Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant), an organizational psychologist at Wharton, where he has been the top-rated professor for seven straight years. He is an expert in how we can find motivation and meaning and lead more generous and creative lives. He is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of four books that have sold over two million copies and been translated into 35 languages: Give and Take, Originals, Option B, and Power Moves. His books have been recognized as among the year’s best by Amazon, the Financial Times, Harvard Business Review, and the Wall Street Journal and been praised by J.J. Abrams, Richard Branson, Bill and Melinda Gates, Malcolm Gladwell, and Malala Yousafzai.
Adam hosts the TED podcast WorkLife, and his TED talks have been viewed more than 20 million times. His speaking and consulting clients include Google, the NBA, and The Gates Foundation. He has been recognized as one of the world’s 10 most influential management thinkers, one of Fortune’s 40 under 40, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and he received distinguished scientific achievement awards from the American Psychological Association and the National Science Foundation. Adam writes for the New York Times on work and psychology and serves on The Department of Defense Innovation Board.
Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Adam, welcome to the show.
Adam Grant: Thank you, Tim. Great to be here.
Tim Ferriss: This is one of those pictures from the bio that if I were creating a character in a novel I feel that my editor would encourage me to clip back on. You have a very impressive, not just bio, but timeline, the amount you’ve done in a very, very compressed period of time. So I think we’re going to talk a lot about productivity habits and things that are related to that. But I want to just bring up a few other quotes.
Some of the quotes are from media. This one if from The New York Times. “Grant took three years to get his Ph. D., and in the seven years since, he has published more papers in his field’s top-tier journals than colleagues who have won lifetime-achievement awards.” There’s another note from one of our mutual friends, which says: When another Wharton professor got tenure he opened his speech by saying, “I’m so grateful to be in a place where everyone is focused on the same research question: How does Adam Grant do it?”
That’s the question on my mind and I thought where we could possibly start is with rewinding the clock and going back to your very first experiences teaching. I have a cheat sheet note here that says you were so uncomfortable in the beginning that your first evaluation forms read, at least from one person, “You’re so nervous you’re causing us to physically shake in our seats.”
So how do you improve at that point? What did you do to improve after getting those feedback forms?
Adam Grant: Oh, thanks for reminding me.
Tim Ferriss: You’re welcome.
Adam Grant: It was painful. I remember going to grad school and thinking, I’ve sort of found my calling. I had these professors who changed the way I saw the world and they were incredibly inspiring and I wanted to try to pay that forward. And then I go in front of my first audience and I get comments like that. It wasn’t just one student, right?. It was over and over and over again. “Instructor seems very nervous.” “Instructor seems like the most nervous professor I’ve ever heard in my life.” “Instructor is sweating so much that I’ve completely stopped paying attention to the lecture.”
It just went on and on. I did what anyone would do in that situation, which is I started to wonder whether I should quit. Then I started to realize that the reason I got into this in the first place was not about me. It wasn’t about my emotions or my anxiety, or the fact that I was described as looking like a Muppet the way I awkwardly moved around the stage. It was because I loved ideas and I wanted to share them. I wanted to be helpful to the students that I would one day teach.
So I guess I took a little cue out of my diving days. I said, Okay, when I started diving I was really awful. What did I do? I did as many reps as possible every day. It sounds really boring but last time I checked you kind of plant the seeds of greatness in the daily grind. I know you’ve lived your whole life that way, Tim.
But for me that meant I’m going to go and get in front of as many audiences as I can. So I actually started volunteering to give guest lectures for other people’s classes, and forced myself into a situation where I would have to be on a stage every day. I would have to give multiple talks on the same topic. I would then have to write new talks. I think physiologically you can only sustain anxiety for so many hours at a time, right? And eventually it started to fade a little bit. I started to get a little more comfortable.
And then a couple of good things happened. I remember I cracked a joke offhand after I’d done a lecture a couple of times. And a few people laughed. I thought, Wait a minute. The audience actually likes something I did. Maybe there’s hope. So I think momentum I guess grew from there. I felt like I had a couple of small wins to build on, and as I got more comfortable I think it started to go better. Then eventually I decided I actually really enjoyed teaching and maybe I would become halfway decent at it.
Tim Ferriss: And what were you teaching at the time? What were the talks that you were giving the lectures?
Adam Grant: Let’s see, the first lecture that I was doing, it was actually for an intro psychology class on career choice. I was the worst person in the world to give this talk because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my career. One of the reasons I became an organizational psychologist was I figured out that I could take all the jobs that I thought were interesting and I could study those and live them vicariously. So it’s kind of cheating, right? I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, so I study other people’s interesting jobs.
But I was trying, I guess in the early lectures I was trying to get students to think about tunnel vision. It’s a problem I’ve seen over and over again with high achievers. I certainly felt it as an undergrad. I’ve watched a lot of my students at Wharton go through it since then. What I was trying to highlight when I said just because you’re highly motivated and driven, and you have clarity about your goals today doesn’t mean that you won’t wake up in two years and wish you had considered other goals. So you might want to broaden your peripheral vision a little bit, was sort of the punchline of the talk.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s dig into broadening peripheral vision, or uncovering blind spots. The feedback form. I’d love to talk about the feedback form. Were the feedback forms standardized so you didn’t have input into the feedback forms? Or were you able to design questions that you then gave to these early student/victims of your many, many rehearsals and trial runs? In either case I’d be curious to know what you paid attention to in the feedback forms.
Adam Grant: So when I went to give that first guest lecture, I asked the professor if they could give out their standard feedback form so I could learn how to improve. And the professor said, “Guest lecturers don’t do feedback forms. You’re donating your time. You’re probably pretty comfortable and confident in having something of value to offer. You don’t then want a bunch of students telling you why you weren’t as good as they wanted you to be. If that’s not the case, you don’t need any more praise anyway. So nobody really bothers with it.” And I said, “Well, I really feel that I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know if this is going to be a train wreck or just really bad. And so I feel like I have to learn something from the audience.”
So I just drafted a very simple feedback form. It had two questions on it. One was, “How can I improve?” And the other was, “Is there anything that I did well, that I should try to repeat or build on?” I actually remember getting the feedback forms and looking at them and thinking, “Wow. There are a lot of letters written on the improve question,” and there’s a lot of white space on the things I did well question. But I think what I took away from that was I’d always thought that you needed to be really structured in the feedback requests that you make. I think sometimes that’s helpful, right?, to say “Could you tell me how to make my talk more interesting?” Or, “How could I have kept you awake?”
Adam Grant: But then I would have been limiting the feedback to the things I already knew I needed to work on. Right? I knew I had blind spots. I wanted to figure out what those were, and so I think by asking the broad question I got much more varied feedback. And then as I designed future feedback one I would always ask those broad questions, and then I’d follow up with a few targeted questions on specific things I was trying to work on.
Tim Ferriss: Do you recall some of the things that were specifics you wanted to work on at any point in your development as a teacher?
Adam Grant: Oh, it was a long list. Actually, Tim, I wonder if you’ve had this experience too. I find teaching way easier than speaking or lecturing. Teaching is interactive, right? You’re having a conversation. You get a lot of questions throughout your presentation. And you can very quickly start to figure out what the audience is interested in and tailor it, right? Whereas I think the guest lecturing was a little bit of trial by fire. Because I had to stand up and perform, and I wasn’t a skilled or comfortable performer.
So early on it was very simple things, like pausing between sentences. Like occasionally breathing. I got feedback at one point that I didn’t blink ever.
Tim Ferriss: Just like a barracuda.
Adam Grant: Yeah. Just laser focused. My wife tells me I sometimes still don’t blink in interviews which cracks me up. Some of it was really granular kind of nuts and bolts stage presence. And some of it was content. I was trying to get students and later other kinds of audiences to question their assumptions. I think one of the things I learned very quickly was I was attacking their assumptions way too hard. The moment I said, “You might hate your investment banking career,” “You might not fall in love with management consulting,” they got defensive and shut down.
