just, that's a must have in leadership and it's far more rare than I would like it to be. >> Fair. >> I think beyond that, I think a second attribute I look for in leaders, value wise is humility. To recognize your shortcomings, but also be motivated to overcome those shortcomings. It's not that helpful if you can say, yeah, I can make a list of the 19 weaknesses that I have, but I don't care about fixing any of them. I think being an effective leader is heavily about striving for self improvement. And the third value I'd put on the table is integrity. It's a consistency between your words and your deeds. And a lot of people will say, look, you have to practice what you preach. I actually think leaders should be doing the reverse, which is to say, I am only going to preach what I already practice. And if we can just get leaders who value generosity, humility, and integrity, I would be overjoyed, and then we get to skills. >> All right, so before we go on to skills, let's talk about those in a little more depth.
Givers vs. Takers (04:05)
So one of the things I found interesting in the book is when you're talking about takers, givers, matchers, that you said, the interesting thing about givers is that they represent both ends of the spectrum. So you see some of the least successful people are givers, and then the most successful people are givers. And so I'd love to know how to use it functionally and when it sort of metastasizes and becomes a problem. >> Yeah, so if you look at the differences between failed and successful givers, they break down into the question of actually three questions.
Who do you help? (04:31)
One, who do you help? Two, when do you help? And three, how do you help? And what you see with failed givers is they're basically self-sacrificing. So they're helping all the people all the time with all the requests, which is a recipe for burnout. It's also an easy way to get burned by takers. What you see with successful givers is they're more thoughtful about their helping choices. And they say, look, I will do whatever I can to support people who are either generous or fair, givers or matchers. But if somebody has a history or reputation of selfish behavior, then they might be a taker, and so I'm going to be a little bit more cautious with them. And set some boundaries. One, because I don't want to reinforce that behavior and reward it. And two, because they're going to take advantage of me and prevent me from helping the people who are going to pay it back and pay it forward. And then you also see that successful givers are more likely to say, okay, I'll block out time for my own agenda and own priorities. Because I want to be ambitious around my own goals, not just around helping other people. And yeah, if it's an emergency, I will show up and help you. But otherwise, I have some priorities that I need to take care of here. So I will be available to you when it's not going to be a huge cost to me. And then they're also careful about helping in ways that energize them and where they add distinctive value. So you see a lot of failed givers becoming jacks of all trades. And pretty soon they get a reputation for being capable and helpful, and then no good deed goes unpunished. Whereas the successful givers are more likely to say, look, I've got a couple ways of helping that I really like and that I excel at. And I'm going to focus on those so that I can add more value. And so when I do help, it's energizing to me as opposed to exhausting. >> One of the things I found in a company context, and I'm not even sure yet how applicable this is to the greater time that we're living through right now. But when I think about trying to provide leadership in a company context, it's a pretty interesting dynamic when you talk about humility, where you do have to have a degree of certainty. You have to have a degree of being able to step out front to galvanize everybody's attention, hopefully not on yourself, but you're galvanizing it on a vision. And you have to get everybody pointed in the same direction. I often talk about one of the things I think that leaders really have to do is you have to understand how to generate momentum. So we're in a moment right now where if we can capitalize on the sort of emotional momentum that we have pointed in a direction that is ultimately bringing everybody together and is thoughtful in terms of the long term outcome that we want to have, that could be such a powerful moment. But getting everybody to move in the same direction is a difficult task without getting people to stare at you. So you want them to stare at the idea, right? You don't want them to over focus on you, but somebody has to present it. Somebody has to present it with clarity and get everybody going, keep them enthusiastic, keep that energy level up.
Making it about the mission and not yourself (07:23)
And so the type of person, and you've talked really powerfully about this, the type of person that is drawn to that can often spill into the narcissistic, right? They enjoy the attention.
Promoting your ideas, not yourself (07:36)
And so some of what they're seeking is that. And I'm just curious how somebody who really wants to help, they really want to help sustain that momentum, they want to be a beacon of hope in this time. How do they make it about the mission and not about themselves? I think that's such an important question, Tom. And I love how you've highlighted that distinction. I think that for me, it comes down to promoting your ideas, not yourself.
