Lessons in Success: 15 Minutes With Rock Star Professor Adam Grant

Lessons in Success: 15 Minutes With Rock Star Professor Adam Grant

By James Watkins


Because unless you have the most gratifying job in the world, you might learn something.

By James Watkins

Adam Grant is as close to a rock star that an organizational psychologist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School can get. Hired by everyone from Google to Warner Brothers to Wells Fargo to speak about his research into the psychology behind management, Grant’s latest gig was at OZY Fest 2017 in New York City’s Central Park.

Author of the New York Times best-selling books Give and Take (about the importance of reciprocity in fostering success), Originals (how to break out from conformity) and Option B (co-authored with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg about building resilience after major setbacks), Grant’s organizational theories have caused countless individuals to reframe their professional lives. Before he appeared onstage at OZY Fest alongside Simon Sinek, author, motivational speaker and the man behind the third most popular TED Talk of all time, we caught up with Grant to learn about the people and events that shaped his personal and professional lives.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have today about how best to manage others or themselves?

The biggest misconception about managing others is that others have to be managed. You might have heard of Theory X and Theory Y, the assumptions about how to manage people. The Theory X view is that people are naturally lazy and so need to be controlled with incentives, rewards and punishments. Theory Y is that people are naturally creative, and so they will flourish if given enough freedom, coupled with the right direction. All managers fit somewhere along that spectrum. Theory X managers usually run banks; Theory Y is common in Silicon Valley.

So which one is right? Well, looking at the data, both theories are true. They become like a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you treat people like chumps, they behave like chumps. But to me, it’s amazing that people still think they can manage people like animals.

Is rejecting conformity always a good course of action?

No. Absolutely not. But we have too much conformity in the world, rather than too little. Most people conform more than they would want to. When you ask people what their greatest regret is, it’s always “I wish I’d have stood up for myself more, followed my own ideas more.”

What we spend the majority of our waking lives doing should be something we find really valuable and rewarding.

Adam Grant

What is your ultimate ambition for the impact you’d love for your books or other work to have on others?

I wanted my mom to feel like she wasn’t the only person reading my work. That’s not a joke.

But also, work is really miserable for most people. What we spend the majority of our waking lives doing should be something we find really valuable and rewarding.


If you could go back and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

I’d probably say have less tunnel vision. When I started my career, I was laser-focused on what I wanted to be doing, which meant I neglected other things. I didn’t read the news for like 10 years. I think it definitely made my work worse — it made my work narrower.

Your work helps others to see their lives in new ways. Tell us about someone in your life who had that same effect on you.

That would be a guy called Brian Little. I was working in a psychology lab, and my professor and mentor slipped on some ice and broke her ankle a day before she was due to start teaching. The university called Brian Little to come and teach on a fellowship from Canada — by total happenstance he volunteered to teach the class. He’s an older Canadian professor who looks like Robin Williams. He almost didn’t make it over the border, because he told the U.S. border agent that he was coming into the country “to think.”

Adam Grant

Simon Sinek (left) with Adam Grant at OZY Fest 2017

Source Sean Culligan/OZY

He was the most dazzling professor. With his wit and humor, it was like watching a performance every class. A lot of psychology I was reading then was about how personality doesn’t follow us, that personality is influenced a lot by your situation. Brian convinced me there is actually something stable and fixed about us.

I went to see him at office hours after class, and it turns out he was a huge introvert. I was really interested in going into teaching, but I was worried that I was too introverted. He showed me I could be an introvert and yet get up onstage and teach a class.

If you could recommend one piece of Good Sh*t that you think everyone should read, watch or listen to, what would it be?

I think everyone should read the Steven Johnson article in The New York Times from a couple of weeks ago. It’s called “Greetings E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us).” It was utterly riveting. It’s about the effort to broadcast messages out into space, and whether or not that’s a good idea. It was maybe the most interesting thing I’ve read all year.

We have all these conversations about whether artificial intelligence is an existential threat, but what if there are aliens out there? Someone should be thinking about that.