So I was working on finding other ways of landing at the conclusion on their terms instead of mine. And saying, “Okay. How much do you really know about investment banking?” “Is it possible if you’re not someone who reads about markets for fun in your spare time that it’s not going to be the most joyful thing you’ve ever done to spend 100 hours a week looking at a spreadsheet?” So a lot of what I was working on was just trying to figure out how to take a message that was provocative to the audience and make it palatable.
Tim Ferriss: You’re very right. I just want to agree with what you said at the beginning of that, which is teaching, providing much more intermittent valuable feedback, in the sense that when you’re teaching, depending on the format of course, but very often confusion becomes clearer earlier to the teacher. Does that make sense?
Adam Grant: It does.
Tim Ferriss: If you get up and provide a keynote then walk off stage, the feedback loop if it exists at all is really slow and kind of on a macro level. But if students can interrupt you, they can raise their hand and say, “I don’t understand.”
Adam Grant: That’s huge. It’s so valuable. Also I think you’re often in a position where when you finally finish your keynote, you get to the audience questions. When you hear the first two questions you realize, “Oh, if I’d known that’s what you’re interested in I would have given a completely different talk.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Definitely. I’m going to hop from this to perhaps something that people listening can model. Some people will be in front of students but some may not. So I’d love to discuss what I’ve heard phrased as the challenge network. And this is from, well, it’s phillymag.com, but it’s from a profile from 2018. It reads, feel free to fact check because I don’t believe everything I read on the internet. But it says: “He (referring to you) literally has a ‘challenge network,’ a cohort of people he relies on to give him unvarnished feedback.” And then the next part, which we’ll get to also: “He keeps a resume of his failures (it’s three pages) and he constantly asks for advice on what he can tweak, tune up, or totally reconsider.”
What is a challenge network, and how did you assemble it? What I’m reaching for here is what did you do, and what might you recommend that other people also try, or at least consider?
Adam Grant: So I guess I’ve been doing it for a long time. I didn’t have a name for it or really a formal structure for it until actually I did my first podcast episode, where I went to Bridgewater. I was really interested in Ray Dalio’s culture and radical transparency. I’d studied it for a few years, but this was the first time I’d really tried to tell the story in audio as opposed to writing about it. I went in and I was thinking, okay, what is different? In the time that I’ve spent at this place where people not only are comfortable with criticism but they actually seem to enjoy getting it, what is different about that?
I think at one point it just clicked that they are trying to build a different kind of network. We all know the value of a network. But mostly when we think about networks we’re thinking about a support network, which is the group of cheerleaders that you surround yourself with to motivate you, to encourage you, to see more potential in you than you see in yourself. And I think that’s incredibly important. It’s hard to imagine anyone achieving anything without having some kind of support network behind them, whether that’s building their confidence, or opening doors for them, or helping them build their skills.
But Bridgewater really is about creating a different kind of network. I feel like what they have built is whole company organized around the challenge network, where your job is to say, “Look. I want you to be as good as you can be, Tim. That means I’m going to try to tear your logic apart to see if there are any holes in it, and try to improve your reasoning and your thinking so that you make better decisions, and you come up with more compelling solutions to problems.”
In a way it’s a form of tough love, right? I think having somebody who’s pure challenge and never gives you any support, that just sounds abusive. But I think a great member of a challenge network, I’ll tell you about mine, is somebody who pushes you because they believe in you. And they’re not going to settle for half-baked ideas or for something that’s not your very best work.
Tim Ferriss: If I could just jump in for one second also. For people who don’t know Bridgewater Associates, just as context, it is perhaps still the largest, certainly one of the largest, asset managers, some might call it a hedge fund, with something like 160 billion dollars under management. So when you’re deploying that type of capital, and let’s just say you’re a portfolio manager, or someone making decisions, or at least proposing positions or trades, there are very, very real stakes involved.
Part of the reason I’m so excited to hear about how you have implemented this, or how it’s manifested for you, is that when you’re dealing with tens or hundreds of billions of dollars the consequences are perhaps very obvious, right? And the incentives are very obvious. But few people think of putting together a challenge network for themselves. So I’d love to hear what that ended up looking like for you.
Adam Grant: Sure. So it actually started when I transitioned from doing those guest lectures to teaching my first class. So I’m a grad student and I’m responsible for teaching a whole semester-long course. I remember being so freaked out for the first class that my wife actually came and sat in and pretended to be a TA just so afterwards she could tell me that people were still going to come to the next class.
But I got through it. We met twice a week. It was a class on organizational change, and the students seemed to be genuinely engaged and enjoying it. It was such a pleasant surprise coming from the lecturing to teaching in that way, because I felt like I was building relationships with them. I was getting to know them. I was adjusting the class in real time as I learned what they wanted to learn. And so I moved along in the class, and I realized it was really easy to focus on things that were going well because my expectations had been so low.
And I needed to figure out what was going wrong, because as a brand new teacher I was still very nervous. I still did plenty lecturing in the class, and I was going to have to teach much less receptive audiences than a group of undergrads who signed up for an elective. So I did feedback forms a couple of weeks in, and then I did something that I guess was sort of radical. I went to one of my advisors and I said, “I’ve gotten all the feedback from the forms and there is a lot of real criticism in there about things that I’m doing very poorly.” I was horrible at time management as an example, and a bunch of people said that it would really nice if I ever made it through even 10 percent of the material I’d promised at the beginning of the class. But as soon as a student answered a question, I’d feel like I had to answer it. So I’d just get sidetracked from … I don’t care what my lesson plan was, I’m here to serve the students.
Anyway, so I went to my advisor and I said, “I have all this feedback and I’m just going to open source it. I’m going to share it with the whole class.” He said, “What are you? Insane? They’re going to band into a mob of angry millennials. Once they find out that they’re all upset about the same pieces of the class, it’s going to be a mutiny. Don’t do it.” I felt like it was sort of a crossroads because it left me wondering, who do I want to be? Do I want to be the person who’s so determined to prove myself that I’m afraid of students finding out what they probably already know about me? Or am I more interested in improving myself?
I picked the improving route and so I typed up all the feedback verbatim. I emailed it out to the entire class, and then I devoted a whole class session to discussing all the suggestions for improvement. And I guess what I’d done was I’d turned the students a little bit into my coaches, but it was very much a challenge network. Because their job was to tell me everything that was not working about the class and then brainstorm with me about what we could do to fix it.
It was funny because we spent then half of a semester of a class on organizational change kind of living an experiment on how to do organizational change in the context of the class. After that experience I said, Okay, I always want a group of students who are a challenge network for me. Which has meant, in some cases when I write a book, the first group that sees the draft of each chapter is a group of student. Their job is to violently disagree with every work that I write. I really try to poke holes in the evidence, in the logic.
Tim Ferriss: So they’re reading it like a debate team who has been assigned the counter argument even if they don’t, or simply the task of disassembling your argument. Even if that’s not how they feel, that’s the responsibility that you give them.
Adam Grant: Exactly. So they end up almost competing to see who can give the most devastating criticism. I remember walking into a lab meeting once and a student said, “At no point at any time during reading this chapter did I feel like I could say the words page turner.” So it’s played out in a lot of different ways, right? When I was preparing to do my first TED talk, I had a group of people who watched it and their job was to argue with me about all my points. And then I’ve done the same thing with op-eds. So after I went to Bridgewater and the term clicked. Oh, “challenge network,” that’s what I’ve been trying to build for myself.
I actually reached out to some of the people that I’ve relied on the most in the past decade for that role, and I said, “Hey, I just wanted you to know that I consider you a founding member of my challenge network. I know I’m not always as receptive to your criticism as I would like to be and sometimes that’s probably frustrating for you, but I keep coming to you because I know I need it. And I value it even if I don’t like it. I want you to keep providing that, because that’s one of the central roles that you play in my life, and you’ve made my work infinitely better.” Occasionally that’s emboldened them in ways that, “Well, you know I’m not sure that I really needed my outfit to be criticized in that particular talk I gave. That’s not the feedback I was looking for.” But I think it’s been just immensely beneficial.