Outsources inspiration (08:02)
And when I look at how leaders do that effectively, one of the things that really surprised me is sometimes the message doesn't even come from them. So as an example, years ago, I was studying fundraising callers, and they were trying to bring in donations to a university. And the leaders were trying to motivate them, because this is hard work, right? You interrupt people's dinner. You try to convince them that no, your tuition was not enough. You should keep sending money into the university. And now you should get nothing back for that donation. So they got yelled at a lot. They showed it a lot of complaints. And the leaders tried to talk about why the money was important and where it was going. And the callers just, they looked at that and they said, wait, these managers have an ulterior motive. They want to motivate me to work harder and bring in more donations. And so I don't really buy into this whole story they're telling me. So what some of the leaders did then was they actually outsourced inspiration. And they said, OK, why do we have to be the megaphone? What if instead we bring in some scholarship students who could talk about being the firsthand beneficiaries of the money that's being raised by this call center? And so we ended up designing some experiments together. And lo and behold, it turned out that that message was much more compelling coming from the end user, who could say, look, I might not have been able to afford tuition. And because of the work that you all do, I am in college today and really show that sense of appreciation as opposed to managers doing it themselves. And so I think sometimes one of the best ways to energize people is to shut up, instead, let me find the-- if I've got a mission here, it's probably affecting some group of clients or customers or patients or end users. And let me bring their voices front and center. Yeah, I love that notion of sometimes what you need to do is listen. That's one of my rules about being a leader is you really have to listen. I read Nelson Mandela's extraordinary book, "Long Walk to Freedom." And in that, he talks about his father, who was sort of a local chief in his village. And he said that he would always listen before he would speak. And he would make sure that everybody else had their opportunity to air their ideas, to air their grievances. And only after that would he come in and say, OK, here's what I think that we need to do to move forward. So I'm a big believer when you read something, if it hits you, and you think that this is a useful thing that you should be deploying, that you deploy it immediately. I love the reference to Mandela, because one thing that's always stuck with me from his writing is the idea that a leader is like a shepherd.
The reference to Nelson Mandela (10:22)
If you watch a shepherd with a flock, the shepherd is rarely out front. You will often see a bunch of sheep leading the way. And the shepherd is kind of taking care of the stragglers. There's a great organizational psychologist, Victor Vroom, who incidentally, his license plate says Vroom on it, which is just-- How could it not?
3. Be a Leader of Leaders (10:43)
How could it not? I would do that if that were my name. So one of the things that Victor studied for years was the tension between being a directive leader and a participative leader. And he said, one of the fundamental mistakes that a lot of leaders make is they develop a style, and then they stick to that style. But the whole point of leadership is flexibility and adaptability. And so you can't just say, well, I'm either an empowering leader or more of an authoritative leader. You actually have to be willing to adjust your style to fit the situation. And so what he was really interested in is how do you flex effectively? And he found that there are a bunch of conditions that really matter. A few that stood out for me, one, relative expertise is huge. So when I look at effective leaders, one of the things I see over and over again is they know what they know, they know what they don't know. And in situations where they have more knowledge than their team, they're comfortable in the driver's seat. When they don't know what they're talking about, they'll step back and move into the passenger seat. Some others were around getting by and saying, OK, the more critical it is for people to really get behind this mission, the more I need to hear their voices and give them the say. If people are already bought in, then I can kind of lead. And I think that when I think about leaders who have done this really effectively, the examples that come to mind all follow a common meeting structure, which is to open up by saying, look, here's the objective of the meeting. Does anybody have any feedback on that before we go forward? OK, once we're aligned on the objective, now I want to go around and hear everybody's independent view before I share mine. And then at the end, I'm going to try to synthesize, add my perspective, and then move us toward a decision. And what I like about that is the leader is still providing some guidance and direction. But the leader is actually not disclosing, hey, here's where I stand. And that way, we don't run into this conformity or group thing problem. I like to protect where the highest paid person's opinion, the moment that's known, everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon. Yeah, you cut out right as you said it, but it's the HIPAA effect, if I remember correctly. I just want to make sure people