Adam Grant’s Philosophy of Giving
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Adam Grant got schooled by a kid on his own theories.
By Joshua Eferighe
The youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School, psychologist Adam Grant’s philosophy of giving and taking has influenced not just the readers of his multiple best-sellers but also millions on YouTube via his successful TED Talk. He stopped by The Carlos Watson Show to drop some knowledge. Watch the episode here — or read on for some excerpts from the conversation.
‘I have never missed a comma’
Carlos Watson: I want to ask about your mom. What kind of teacher was she?
Adam Grant: My mom taught Spanish and English for about 30 years. So I have never missed a comma in my entire life.
CW: I love that distinction. And did she have any impact on you becoming a teacher and professor yourself, or was that all kind of your own journey?
AG: She did actually. She tried to talk me out of it. She said, “Look, it’s exhausting to perform every day in front of an audience.” And so I think I figured out really quickly that I needed a job where I got to be in front of students some of the time, but I also got to think and write and go out into the world a little bit. And professor felt like almost the perfect version of that.
CW: How did you end up becoming a professor at Wharton, and how did you end up writing books and doing what you do?
AG: I think one of the defining moments was [when] I was a junior in college. I knew I wanted to study psychology because I was just fascinated by human behavior. I wanted to know how we can all improve the quality of our lives. But I didn’t quite know what to do with that interest, and I kind of wandered into an organizational psychology class. It was called Psych 8:30 a.m., because people walked in half-asleep, and the professor, Richard Hackman, was riveting. He was a guy who spent his whole career studying teams. And the way that he did it was, he said, “Look, I don’t really know what job I want, so I’m going to make my job to study other people’s jobs.”
So he was kind of fascinated by symphony orchestras and he went and studied how you could bring an orchestra together to play better music. He was interested in spies, and so he did a big study of the U.S. intelligence agencies and how to make their collaboration better. He thought he might want to be a pilot, and so he studied cockpit crews and how you can improve the collaboration there. And I just thought, “This is the solution to my problem. I have no idea what career I want. And so if my job is to try to fix other people’s jobs, maybe one day I’ll figure it out.”
But I think the other mistake that a lot of people make is they say, “Look, you got to practice what you preach.” And I’ve found myself increasingly wanting to flip that and say, “You know what, practice what you preach, fine. Better yet, how about you only preach things you’ve already practiced? And then you’re never going to be a hypocrite if you do it that way.” And so for me, what that has meant is to say, “Look, one of the things that I try to practice every day is figuring out what I’m incorrect about. So that then I can update my knowledge.” So if I’m going to preach that, I better be practicing it every day.
‘I definitely failed to be the giver’
CW: What piece of marriage or relationship advice would you give to young Adam or to one of your young students? What have you learned?
AG: I think the most important thing in any kind of relationship and especially in a marriage is to ask, “OK, what’s more important: to be right or to show the other person that you really love them?” And very often those two things, they’re never in conflict, but in the middle of a disagreement, it’s very easy to get stuck just kind of digging your heels in on your argument as opposed to saying, “Look, the single most important message I can signal to you when we’re disagreeing is how much I love you and that’s why I want to disagree with you, because I care so much about what you think and what you believe that I can’t help but passionately defend what my particular perspective is.”
And so I think just the idea of saying, “Look, it’s never more important to convince people you’re right than it is to convince them that you care about them.”
CW: And if I asked your kids how well does dad practice what he preaches, what would your kids tell me? Whether you agree or disagree with them, what would your kids tell me if I ask, at home, no one else is around, “Tell me the truth, guys, is dad practicing what he preaches?” What would the kids say?
AG: That’s a great question. I think we should ask them. I don’t know. I actually … You know what? Something happened recently that maybe will give you some color on this. So our daughter, our 9-year-old, walked into my office and there’s this little ceramic kind of balloon-dog mini sculpture. And she said, “Can I have this?” And I said, “Oh, it was a gift. I put it up here in my office so the person who gave it to me can see that it’s displayed there.” And she said, “But, Dad, you always talk about giving. You should be a giver.” Oh no, like Shakespeare would say, I was hoist with my own petard. She’s using my own work against me. And all of a sudden it clicked. And I said, “Wait a minute. You’re right. I do believe that you should be a giver. So why are you trying to take this from me?”
Without skipping a beat she said, her exact words were, “But, Dad, I’m just a kid. You should set the example.” So in that situation, I definitely failed to be the giver. I hope my kids would say that I’m always happy to share whatever I know and whatever connections I have with no strings attached. Do I always do the best job at dropping what I’m doing and sort of extracting myself from the task that I’m focused on until it’s finished? No, and that’s one of my development goals for this year.