So, Tim, I’m curious, do you have a challenge network?
Tim Ferriss: I have certainly people I rely on to call my babies, or decisions, or whatever the facet of my life might be under scrutiny, ugly when necessary. I definitely do. It’s clearest when I am considering what would be for me a large decision, where I’ll call people just to reality check my thinking. I want them to really spot any weaknesses, or glaring omissions, or blind spots that they see with a bit more distance.
Also in writing. I can’t have cheerleaders as editors, at least proofreaders. So I will send chapters typically to very specific people and I will force their hand a bit because they’re all intrinsically quite nice people. But I’ll ask them, this is where I think the wording of the questions is so important. But for me, I’ll ask them, “If you have to remove, say 20 percent of this chapter, which 20 percent would you remove? Gun to the head. You have to cut 20 percent.”
Adam Grant: Oh, I love that.
Tim Ferriss: “What would you cut?” And then I also ask them, “If you could only save 10 percent or 20 percent,” depends on the length of the chapter, “what do you think I should absolutely keep in?” The rule that I have is I suppose more of a heuristic, it’s not a hard and fast rule, but something that I think about is to absolutely remove something requires a consensus of at least two people. So if two people say you should absolutely remove this, I take it very, very seriously. To keep something only requires a vote of one. So if five people respond with five different answers for “This is the 10 percent,” I would absolutely 100 percent keep in, then I do my best to keep all of that. That would be an example.
I don’t have a formal challenge network. But this is making me consider doing that. Is the challenge network, your challenge network, the Bridgewater style challenge network, something that you involve ad hoc as you are working on projects and so on? Or is it something that has a cadence where you’re scheduling, like once per month I’m going to ask x, y, and z of these following four people? Or once per quarter I’m going to do a, b, and c? Anything like that? Is there a structure or a scheduling to it?
Adam Grant: Interesting. I think there’s a structure for big projects. So when I’m writing a book or working on a podcast season, I’ll have a meeting of my challenge network of students that’s usually once every two weeks. There’s a pretty regular cadence to the process of producing episodes, and I know that there’s going to be new material for them to trash every time we come together.
I love your idea of saying, “If you were going to cut something, what would you cut?” Early on I felt like they’d really let anything that they had in their heads fly, and they weren’t too worried about it. I guess as I’ve accomplished more, they’ve been either more worried that I have a big ego, which is ironic because I think the more you accomplish the easier it is to face the failure and say, “Hey, that doesn’t matter. I’ve succeeded in other ways.” Or they’re just worried about hurting their relationship with me.
So one of the things I’ve found with the regular structure is it’s helpful for me to have a senior student in there who’s worked for me for a long time, or with me for a long time. I’ll actually tee it up in advance and say, “I want you to come in guns blazing with the toughest criticism you could ever give, even if you don’t fully believe it. Because I want you to model the kind of challenge that I want. I’m going to be prepared for it, and I’m going to respond with as much openness and curiosity as I can muster. That way we’re going to try to set the tone and the norm for the next few months.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s really smart. That’s really smart.
Adam Grant: It helps, I think.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. It works in all sorts of settings. Group therapy, you want people to open up. There are a lot of contexts in which that is really smart. That’s great.
Adam Grant: I like that. And then for the unstructured—I do this spontaneously a lot, so every time I get off the stage, usually somebody will say, “Oh, that was great.” Or, “Thanks.” That’s not useful to me, right? So I’ll always say, “What’s the one thing I can do better?” I’ve kind of drafted them against their will into my challenge network. Sometimes they say, “Well, nothing.” I feel like I have to push them a little bit. So I guess I’ve gotten a little edgier about this over the past few years, and I’ll say, “Huh. You know it’s funny, I thought you had higher standards than that. You couldn’t find a single thing I could improve on? You really think this is perfect? Come on.” And then if they won’t give me anything, I will criticize myself out loud. I’ll say, “Look. Here are the three things that I think I did poorly. Tell me if you agree with any of those, and then what I’m missing.” I’ve never had somebody just completely punt at that point. They always offer something.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. That’s great. That’s great. You’re just giving them permission with more and more weight, push behind it. Why do you keep a resume of your failures? Is that an accurate description of whatever they were trying to describe in this piece? What is a resume of your failures? And what’s the point of it?
Adam Grant: Yeah. It’s actually an idea I got from a scientist, Melanie Stefan, who said, “Look. We do such a disservice to young people in any field because when they look up at their role models they only see them at their peak.” And when you look at somebody whose resume or bio, it only has their accomplishments and not all of the schools that rejected them. Not all of the jobs that denied them. Not all of the creative projects that failed. And so it can be really discouraging if you’re moving into a field to look up at people who seem perfect.
So I just thought it was a clever way to be comfortable sharing all the things that I’d stumbled in. And then, also, I thought it was a good exercise for me to say, “Look. It’s easy to get caught up in believing that as you accumulate more success, your odds of success go up over time.” Because you gain experience. You surround yourself with better people. You maybe avoid repeating past mistakes. And the reality is I think that you also take on more ambitious projects.
So in some ways the odds go down. And it’s just, it’s been a reminder to me that I’ve rarely ever done anything that didn’t fail radically before I achieved some success. And it’s a good, I guess it’s a good way to do a little bit of mental time travel and say, “Hey, you know what? I remember throwing away 102,000 words of my first draft of my book, which was 103,000 words.” And at that moment I felt like I was never going to write a book and I couldn’t make it as an author. And I kind of edited that out of my story, in the way that I think about the process of writing a book. Because I moved past that. But, if I remember that, it’s a lot easier to cope with today’s failure or tomorrow’s failure.
Tim Ferriss: How did you decide to do that? 102,000 words is a lot of words. For people wondering, I suppose if we’re talking about like an average trim size, meaning average book size, physical paperback book—I’m probably going to screw this up a little bit, but 50,000 words would be the length of many books. That would be, let’s call it, I have no idea, a 200 to 250 page book or something like that. Maybe less, it depends a lot on the words per page. But how did you decide to—walk me through the day where you were like, “This is it. I’m scrapping 102,000 words.”
Adam Grant: Okay. I think it was August, 2011. And the lead up to it, I think, is important. Which is I decided in the spring, right after I got tenure, that I wanted to start sharing ideas outside of just academia. And one of my favorite collaborators, Barry Schwartz, who you probably know from The Paradox of Choice.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, Paradox of Choice.
Adam Grant: Barry had coincidentally reached out and said, “Hey, I’m thinking about writing a book on motivation and incentives. I know you do a lot of work in that area. Do you want to write the book together?” I was so flattered and it just seemed like a great way to begin communicating ideas and I loved working with him. So I had a meeting with my students that day, and talk about challenge network. They held me hostage and they told me they would not let me leave the lab meeting until I promised them that I wouldn’t write somebody else’s book before I wrote my own. And I didn’t want to let them down. So I said, “Okay, I’ll write my book and then maybe one day Barry and I will do something together again.” And so I went through the whole process to find a literary agent. And had Richard Pine come in as my agent and he said, “Write a proposal.” After we talked about a bunch of ideas, I started working on the proposal in June. And I got so into it that I accidentally wrote the book.
Tim Ferriss: For people listening, that doesn’t generally happen.
Adam Grant: Well, hold on. Hold on.
Tim Ferriss: All right, continue.
Adam Grant: No, no, it happens. Here’s how it happens, right? So this is 2011. I am writing a book about a topic I had been studying for a decade. I’ve been living it and breathing it and I have so many thoughts and ideas about it and I never really sat down to organize them. And so I start to write about a study and that then calls to mind three other studies that I love. And then that reminds me of a story that I think will illustrate the study in an interesting way. And so it just, it just became—I mean it’s literally all I did for that summer was write the draft of the book. And so I sent it to Richard in August. He had actually checked in and said, “Hey, where’s that proposal?” And I said, “Oh, it’s a little long because I think I have a draft of the book.” And Richard, being a great member of my challenge network, said, “I’ve got to be honest with you, I don’t even know if your academic colleagues would finish reading this book.”