hear that. It's such an interesting concept. So we hit the first part of your leadership, which is super powerful. Now talk to me about skills. Like, what are skills that a leader should be developing? Yeah, so when I break down leadership into skills, I think, obviously, decision-making skills are critical. We started talking about those already. And I think decision-making skills have to do with being willing to hear dissenting views, being willing to confront perspectives that maybe bruise your ego a little bit in order to learn and then in order to gather better information and make better choices. Can you give people an example? Because this may be the most, the thing that I've taken most deeply away from your work is this, because this, dude, of all the powerful things that you have already said and will say in the rest of this time, this how to improve yourself to me is at the foundation of the human experience. So why have you become so dogged in your pursuit of critical feedback? I mean, from my perspective, it's the only way you get better. If people just praise you over and over again, you're only going to repeat the excellence you've already achieved. And you hit a plateau. And then you're done. Great. So how exciting is it to just say, OK, I've peaked already. And I'm just trying to maintain that level. What I want to do is I want to keep getting better. And I think to me, it's so much better to be on an upward trajectory than it is to flatline at some level or to stagnate. And so I think that that requires short-term sacrifices. And it's a little bit like the professional version of what you described in a personal relationship. Which is, if I want to achieve whatever potential I'm capable of, I have to be willing to hurt myself in the moment in order to be a little bit stronger tomorrow. I mean, it's a lot like weight training, right? You know you have to tear a muscle in order to build it into a stronger muscle. And so I feel like we should think about our skills and our capabilities the same way that we do our bodies in that sense. So I guess this is something I learned first as an athlete, not a real athlete, mind you, just a springboard diver. But I've seen footage of your springboard diving. It's pretty impressive. It would be a lot more impressive if I was a little bit more talented and a little bit less stubborn. But one of the things that I learned as a diver right away was I couldn't see myself in the air, right? And so what I would feel when I was flipping or twisting or even when I was entering the water was completely different in many cases from what the judges would see. And so very early on I became extremely dependent on my coach and then also on video to really try to process the disconnect between what I thought I was doing and what was coming across. And that as I moved into work life, that became sort of a metaphor for what we all deal with. You know I think we definitely have, we all have bright spots, right? Which are strengths we can't see. But we have also lots of blind spots, which are weaknesses that we don't have access to. And so what I wanted was the clearest possible rear view mirror to say if I can't see in that, then I can't really figure out what I need to learn and what I need to get better at. So I started doing this in the classroom where I would just have students fill out feedback forms. First one I gave guest lectures, then when I started teaching classes I'd just say, tell me everything you want me to do more of and everything you want me to change. And then I would just share all the feedback with them verbatim, which was my own version of radical transparency I guess, and then we can have a thoughtful conversation about how I can fix those problems and improve upon those areas of weakness.
4. Be Willing to Hear Radical Feedback (16:22)
And that became a conversation that really turned the students I was teaching into my coaches, which was immensely helpful and made me much less awful at public speaking than I was when I started. Dude I love that. Going back to what you were saying about in athletics, so I used to skateboard. I will put that very lightly. I used to enjoy standing on a board with four wheels, it's probably a more accurate description. And I remember trying to learn how to ollie. And I'd finally gotten good where I could ollie pretty high. I was really proud of it. And then the kids that I was skating with are like, you do know that your back wheels never leave the ground, right? And I was like, what?
5. Dont Be Stubborn in Your Development (17:07)
What are you talking about? That's not possible. I'm ollying high. I legitimately did not believe them. I'm like, when you talk about how it feels inside versus what it actually looks like outside, I was like, I can feel it, man. I'm like really doing this. And so they said, let me film you. And they filmed me. And I wasn't. Only my front wheels were coming off. I could not fathom that that feedback was real. And because of that disconnect. And so getting that objective look at myself was really transformative. At the beginning, you said that you'd be a better diver if you were less stubborn. What did you mean by that? I remember one day I was just trying to do a front dive with a half twist. So you take off, you're going in the water, and then you kind of turned into a back dive. And I had, I guess, a mental image of where the twist happened that defied the laws of physics. And by the way, my diving coach was a physics teacher. And I still argued with that, right?