Tim Ferriss: That was after he sent, after you sent him rather, the draft.
Adam Grant: Correct. Yeah, he read the—I don’t actually think he made it through the draft, it was so bad. But it was basically like reading a hundred research papers strung together. And academic research papers are not, they’re not interesting.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Adam Grant: For the most part. So he gave me some great advice, though. He said, “Just do me a favor. Don’t write like you write journal articles. Write like you teach.” And that was a light bulb moment for me. And so it kind of turned around from, “This is agonizing, I think I will never be an author.” To, “Okay. If I were going to tell the story of these ideas in the classroom, what would I do?” And then I actually, I started doing the talk out loud so that I wouldn’t go back into the trap of academic writing. And I found that it was way easier to write about other people’s ideas than my own. And so I decided I was going to leave my ideas out of the first couple of chapter drafts and just write about other people’s stuff as if I were introducing it to my students with the same excitement that I would in a classroom. And that I found a lot of—that felt really familiar and comfortable. And then, from there, the second draft was better. I resuscitated about a thousand words from the first draft and will never show the other 102,000 to anyone.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. Yeah. I thought it was hard throwing away four chapters two or three times with my first book. Yeah, 102,000 words is a lot. Or 101,000, excuse me. You said earlier, about your getting diverted during class and not following lesson plans, as reflective of you being horrible at time management. Now based on the bio and the, it seems, awe with which many of your colleagues, certainly people sort of within your world but also outside of your world, experience with looking at all of these accomplishments, how would your good friends, the people who really know you, explain your ability to get things done?
Adam Grant: Oh, well first we have the pot calling the kettle black here, Tim. I was really amused when you texted me and said you were going to hustle so that we could start early. Because I literally don’t think you are capable of not hustling.
Tim Ferriss: Well we need to get into the nuances of hustle. But I have two speeds, I have park and sixth gear. There’s really very, there’s very little in between. That is true.
Adam Grant: But you’re even intense about your park.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, there is a certain baseline intensity. I will not deny. I will not deny. But you and I have also played in some similar sandboxes but also a lot of very different sandboxes. And I think I’ve cheated in the sense that I have kind of rigged games and loaded decks of cards so that I can sort of freestyle my way through whatever this is that I have ended up calling a career. But you, within the seemingly very well-established constraints of the academic world and research world, have done things that seem to defy belief. That’s a lot harder, I think.
Adam Grant: I beg to differ. Because there are rules and norms, right? What I had to do is I had to go into somebody else’s system and figure out how to succeed within it. You had to create your own system. I think that that’s way harder, but we can duke that out later.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, we can duke that out.
Adam Grant: I will try to answer your question.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So why are you—how would your—if it allows you to speak more directly to it because it’s not always easy to kind of pat yourself on the back and that’s not what I’m aiming for here, but you are an outlier. I think, objectively speaking, you’re an outlier. So how would people who really know you explain the factors, the behaviors that have contributed to that?
Adam Grant: So I’ve asked a bunch of people that question. Because I got tired of saying, “I don’t know. I just work a lot, I guess.” When it came up. And I think there are a few things that I’ve learned that I didn’t know were maybe useful habits that I guess I either do instinctively or at some point decided were effective. So my college roommates used to tell me that I had a productive form of mild OCD. And I guess they saw it when I was writing my undergrad thesis. And I think I finished it four months before it was due because I just woke up in the morning and I would write until I had said everything I had to say. And I’d rarely get up out of my chair. And sometimes I would go to eat lunch, but I think I really, I hate leaving something unfinished. And so this is actually both a blessing and a curse. So the blessing is it means that, when I sit down to start something, I will finish it.
What that means is whatever else was on my agenda after that is just going haywire. So I’m constantly late, because I have a chronic inability doing to disengage from the current thing on my agenda to go and move on to the next thing. Right? And time is sort of an arbitrary human construction. Well, I didn’t know yesterday when I scheduled this meeting that I was going to be in flow today at this time. I hope this person values our collaboration enough or is glad to be able to yell at me about always being late enough that they’re willing to put up with it. But I think that, for me, that’s—I think I’m bad at time management, but I’ve gotten good at attention management. And I just, when I sit down, I know as a psychologist we have decades of evidence that people are horrible parallel processors. Right? We’re serial processors. It’s really, not just in the multitasking sense, but in the course of a morning. You’re not going to be that productive if you’re trying to work on five different things. And so what I try to do is I try to do one project or task at a time. Until I’ve either gotten as far as I can go with it and I’ve run out of ideas or I’ve physically run out of time, that I can’t work on it anymore.
And I find that that’s useful. And what that means sometimes is I’m in a meeting, one of my colleagues who I asked, “Okay, is there anything I do that that’s productive that I don’t realize is productive?” And she said, “Yeah. We’re in a meeting, we’ve got seven minutes left, and we’ve just finished a task. And I’ll just start chit-chatting.” And she said, “What you do…” I guess what I learned that I do is I’ll say, “Well, we’ve got another task that we can at least start in those seven minutes.” And so we end up using those extra minutes. But also then the meetings stretches 20 minutes over because then we got into a rhythm and we got a little bit more done. And I think that that people are way too rigid about respecting time boundaries as opposed to saying, “Look, if you’re all about time management, then you’re going to just notice how much time you waste. And then you’re going to waste more time beating yourself up about how much time you waste. So you’re like a meta time waster.”
And I really believe in the idea of attention management instead. Which is to say that, if I’m choosing people and projects that matter to me, it does not matter how long they take. And so I have a project I want to work on today and whenever it’s done it’ll be done. But I’m excited to be working on it and I’m not going to pick up anything else until I feel like I’ve made meaningful progress on it. And I don’t know if that’s useful or not. You tell me. Did I say anything novel there?
Tim Ferriss: Well, yes, you did. I think there are a few things to look at here. And I don’t want to take us down a dead end, but what I’m trying to splice out are the trainable habits from perhaps hard-wiring or attributes that are not as easy to model. Right?
Adam Grant: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So the OCD, right? This OCD. I saw, we don’t have to get into it, but The Dark Side of Nintendo, if that rings any bells. This is—I’ll just give the short version. So there’s a, in the Detroit Free Press, there is an article that was headlined The Dark Side of Nintendo with a photograph of you age seven clutching a Nintendo console and staring at a television. But you’ve had this extreme ability to focus for some time, it would seem. The attention management versus time management I think is really important and something I’d like to explore a bit.
Because you’re right in the sense that time management can end up becoming a subconscious obsession with measuring units, as opposed to the substance of the project or the output goal of some type of task. Right? And what I’d love to hear about is—I really think renegotiation is a critical skill in all human human affairs, but you alluded to this earlier in the sense that there are times, many times, when it’s hard to predict when you’ll be in flow. And the information that you then have that day is different from the information you had the day before, when you made commitments A, B, and C. Right? So how do you say no to people when you’ve already said yes? How do you renegotiate or cancel these commitments when you realize that you want to do something else or you’re out of bandwidth or whatever the reason might be? How do you approach that?
Adam Grant: Well, my first goal is always to minimize the number of times that happens. And so I read some research early on about the difference between chunking and sprinkling, as I’ve come to think about it. So the research was on doing random acts of kindness. This is Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues. And the idea was let’s imagine, Tim, that you’re going to do five five-minute favors this week. If you’re randomly assigned a sprinkle, you’re going to do one each day throughout the week. If you’re going to chunk, you’re going to pick Thursday as your helping day and you’re going to do all five of them stacked in that one day in a block. And the question is, who gets happier and more energized? And, when I pose this to audiences, about 80 percent of people on average say it’s the sprinkling because you get a little bit of extra bounce in your step, you feel like you did something good every day. It’s not a big distraction. And they’re totally wrong. Over about three months only one group gets happier and more energized and it’s actually the chunkers, not the sprinklers.
And we think what’s going on there, this is still pretty early but it’s been replicated a few times now both in the workplace and in volunteering, is when you do one little act of giving a day you end up sort of feeling like it’s a drop in the bucket and it also is yet another thing on your to do list. Whereas, when you pick one day each week as your giving day, you feel like you made a difference that day. And also you’re really focused on, “Okay, what can I do to help these people?” In those moments. And then the rest of the week you can, you can focus a little bit more on getting your own work done. And so I took that to my schedule and said, “All right, I’m going to have days that are focused on getting my own creative work done. And then I’m going to have days that are focused on being responsive and available for other people.”
And so, early on, that meant I would have days where I was on campus and I would teach a class and then I would have four hours of office hours back-to-back. And then I’d do whatever else I needed to do on campus and then I’d go home. And then the next day I wouldn’t go into work and I’d work from home all day and I would not talk to another human being who wasn’t a member of my family. And that’s kind of how I’ve tried to organize my life. And what it means is—Paul Graham wrote a great little blog post about this, he called them maker days and manager days. It means I don’t feel like I’m that productive when I’m on campus or I’m in a back-to-back meeting day. But it also means then that, on the day when I’m doing creative work, there’s nothing that’s going to interrupt my flow because I’m not scheduling anything that might distract. And so I think prevention is always the best cure there. But you wanted to know about also what happens when that fails.
Tim Ferriss: Correct.
Adam Grant: So when that fails—I had this happen, actually, recently. I had agreed to to travel and give a speech and I ended up having a conflict with a project that I’d committed to earlier but didn’t know the dates for. And I felt awful. It’s a core principle for me to follow through on my commitments. And I’d never reneged on a speech like that before. And so I reached out to the organizer, I apologized profusely. And I said, “You have my word that I’m going to recruit someone far better than me so that you will be thrilled that I canceled because you got a better talk.” And then I made it my mission to find somebody who would either hit a more relevant topic or who was going to give a more electrifying presentation. And then, just to be safe, I recruited three more speakers for the event because I was really worried that I was still letting them down. And that, for me, is the only renegotiation strategy I ever feel comfortable with. Which is to say, “Look, my calendar has gotten the better of me or I’ve overextended myself yet again. And so I promise you that the time you have lost today, I will make up for it in spades for you tomorrow.”
Tim Ferriss: I like that.
Adam Grant: How do you do it?
Tim Ferriss: Ah, I’ll answer that. I’ll answer that. Let me—I’m also learning, so I’m fishing for tactics here. But would you use that also—how would that wording change if it say is a meeting with a colleague? Something where there is no replacing of yourself for a future engagement?
Adam Grant: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: How would the wording potentially change? Understanding that you try not to do it.
Adam Grant: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: But let’s just say you’re writing a book, you’re on deadline, and that chapter you’ve been stuck on all of a sudden you’re in complete flow. And, for whatever reason, it’s on a day where there’s a commitment that has been made.
Adam Grant: I hate being irreplaceable in that sense. But I guess I would—so I’ve had that happen. I guess that happens at least a few times a year. And what I’ve usually done is I’ve either emailed or called the person and said—I’ve tried to email actually, because it’s less likely to disrupt my flow. And I’ve said, “Look, I’m really sorry. I’ve had something come up. I know you’re counting on me to be here, I’m not going to be able to make it. What you can count on me for is always delivering results. And so you may not always get the face time that I promised. You may not always get me to show up exactly at the moment I said I was going to be there. I will never miss a deadline. I will never fail to deliver something I promise to you when you need it. And so you let me know what your hard stop is and I will stay up as late as I need to tonight to finish what I need to do. If you want to hop on the phone early in the morning, I will be on the phone with you.” And so I guess I’m trying to find a way to let the person know that I am dependable for the outcome even though I was not dependable, necessarily, for the interaction.
Tim Ferriss: That’s great. Yeah, that makes a whole lot of sense.
Adam Grant: And you?
Tim Ferriss: And me. It’s very context-specific, I think, as these examples bring up. There are some meta principles, right? I think the the meta principle is make up for it.
Adam Grant: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Right? So you are causing some pains. What can you do to remove that pain or make them feel on some level that you are going above and beyond to make up for what was lost? I think, for me, a lot of it is being very honest and just saying like, “When I made the commitment I wholeheartedly felt like I would be able to do A, B, and C. It has become clear based on new information or A, B, C, and D that, if I make an attempt to do this…” Let’s just say, this is kind of broadly speaking, “That I think, at best, I am going to do a mediocre job because of the limited bandwidth I’m going to have. And that would be a disservice to project X or everything that both of us were hoping for for this. Let me find a replacement. I would like to find a replacement.” Something along those lines.
Adam Grant: I like that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And it’s—what I try not to do is, “Sorry, I can’t do this right now. Ask me again in three months.” Unless I genuinely believe that it is something I want to do. Because the punting is a huge fuck you to the person you’re interacting with. It’s much better to give a hard no than a maybe that, in your heart of hearts, is actually a no. So that I really try to avoid by all means necessary.
Adam Grant: I wish I had learned that a few years earlier. I learned that one the hard way.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah. It creeps up on you. That is just like the creeping death. And it’s bad for everybody. And what I also have tried to remind myself of—I think a lot of the renegotiating that I do, and I’ve done a lot more of it in the last few years, is not because I capriciously make more commitments but because things do change. If I commit to do something, and let’s just say it’s six months out and there’s still plenty of room to maneuver, and life circumstances change. I used to come hell or high water say, “My word is my bond. You’re only as good as your word. I’m going to follow through on everything I initially commit to.” But I’ve come to rethink that. And it doesn’t mean people can’t depend on me. People can depend on me to be very truthful about changes in circumstances.
And what I’ve noticed for myself, because I have people do this to me as well who are very, very busy and they just, for whatever reason, they can’t go on a trip with me or they can’t help with whatever the project might be. Is that I don’t get particularly—I don’t get upset. I don’t get upset unless they leave me hanging last minute, because I know they didn’t just figure it out last minute. They knew probably weeks before. Right? As long as they give me a heads up, I don’t get upset. And so the Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, quote “Those who matter don’t mind and those who mind don’t matter” is something I really try to remind myself of. Because when you say no, whether it’s an initial no or a renegotiated no, assuming you’re doing it with plenty of time and you’re not really leaving someone hanging is something you can control. But you have no control over the other side’s response. Right? So that’s more of a reminder and self talk that I use for myself in those circumstances. Because I do think that the tactics you’re able to deploy are dependent largely on the beliefs you have. And if the belief you have is every relationship is equally important, and if I burn any bridge I’m screwed, you’re going to make a lot of compromises that have a huge impact on your ability to steer your own direction.
Adam Grant: It’s true. And, Tim, this makes me think—it’s interesting, it seems like you had a really sort of literal definition of integrity early on. And, over time, you’ve been more comfortable saying, “Look, I’m going to be authentic. And sometimes that means past Tim did not calibrate well with present Tim.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Adam Grant: “So there’s a commitment made then that no longer makes sense. And I’m going to try to make that right however I can.” I wonder—there’s all this research on behavioral integrity, which says that you’re basically supposed to practice what you preach. And I have been wondering lately if we’ve got that backward. And if, instead, what we should be doing is only preaching things that we already practice? And then we don’t have as many of those gaps.
Tim Ferriss: Right. So you’re not the behavioral greyhound chasing around the sort of theoretical bunny?
Adam Grant: That’s a great phrase.
Tim Ferriss: On the track.
Adam Grant: That’s exactly it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. And let’s talk a little bit more about no and saying no. And we’ll get there in a bit of a roundabout way, perhaps. I’d like to discuss a piece you wrote in The New York Times about email.
Adam Grant: Uh-oh.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Let’s talk about it. And it starts with, “No, you can’t ignore email. It’s rude.”
Adam Grant: I did not write the headline.
Tim Ferriss: Or it doesn’t start there. Oh, no. No it doesn’t. It doesn’t. Okay, so you didn’t write that line, somebody else did. But maybe you could—I’ll let you speak for yourself. Share your thesis and when it applies and when it doesn’t apply.