Being Quick to Admit Mistakes (17:58)
I was so sure that I was right because I felt like I was turning over one way. And he said, OK, I'm just going to have to show you the tape because you won't believe me. And my teammates were making fun of me. And I wasted an hour and a half of that practice. And that became a microcosm for a series of mistakes that I was making, which is I was so determined to be right that I was standing in my own way of getting it right. And so I decided I was going to be really quick moving forward to admit when I was wrong about something and then try to improve upon it. And that's, I guess, that's become a metaphor for how I try to live my life. Oh my god, you have to talk about Shane. Please tell us that. Sorry because it is so crazy and so perfect for how I think people should approach life. Yeah. So I think anybody who hasn't heard of Shane Batie, there's a reason for that. If you don't follow basketball closely, Shane was a superstar for his whole career. He was the player of the year in high school. He was the captain of the Duke National Championship team. And then he got to the NBA and discovered that pretty much everybody there was more physically talented than he was. People would complain that he was too slow. He couldn't dribble. And this was a real liability right? He wanted to be one of a few hundred people in the world who could play professional basketball. And so what Shane did, this was first captured by Michael Lewis, a wonderful article called The No Stats All-Star, was he said, "Okay, I'm going to master the intangibles." And some of that is obvious. I'm going to die for loose balls. I'm going to take shots that are really critical for the team even though they don't bring me a lot of glory necessarily. But he also said, "You know what? I'm going to master statistics." And I'm going to find the one spot on the court that the guy I'm guarding tonight can't shoot for him. And I'm going to force him there. And I'm also going to figure out where my game is optimized by studying what the gaps in my team are and then figuring out how I can fill it. And if you think about that, that is the nexus of generosity and humility. Shane is asking, "How do I make my team better?" It's not about me. I want to contribute to a championship team. And he's asking, "How do I reinvent myself in order to become the player who adds that kind of value?" And if you look at the data, he was one of the most effective players on the court in the sense that there's a huge discrepancy between how well a team performs when he's on the bench versus when he's playing. Even though he doesn't have a crazy number of points scored or assists or rebounds or shots blocked. And I think that that's something we need in every team. I think it's somebody who's there to say, "There is no task that's beneath me." And if the leader is that person, that has a huge cascading effect. Dude, that. You want to talk about something that leaders need to be able to do.
The Trouble With AllStar Teams (20:45)
Nothing is beneath you. Another stat and basketball that you've talked about, which is teams that have the most all-stars tend to perform the worst, which I think is really pretty interesting. If you have a whole team of all-stars, they're less likely to want to do that. Everybody wants to take the game-winning shot. And so, yeah, there are studies both in basketball as well as in professional soccer showing that if you have a team of more than about 60% superstars, you're odds of winning a championship or having a highly successful season go down because you're missing the role players. And so whenever I hear a CEO say, "Well, I only hire eight players," I think, "Well, you know what? There's a lot of important work that eight players don't want to do." And so I think that's the wrong mentality. I think the evidence would tell us that an A team is actually composed of A and B and C players. I am so desperate to get Phil Jackson on the show. I don't know if you read his book, "11 Rings," but oh man, when he talks about how we weren't winning championships when Jordan was just the best player in the NBA. We started winning championships when he became a leader. And when he realized you can't just punch people in the face and hope that that is going to take you like that will inspire them to elevate their game, he was like, "You have got to find a way to connect with these guys to bring them together." And he said, "When I was able to focus him on leadership and really being a leader, then we start taking off." And he was like, "Look, he was still Michael. He was still super hardcore." But in recognizing that he wasn't going to be able to win by himself, and I think that speaks to your earliest point about the best leaders being servant leaders and being able to recognize how they have to give and not just take is pretty extraordinary. Yeah, one of the questions I've gotten really interested in lately is the question of leader emergence. So you've got a team and you have different levels of ability. And then somebody steps up and becomes the informal leader. What drives that? And sometimes it's just the most competent person. But often it's what psychologists would call prototypicality, which is to say, "What does the group stand for? And then who's the person who's most likely to exemplify the essence or the identity of the group?" I think that's something that very few people stopped, I think, through when they either started a new job or when they built a team, is to say, "Okay, if I were to make a list of the values that are distinctive, central, and enduring to this team or to this company, what are they? And then how do I make sure that I represent the most core values?"