Adam Grant: I feel like bad headlines ruin more good op-eds than I can count.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Adam Grant: Okay. So the reason I wrote this piece is I read two articles back-to-back, one in The Atlantic, one in The New York Times, that basically said, “You know what? Forget inbox zero, just go to inbox infinity. And you don’t ever have to respond to anybody’s email.” And I was stunned by that. Because I thought, “Okay, would you, if somebody said hi to you in the hallway, would you just ignore them? If somebody called you, would you never return their voicemail?” That seems unprofessional. And so what makes digital snubbery okay? And I started thinking about the research on this. And there’s a whole bunch of evidence suggesting that, of all the personality traits that matter for job performance, whether we look at your objective productivity as a salesperson or an engineer or your performance reviews and promotions that you get from your manager. The single most important personality trait, across hundreds and hundreds of jobs and dozens of countries around the world is conscientiousness. Right? Being hardworking, organized, disciplined, dependable. And there’s a component of conscientiousness that’s about being responsive. Which says two things, one, I’m on top of things. And, two, I care.
And so I’m not, look, I’m not saying you have to answer every email that every random person sends you. Right? And I think this is complicated for a lot of jobs. But I think that, if you are habitually not responding to legitimate emails from people that you have a professional relationship with, it is sending a signal to them that you are either disorganized or that you don’t care about their priorities. And people are constantly saying, “Well, wait a minute. But, hold on. But my inbox is other people’s priorities.” And my response to that is, “Yeah, but shouldn’t your priorities include other people? And, also, don’t you want people to respond to your emails?” And so I felt like it was time for somebody to write the counterpoint. And so I sat down and I said, “Look, I think that if you are a consistent nonresponder to serious emails that suggests that there’s a problem with your process and you need a different way of handling it if you care about being perceived as, you know, as somebody who’s responsible and reliable and concerned about others, which is really important for your success even if you don’t care about your image.” So that was the motivation behind it.
Tim Ferriss: What are some of your processes for email? How do you process email? Do you have any particular rules, times, approaches, anything at all, tools that you that you use consistently?
Adam Grant: Yeah, I actually, Tim, I read—you gave fantastic advice about this. I remember right after Give and Take came out I just got a deluge of emails from readers, and I read a blog post that you wrote about how to be more efficient with email. One of the first things I saw in there was you were talking about Tony Hsieh’s Yesterbox, which I tried out and found really useful, just the habit of going and saying, “Okay, if I can answer all of yesterday’s email today, I will never fall behind.” Amazing.
I do a lot of batch processing. I am not somebody who will just kind of randomly answer one email. I will sit down and try to go through 30 or 40 or 100 emails, and I think I break one of the cardinal rules that most of the writers I know have with email, which is on my writing days I actually deliberately start in the morning by answering a few emails.
Tim Ferriss: Why is that?
Adam Grant: Well, it’s simple. I want to get into a rhythm of writing, and the flashing cursor, it’s so ominous.
Tim Ferriss: I like that. I like that a lot. Yeah, I like that.
Adam Grant: I actually found myself curious a couple of months ago when I was trying to write an article and I have mini writer’s block thinking like, “Huh, I wonder if the cursor was named after all the writers who cursed it.” It’s really daunting, right? It feels like, okay, I have to say something important. I have to have a grand idea. I have to, you know, I have to be coherent, I just woke up. And so, email is a low bar, And so I feel like okay, my fingers start moving, I get into a little bit of a productive rhythm, and I answer a few easy emails and I feel like, “Hey, I’ve accomplished something today. Maybe I can organize a coherent thought.” That that spills over and builds my confidence and gives me a little momentum for my writing.
Tim Ferriss: Do you use Gmail? Do you have any tools that you use for going through email?
Adam Grant: I’m embarrassingly Luddite on this even though everyone I know and trust has told me to switch to Superhuman. I am still using Outlook without any shortcuts. Will you still talk to me after knowing that?
Tim Ferriss: I will consider, just for conversation. I actually, if I can admit something embarrassing, I actually quite like Outlook for some of its functionality. There are a lot of tools out there that I think are quite helpful, but I do quite like Outlook, and in fact I do a lot of my batch processing with Gmail offline because the split pane view that I can use is actually reminiscent both in appearance but also functionality to Outlook and I don’t want to receive emails as I am replying to emails.
Adam Grant: That’s the worst.
Tim Ferriss: It’s too demotivating. How do you say no in an email? There may not be one no for all occasions, but if someone gets a no from Adam, what might that look like? What are they asking for and what do you say no to? Are there any things categorically that you say no to?
Adam Grant: Yeah, definitely. I don’t take meetings with strangers, period. I used to take meetings with anyone who asked and I guess as I’ve gotten more visible there just aren’t enough hours in the day for it and I had to decide. I prioritize this that my family comes first, my students are second, my colleagues and friends are third, and everybody is fourth. That meant that, okay, I will happily respond to an email from a stranger if it’s reasonable and it’s up my alley, but I just don’t have enough hours in the day to meet with people that I don’t have an existing reason to be collaborating with or trying to help. That’s a categorical no.
One thing I will never say is I don’t have time. That is a lie. Everybody makes time for something that’s important, and so what I don’t have time really means, or I’m too busy. That’s even worse, right? Everybody’s busy. The busiest people I know have often the clearest calendars. You’ve written about this before. You’ve written about how Warren Buffett and Bill Gates and George Lucas and others, they basically have nothing scheduled all day, which is kind of an amazing life. But I think too busy is dishonest and cruel and what you really mean when you say that is this or you are not a priority for me right now. I think that sounds a little harsh, and so the way that I will try to say it is: “Based on the commitments that I have on my plate, this is not something that I can add.” What I’ll try to do is suggest either some books or articles to read or some people who might be interested in having that discussion. That’s probably the go-to response.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. That’s great. Do you have an auto response of any type?
Adam Grant: Yeah, so I have an auto reply that comes to my public email address. I made the decision about, I guess, yeah, it was right after Give and Take came out when my email volume increased exponentially. I said, “Okay, I have a choice. I can either maintain a public email address and accept the fact that I will not be as thoughtful and responsive to every person as I have been the rest of my life or I’m going to be unreachable and I’m going to miss out on opportunities to be helpful to random people.” I felt like it would’ve been better for me to go the private route and be a little bit harder to reach, but I felt like the right thing to do is to still be accessible and just okay, so if it hurts my image a little bit, that’s a small price to pay.
I’m on my public email address, though, I guess the attempt to protect myself is an auto reply that basically says, “Look, I do get more emails in a day than I have the time to respond to and here are a bunch of resources that might be relevant depending on the kinds of questions that you have. There are various teams that handle different things for me.” There are some links to books and podcasts and articles and talks, and then I have a triage team that works with me where if there’s something that I think we can collectively be helpful on but I don’t have time to engage with it in that moment I will forward it and let them figure it out and then come back and tell me if they think I can be helpful.
Tim Ferriss: What would an example of a triage team task be and what is their activity look like? What would be a real or hypothetical example of something you would send to them and then what do they actually do with it?
Adam Grant: I’ll give you a bunch of quick examples and you tell me which one you want to run with. Standard triage. I’m looking for career advice. I am interested in becoming an organizational psychologist and I wonder what the best place to start is. I am thinking about writing a book. What advice do you like to give to writers?
Tim Ferriss: Are these all from students?
Adam Grant: They’re from all over the map, probably similar to what you get.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Any others? I can pick from those or—
Adam Grant: Yeah, no, I can rattle off a bunch more.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, let’s try a few more.
Adam Grant: Can you help me solve my problem with my boss? Can you fix my organizational culture? Can you get me a raise? There’s a funny—yeah, go ahead.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s go with can you fix my organizational culture?
Adam Grant: No.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, got it.
Adam Grant: No, I mean, it’s hard, right? What I would do in that situation is if somebody wrote me a nine-page email on that, I would just forward it right to triage. If it were a two-paragraph email, I might respond and say, “My two favorite books on the topic are Switch by the Heath Brothers and The Culture Code by Dan Coyle. I think there’s a lot of great advice in there. If you read anything and have questions on it, let me know. Or if you have questions on things that they didn’t answer, come back to me and I’ll suggest some other books to check out.”
If it goes to the triage team, what they will do is they might send a bunch of advice and articles and books. They might suggest a phone call or they might come back to me and say, “We’re not really sure how to respond to this. Do you know anyone else that we should talk to?”
Tim Ferriss: The triage team, are those comprised of student slaves or are those full-time employees? Who are these people?
Adam Grant: Santa’s workshop elves.
Tim Ferriss: I need some of these.
Adam Grant: Yeah, no, I’ve worked with a couple of different structures for it. Sometimes it’s a person who works with me in a different capacity who then does triage as a side project. Sometimes it’s master’s or PhD student who’s doing this in spare time. I think in one case, actually maybe in two cases, it’s somebody who’s aspiring to go to grad school in my field and wants to see behind the scenes.
Tim Ferriss: The reason I chose the “can you fix your organizational culture” is because it’s the only one that hopped out as a broad question that might have an opportunity hiding in it for you compared to the others. I was curious about how that might be treated. How do you decide what’s important in the sense that you have many, many, many different projects? You could focus on many, many different books you could write, many, many different people you could could meet. How do you decide on projects?
Adam Grant: I’m still trying to figure that out.
Tim Ferriss: It might be easiest with the rear view mirror in the sense that you can look at a project and say, “Of the universe of options why did you choose that one?”
Adam Grant: Okay, so two quick examples on that. One is after Give and Take came out I felt like I was ready to start thinking about a new topic and writing a new book, and I felt like a book was a good choice for a few reasons. One, I feel like unlike articles it actually has staying power. Not sure that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I definitely think the ink lasts longer. I think articles kind of fade after a week. People keep books, they reread them, they lend them. I felt like that was meaningful and I also felt like it was a chance to challenge my own thinking a little bit. I found that when I wrote Give and Take I actually learned more about the topic that I was studying then than I had when just doing research on it because it forced me to synthesize lots of different kinds of ideas and also to go and meet people who are living the principles that I’d been studying and so I wanted to go through that learning exercise again.
The way that I chose what the topic was going to be was I paid attention to the questions I was being asked over and over again that I thought were really fascinating and important and hard to answer. There were two that kept coming up over and over again. One was from senior executives who are consistently asking, “How do I fight group think? I know there are people who have different ideas for projects We should be pursuing, people who have creative thoughts, people who might disagree with a big strategic decision and I don’t hear from them until it’s too late. How do I change that?”
And then on the flip side, my students were giving me their version of that which was “We come into an organization at 22 or 27 and we have all these ideas and nobody above us wants to hear them.” They’re like, “You MBA student, you are overqualified and underexperienced, shut up until you know something about this industry.” “How do we overcome that and get our ideas heard?”
I realized those were two sides of the same coin. There were lots of books about creativity. Nobody had really tackled the question of of what do you do after you have a creative idea? How do you champion it? How do you get it heard? I’d been doing some research on on productivity and creativity that was relevant and those dots all connected and I said, “Okay, there’s a, there’s a nice Venn diagram here of a problem that people are dealing with constantly that really matters and that I also have some sort of unique insight into and so I want to take this on.”
Tim Ferriss: And for you, how do you determine if a project like that has succeeded or failed?
Adam Grant: I want to hear your answer to this. This is one of the worst things about being an entrepreneur of ideas as opposed to products or services.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Adam Grant: User counts are not that helpful, right? It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve sold if nobody read them. Right? I won’t name any names here, but there is probably an economist who sold a lot of books about inequality that I’m not sure anyone read. You wonder does that have an impact? You don’t know. I think for me, impact is seeing the ideas getting embedded in people’s language and then in their actions. And so for me, part of the way that I felt Give and Take had been more successful than I than I had expected going in was I would come into an organization and they would tell me who the givers, takers, and matchers were. Or they would tell me how they were trying to weed out the most selfish takers from their hiring process and I would say, “Wow, this is in your vocabulary.”
I think so much of what I do as a social scientist is I try to provide a framework and some evidence to describe things that maybe you’ve lived but not known how to talk about. If that happens that’s powerful, and then of course if behavior change happen, that’s even more powerful, but it’s really hard to know the scale and scope of that. And so largely, I think anecdotally, I pay attention to, yes, selling more books is probably better than fewer, having more podcasts listeners is better than fewer, but ultimately it’s reader feedback, listener feedback. If somebody says, “Hey, I tried your approach, it worked” or “I tried it, it didn’t work, but here’s what I learned.” It feels like it at least advanced somebody’s thinking and that feels like a contribution.
Adam Grant: You’ve been at this a lot longer than I have. You’ve also had a lot more success. How do you know when you’re successful or when you’ve had an impact?
Tim Ferriss: Good question. I’ll tell you what I try to do and that is to select projects where I win even if it fails. I really try to embed the success question into the design or selection of the project and I’ll explain what I mean by that. This is reflective of thinking that I arrived at myself. It’s also been been talked about at some length by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, who has written about this in the form of career advice, which I thought was really good, and which was also Scott Adams’ essays at one point were highlighted by Marc Andreessen, a very well known entrepreneur and investor certainly. The basic idea is is that I try to choose projects where I am heavily weighting two things. One is acquisition of new skills, development of new skills, or just rapid development of existing skills, and developing relationships with people I can know for 10, 20 years and would enjoy spending time with who are also some of the best people in the world at what they do.
This might seem like a dodge, but it’s not a dodge because over time at least I’ve realized how many factors that could dictate say commercial success, which is often a corollary to impact in terms of the number of hands you can get into, the number of eyes you can get in front of. For instance, The 4-Hour Chef, I mean, by far the hardest book, the most elaborate book, the most detailed book I’ve ever done. I’m very proud of that book, but it was also a gamble, which I knew going in, because it was first book announced along with the launch of Amazon Publishing in The New York Times, or I should say covered by The New York Times.
For those who don’t remember the history, what that meant was Amazon said for the first time, in effect, we are going to compete with publishers for writing talent and we are going to write advances, in some cases big advances to authors, and we are going to be producing books ourselves. That scared the living hell, rightfully so, out of the publishing establishment and I anticipated that with me and blowback from Barnes & Noble. I did not anticipate that it would be boycotted by every retailer you can imagine. I mean, I want to say Target, Costco, Walmart, all of the big box guys in addition to the Barnes & Nobles of the world and independents on top of that.
There were so many elements outside of my control and I found that experience to be really punishing. I’ve never, with a book, had my ass handed to me so badly. Not to point fingers, because we both have friends at The New York Times, but The New York Times Best Seller List is not a strictly compiled-by-the-numbers list. There is some secret sauce or at least a black box involved. For instance, with The 4-Hour Chef I sold more than 100,000 copies in week one.
Adam Grant: Wow. That’s huge.
Tim Ferriss: It was, and I’m not going to name names because the books involved were very good, but there was a book that according to Nielsen BookScan, which is how I was tracking my sales, sold about 20,000 copies, and it was two spots above me on The New York Times. And so all of this, whether it’s subjectivity and/or factor factors outside of my control, led me at that point to really double down on trying to embed the determinants of success in the designer choice of the projects themselves.
Adam Grant: I think that’s so compelling because what it says to me is you decided that learning and relationship building are the two leading indicators of success, but also they’re worthy ends in and of themselves. Even if they don’t drive success, you’re still going to be glad you invested in something that sort of formed a meaningful connection or taught you something. That is such a clever workaround to the problem of do I know whether I’m accomplishing anything.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I wish I had come to that conclusion sooner quite frankly, because if you approach things with that lens, at least in my experience so far, eventually you’re going to win as measured or determined by the outside world, if that makes sense, right? It’s like if you continue to acquire skills and deep relationships with people you care for who are also incredibly good at what they do, success cannot be kept from you indefinitely. If it weren’t for The 4-Hour Chef and that incredible learning experience, but also gigantic donkey kick to the face, I would not have started podcasting. Right? It wouldn’t have happened.