Conceptual Approaches To Progress And Motivation
Cognitive Entrenchment (23:11)
All right, now we have to talk and I fear that I am misremembering the words you use, but cognitive entrenchment? That's close. So that's the phrase. When I think about people getting stuck, because humans hate change, as you were saying what Larry Page said, I was like, "Oh, good luck, man. People really hate change." But it's such a powerful idea. So how do you deal with cognitive entrenchment? So when I think about cognitive entrenchment, there was a brilliant paper that Eric Dane wrote about this and he said, "Look, we generally assume that the more expertise you gain, the more creative you're going to be. And yet if you study the relationship between expertise and creativity, it's not linear, it's curvilinear. There's such a thing as being too knowledgeable. Wait, how could that be? I should stop learning?" No, what he's saying is that oftentimes when you get really deep in a domain, you start to take for granted assumptions that need to be questioned. And you don't even know you're taking them for granted. You're like a fish that doesn't realize it's in water. And there's some really funny demonstrations of this, like expert bridge players. If you change the rules up on them, they actually perform worse than a lot of novices do. And if you take really skilled and experienced accounts, if you look at how they adjust to a tax law, they're slower to adapt than people who are just learning the accounting trade. And those are examples of cognitive entrenchment, right? People get, they get sort of accustomed to a particular way of thinking and solving problems, and then they don't want to undo that. And I worry a lot about that. I think that organizations, you're starting to talk about it, organizations get entrenched too. This is the way we've always done it. So that will never work around here. And those to me are some of the great warning signs that a culture is in danger of group think. I think the first thing to do is to run the exercise of asking, what's missing from our culture? If there's a pattern of behavior, a routine, a way of thinking that we wish we had but we didn't, what is it? And then how do we go out and find people who excel at that? How do we collectively adjust our behaviors a little bit to move in that direction? I think IDEO did this beautifully. So you know IDEO, of course, Tom. I knew them originally as the company that invented the mouse for Apple. And they've done all kinds of creative work since then as a great design consultancy. And after a while, they realized we have a lot of engineers and designers. But we're getting called into these weird worlds and we're not really sure how to solve the problems that we face in those worlds, like they were tasked to redesign a shopping cart in a grocery store. And then to reimagine Sesame Street as a TV show, this is not mouse building anymore. We need to figure out how to learn about a new world really quickly. And so they actually created a new job that was called anthropologist. And they said, look, this is what anthropologists do for a living. They go out into foreign cultures and they make sense of them and they bring that understanding back. And so they literally went and hired anthropologists because they discovered there was a skill set they were missing in their culture, which was very design and engineering focused. And I think that exercise could be running every company. And it's a great way of identifying those gaps and then not getting entrenched. What's your take? How do you think about solving that problem? So one, I think everybody has to agree on what their goal is. So part of what I try to do is make sure that core values that are innate to the person that we hire are already there. So if somebody doesn't, I think that you have to filter to a large extent. And so the question is, what do you filter for? And I think most people filter for skill set. It's very easy to put on a resume. It's much easier to test in an interview. But the thing that we filter for is do you have a growth mindset? And I feel like that is one of the most fundamental things. I get asked a lot about like, hey, I want to be in a relationship like you and your wife. Like, how do I do it? And I'm like 80% of the battle is selection. And if Lisa didn't have a growth mindset or I didn't have a growth mindset and we weren't willing to get better and improve, then it would be nightmarish. And you end up, one of you grows typically in the other dozen and it becomes this real drama. So looking for people to have a growth mindset. So at the core, all I have to do is appeal to that. So as you were talking about what people have to do to improve a culture, my belief is your current skill set or your current culture, however you want to think a bit, is already taking you as far as it's going to take you. So if you're happy where you're at and like you said earlier and you're comfortable being in that plateau forever, then hey, yay, you already won. But my thing is I'm not and certainly in a business, if you're not growing, the odds of you getting supplanted by somebody who comes out of left field with some new innovation, you're just going to get beaten to death. So I appeal to those sort of just, they are the physics of being human. They're the physics of running a company. You have to be improving. As a person, the meaning of life is to see how many skills or how much potential you can turn into actual usable skills. So it's like I would be asking, all right, as we try to evolve this culture and somebody offers an idea, I would say, how does it make us better in any sort of measurable way? Is it going to help us innovate so that we don't get supplanted by a new player? Is it going to allow us to do more with less? Like what is the outcome that you're trying to get? Because I find that in life people steer by a vague sense. And you have to migrate them away from a vague sense into something that is articulatable into a very specific goal with a timeline, how much, exactly what, those three elements being critical to a goal. And then having an informed hypothesis about how to get there and the informed is the key part.
The Physics of Progress (28:38)
And so we've broken down, it's what I call the physics of progress. And we've turned everything into sort of a stateable formula, which is the most effective way to do, insert goal, is to insert what I call a lever action, a binary thing that you either do or don't do. It isn't incumbent upon the outside world to give you anything. It's like, either we do this or we don't. And so that's our informed hypothesis. I know enough about it, you know, to say I think this will work, but I know enough about the realities of myself and the world to know I can't guess at whether this will actually work, I have to test it. I love formulating that as a hypothesis, because I've seen so many companies get in the trap of declaring the best practices and then never questioning them until it's too late. And I think what you've just outlined is a really effective way to keep learning. Yeah. And at an institutional level, it becomes harder because you have so many of the, a company is not a nameless faceless entity. It is entirely the sum total of the actual human beings that make up that company. So if at the individual level, you have a sickness, which could be cognitive entrenchment, then the organization is going to have that same sickness of cognitive entrenchment. So it's trying to find a way to boil this down where everybody can take ownership of it and make those changes be focused on the same desired outcome, which is constant self-improvement in our company. Otherwise you, there's so much inertia to staying the same, you just won't be able to get out of it because everybody has that vague sense. And I find that's the, the most prototypical human sickness is a vague sense. I have like, what do you want to do? This is perfect to speak to an Olympic diver.
Weiner's theory of motivation (30:31)
What do you want to do? I want to win a gold medal. And that is where I promise you most people stop. I want to win a gold medal. Awesome. In what? The Olympics? Yes, the Olympics. Amazing. Summer or winter? Summer. Fantastic. Swimming, diving, tennis? Like where are we at here? And then you get all the way down to, I want to be, you know, the 10 meter springboard champion or whatever. I'm not even sure that's the thing. But like, you get the idea. You know exactly- The Olympic World would scare the hell out of everyone. So you know specifically what you want to do and therefore you know specifically what you have to get good at. Do you ever feel like people get exhausted by constant self-improvement? I'll speak for myself.
Expect immediate pain (31:16)
I've never, I haven't been thoughtful enough to ask that question. So where I come down on this is like you talking about, okay, somebody telling me that I move like a muppet, it sucks in the short term. But obviously your behavior tells me that you're focused on the long term like what can be gained from your improvement. The fact that you become one of the most recognized thought leaders in the space, the fact that you're seven years running the number one ranked professor at Wharton, I mean it's the results speak for themselves. And so the way I think about it in my own life is I have so mentally conditioned myself to get a dopamine rush from somebody pointing out a flaw because I'm thinking you have no idea. Adam, I have the chills because I know how true what I'm about to say is I'm willing to actually take the pain of that and then go, if I can improve this, I'll now be a step farther ahead and on a long enough timeline I can win at anything because I'm willing to do that constant iteration. So there are definitely things that I do in my life where for sort of brief periods of time I'm not thinking about getting better. But honestly man, they're really few and far between and I have this thing in my life where it is for 15 years because I was trying to build a business so I could build a film studio, long story. I didn't watch movies because it wasn't the skill that I needed at that moment. And then I found that that carried over even when I was building the studio, I wasn't watching movies anymore because I'd gotten into such a habit. And I found that they didn't make me feel like I was getting better. And so I couldn't do anything that didn't make me feel like I was getting better because the conditioning I'd put under myself to have this huge dopamine reaction. So I had to flip a switch and say, I'm going to now start deconstructing this stuff and figuring out why it's good, why it works. And now dude, I love watching movies more than I've ever loved it in my life because before it was passive and now it's very proactive. It feels far more creative and it feels like I'm getting stronger, which is my obsession. Yeah, so two things on that.
Situational poise (33:11)
One is I think you've just laid out beautifully Robert Eisenberger's theory of learned industrialist, which is the idea that if you look at kids who grow up to be extremely gritty and hard working, one of the things that happens to them very early on is they get praised for effort over and over again or rewarded for effort over and over again. And then the feeling of hard work itself takes on secondary reward properties. And so it's like, oh, this hurts, but it also feels good. And I want to keep doing it because I've gotten rewarded for it in the past. And it sounds like you've taken constructive criticism as one of those reward keys that really motivates you to keep getting better. The other thing that I thought was really interesting about what you just said is I thought you were actually going to go in a cognitive and transmittent direction on this. When you said you didn't watch movies for a long period, it reminded me of a Simpsons writer that I interviewed once, George Meyer, who when he was writing for The Simpsons, he refused to watch Seinfeld because he was afraid that he'd fallen to this clapped amnesia trap and accidentally misremember what of their jokes as his. And he just, he didn't want to take that risk. And I always feel like this is a tightrope walk because when you're, you're trying to innovate in an industry, you can't be completely clueless about what everybody else is doing. Otherwise, you might miss something really important. And yes, blockbuster Sears, Blackberry, I'm talking to you, Kodak. But on the other hand, if you're too obsessed with what your competitors are up to, then you get entrenched and it's harder to see with fresh eyes. Do you have thoughts on how to stay on that tightrope and not fall off either side? Yeah. So I would say this is where self-awareness is going to be really, really important. I think there are people that they maybe exist better in a vacuum or they have such strong intuition about something. And I believe exclusively in informed tuition. I don't think you're born with intuition. I think that it's developed just through your activities.
Informed intuition (35:06)
And you give a great example on this with Steve Jobs and how he had informed intuition around technology but not around transportation. And so what he does in Apple is life altering and his investment in Segway was a waste. So that I think is very, very real. But I think that like anything, it's a spectrum. And so there are some people maybe that intuition is developed more intensely or it's developed more quickly, invisibly whatever the case may be. And then there are people who all call synthesizers. So and that's me. And if you put me on a desert island, what I would come up with would probably not be very interesting. But if you put me in an information rich environment, I will make connections that are unlike the connections anybody else will make. And I have cultivated a fearlessness over making unique connections. And so I had to embrace that I am a synthesizer and that for me to take in all this data, to read broadly, like people that I think that confirm what I believe and people that violently oppose what I believe. And all of that ends up coming together in a unique way in my own mind. And so for a long time I was paralyzed because I felt like I'm never going to think a unique thought. And that was really discouraging to me. And if you've seen a beautiful mind, that was at least as portrayed in the movie is what he struggled with was, you know, I'm never going to have an original thought. And it plagues him and ends up being a driver for him and he ends up obviously having a very original thought and ends up really changing our understanding of economics. But for me, what I found was I'm a process thinker. So I need to, I don't sit in a vacuum and have these amazing breakthroughs. I suffer and then have a breakthrough based on things that I've read that finally collide. And I put them in a new context with a collision that maybe other people would make filtered through a value system that other people don't have. And now I know how to move through in the world because I'm trying to satisfy my own emotional needs. And I'm a total slave to the physics of the world. So what actually moves me towards my goals? So you put all that together and I'm sort of unabashed about like, I need to take in all this data. I'm not worried about klepto amnesia. I'm happy to celebrate and champion other people. I don't have those fears because I didn't need it to be my idea in the first place. So even when I think about writing, like I, when he's a writer and he wants to say something originally wants it to be his own jokes, I understand all of that for sure. My thing as a writer is I'm, I'm going to tell like if I were to try to do Seinfeld, like literally I'm going to make Seinfeld, I'm going to do this just Seinfeld. I'm going to try to copy Seinfeld as hard as I can. As long as I trust my own intuition and I divert when I feel something is even funnier, I'm trying to make it better, it will just end up being so different that that gives me sort of that armor around not really worried about this. And I would never intentionally go down that path of trying to mimic it.
Developing Original Content And Enhancing Skills
Through Line to Creating Original Content (37:56)
So then once you put in, I'm really trying to take this somewhere new and I'm trusting my own unique quirks and I'm fearless about chasing them, you get something that's original. Do you always trust your intuition though? Because when you were describing your hypothesis testing approach before, it sounds like to me you're not following your gut, you're testing it. So it's funny, I wouldn't if I just gave the impression that I trust my instincts, the answer is no. So what I'm saying is when I'm writing something and I have something that bends me in a weird direction, I'm going to follow that. But the only thing I care about is how do people actually respond? So what I used to tell my students is, because I used to teach filmmaking, I said you have a choice before you. You can be here to masturbate or you can be here to make love. And if you want to masturbate, go make some weird art house film that nobody understands and that's absolutely fine. You're trying to please yourself, respect. But if you're here to make love, you have to think about your partner and your partner is the audience and you have to understand how the things you do impact them. And so your obsession has to be not what you intend to communicate, but what is actually understood. And so if you don't understand that, now you're in real trouble. So I'm not trying to exist in a vacuum.
Tips for Honing Your Skills (39:12)
I'm trying to say, my hypothesis is that my unique way of interpreting this will actually have a bigger response than the other thing and I'm fearless enough to try it. Now if I get feedback that it didn't work, then I'm going to adjust a hundred percent. I'm just never afraid if I really feel that something is the right way, I'm going to do it. And if I'm unsure, I'll admit that I'm unsure and I'll try to get feedback from people to try to orient myself. It's such a helpful edit because as a social scientist, when people say, you know, trust your intuition or follow your gut, I generally don't trust things that I don't know where they came from. I want to know why you're so confident in your intuition. Well, let's actually talk about what intuition is. It's just subconscious pattern recognition. You've detected some kind of connection that you're not fully able to articulate. And don't you want to find out what that is, right? Make the pattern conscious. So then you can test whether the pattern that you're seeing now is actually relevant to the choice that you're about to make. You know, Steve Jobs with the Segway example is such a fun one for me because he spent all those years in the software worlds building up his intuition so that he could very quickly know whether a design made sense or not. He didn't have the subconscious pattern recognition calibrated for transportation. And so he quickly got bold over just by how brilliant the technology was and seemed to miss some of the user applications of it and how difficult it would be to write a Segway down sidewalks. And I think a lot of people do this, right?
How to Be an Expert Generalist (40:40)
They build up their intuition in one domain. And then they just follow it blindly in another domain, not realizing that the patterns that held in one world don't apply to the next one. Yeah, no question. Dude, I have thoroughly, thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. I thoroughly enjoyed your works. They are incredible. I highly encourage people to get after it. And man, in this time where I think that new leaders coming to the surface is going to be so critical for us navigating our way to a positive, beautiful end. I'm eternally grateful for everything that you write on the subject and helping people develop self-awareness and the skills that they need to lead well amongst all the other amazing topics that you've covered. So, dude, thank you for the way that you walk through the world. Where can people find out more about you? Well, first of all, Tom, thank you. I've heard many, many rave reviews of your passion for self-improvement. And I think I underestimated just how curious you were, even having heard that from lots of mutual friends. So it's really cool to see it in action and soak it up a little bit. On your question, I would say, I guess, Adamgrant.net is the place to start. I host a 10 podcast called Work Life where I try to figure out how we can make work suck a little bit less. And I do a monthly newsletter called Granted where I cover some of my favorite new insights about work in psychology. And I would love to see people in either those places or hear them or have them hear me if they're interested. I love it, man. All right, everybody. If you haven't already dive into this world, you will be richly rewarded. And speaking of rich rewards, if you haven't already subscribed, be sure to do so.
Guidelines For Creating Remarkable Content
How to Create Something Great (42:19)
And until next time, my friends, be legendary. Take care. The great irony is the way you build great companies is with an infinite mindset. The way you build great companies is by prioritizing people before profit. The way you build great companies is will before resources. Both things important, but there has to be this general leaning.