It was through The 4-Hour Chef and looking for the uncrowded, meaning undervalued but high-leverage avenues for promotion, which ended up being podcasts. I do that for every book, and in that particular case podcasts were still very undervalued, and that led me to have these incredible experiences on these various podcasts with Joe Rogan and Marc Maron and Chris Hardwick and the Nerdist guys and so on, and came away thinking, wow, not only did these podcasts really move the needle in a way that was so disproportionate based on how undervalued they were at the time, but I also had a hell of a good time doing them, and I could be myself and I didn’t have to memorize a 20-second sound bite after getting my face airbrushed for an hour at five o’clock in the morning for an a.m TV show. Maybe I will be asked a question that isn’t read off a teleprompter behind my head, but maybe not.
That was a real turning point for me, so I’m grateful. Yeah, that’s been my approach since, anyway. Sorry for being so long-winded, but that’s how I think about it.
Adam Grant: I think that’s powerful and it resonates a lot with me because I got into the podcast world much later than you did and felt like it was by that point pretty crowded and there were a lot of interesting people having interesting conversations and so was pretty hesitant about it at first and then eventually said okay, my biggest problem is I have spent the past five years getting invited into some of the most interesting organizations on earth and telling them things I already know mostly and I’m not learning anymore and so even if the completely fails, I’m going to pick the people in the places that I want to learn from and then I’m going to come away with new insights on the back end that in some format I will share.
It was extremely valuable. I mean, it gave me all kinds of ideas for articles and books and for research projects I wanted to take on. It would have been great even if we didn’t do a season two and beyond. I think you’re right, I think there are ways to structure new projects so that even if they don’t achieve conventional success, you still gain more than you invested in them.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, definitely, and speaking of learning, you mentioned two books earlier, Switch and The Culture Code, I think they were. Is that right?
Adam Grant: Yep.
Tim Ferriss: What other books have you gifted the most to other people? Besides your own, of course—
Adam Grant: Wait, hold on Tim. You can’t gift someone your own book. It’s like, “Here’s this thing I wrote. You do a bunch of work and digest it.” As opposed to if we know each other maybe we could just talk about it, right?
Tim Ferriss: [crosstalk] with you. It makes me think of, I don’t know if you’ve seen What About Bob?
Adam Grant: Yeah, of course.
Tim Ferriss: Classic, fantastic movie, and he was like, “There’s this groundbreaking new book out, Bob, let me find it here,” and he drags his finger back and forth on the shelf which has like a hundred copies of his own book, and he goes, “Aha, yes. Here it is.” What book have you gifted?
Adam Grant: I have to tell you as a quick aside. I was speaking at a Google event a few years ago and a bunch of people just went way too far in self promoting their books and it was over the top. I got up there, I ditched my slides, and about halfway through my talk I said, “All right, I’ve got to tell you, if you really want to understand what motivates people, you have to read this incredible book, which I wrote.” I would normally not be that sarcastic or that snarky, but I just felt like somebody needed to acknowledge the elephant in the room, but otherwise I would never recommend my own book, right?
Adam Grant: So to your question, what have I gifted the most? I’ve got a few favorites. I think I tend to gift mostly in the genre that I write in. So thinking about big ideas that are evidence based that can improve the way we work and live. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) is a favorite. I’m sure you know that, by Tavris and Aronson, a great book on why our egos get in the way of just about everything and how to overcome that.
I’ve gifted Susan Cain’s book Quiet more times than I can count. Interestingly, I started out gifting it to introverts thinking, “Okay, this is going to be a book that shows you all of your strengths and the ways you’re not alone in the world.” It certainly spoke to me that way as an introvert. I have to tell you, the biggest fans of that book from my experience are actually extroverts who say, “Oh, you know, I need to embrace my quieter side and I need to make more room for the quiet people around me because I’m missing out on their brilliance” I think that’s always fun. It’s especially fun to give that book to an engineer who has never heard of introversion and extroversion and it’s a giant light bulb. I actually had a student early on who read it and said, “Oh my gosh, my boyfriend isn’t boring. He’s just an introvert. I didn’t realize.” Anyway, so that’s another favorite.
It’s a newer book, so I haven’t been able to gift it as many times yet, but I’ve recommended a lot recently that if people want to figure out what their biggest blind spots are, that one of the things they ought to do is spend a little bit of time reading Tasha Eurich’s book on self awareness. I think it’s called Insight, and the insight that I took away from it was that people who are really self aware don’t spend a lot of time agonizing over why they are the way they are. They don’t find it that productive. I guess I’ve never found it that productive to psychoanalyze, analyze myself. Why did I get the way I am? I don’t know. There could be a million biogenetic and life experience factors, but it doesn’t really matter. Here’s how I am and then how do I work with that to be effective and live a life of meaning. I think it was a really cool book on how to become more aware of what your strengths and weaknesses are.
Tim Ferriss: Do you know how to spell the author’s name?
Adam Grant: Yeah. Tasha, T-A-S-H-A, and then Eurich, E-U-R-I-C-H, I believe.
Tim Ferriss: Cool. I will find it and put it in the show notes for everyone.
Adam Grant: Yes, nice.
Tim Ferriss: E-U-R-I-C-H. There it is. Also available on audio for people who are interested. It’s subtitled The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why… That’s all I can see on the preview. I’ll put that in the show notes. Yeah, blind spots, what a thing. Are there any other tools or questions you ask yourself or have other people prompted with to help you further find your blind spots?
Adam Grant: Yeah. One of the things I learned about, actually doing a podcast episode on your hidden personality, I went to Bain, the consulting firm, in part because they spend a lot of time building brand new teams where people who know nothing about each other have to go, often in their 20s, into very senior executives offices and tell them how to run their companies. And they have a lot riding on whether these brand new teams can interact smoothly.
And so they not surprisingly put a lot of energy into figuring out, “Okay, what are the traits and strengths and weaknesses of everybody and how do we get up to speed on that as fast as possible?” And I met a manager there who had said something really interesting. He said, “When I buy a new car, it comes with an owner’s manual so I know how to operate it. But when I work with a new person, who’s way more complex than a car, I don’t get anything.”
And so I’m kind of starting from square one. In fact, they have all these experiences that could teach me something from their past about how to work with them better in the present and in the future. And so what he did, his name is Or Skolnik, he sat down and he wrote up a one-pager on how to work with him effectively. What are his strengths? What are his weaknesses? What are the triggers that bring out the worst in him? What are the moments that bring out the best in him?
And then he didn’t stop there. He asked his team to write their user manual for him so that he could gauge his own self-awareness. And of course he found the team’s analysis much more insightful and accurate than his own because of the blind spot factor in part. But now every new person who works with him gets that one-pager and gets to immediately start as if they’ve known him for a month or two and say, “Okay, here are the things I might want to adapt if I want to be really effective with this manager.”
And so I’ve gone and done that. I asked a bunch of people who work with me to write my user manual. And it’s very simple. The questions are, “What are my strengths? What brings those out? What are my weaknesses? What brings those out? What are my blind spots? And what do you know now about working with me that you wish you had known when we first started working together?”
Tim Ferriss: Great.
Adam Grant: Invaluable.
Tim Ferriss: What are some of the answers to that last one?
Adam Grant: The last one, I’ve gotten a few funny ones. One that really caught me off guard was, “It really bothers you deeply at your core when somebody pretends to know something that they don’t. You just all of a sudden go from being a pretty friendly, affable person to just intense prosecutor mode,” which was a novel observation for me. I got another one that said that—I think the exact quote was that, “I am unaware that sometimes when I say an idea is not good, I’ve just crushed somebody’s three months that they’ve invested in that idea.” And here I am thinking I’m helping them move on more efficiently and not at all aware of how much they’ve already invested in the idea. So it’s—
Tim Ferriss: Maybe you’re doing both. I think that it’s better to crush—
Adam Grant: Yeah, I could probably do it better.
Tim Ferriss: Better to crush three months of effort and save them the next three years, but—
Adam Grant: Agreed. But maybe they don’t have to be crushed at all. They could be let down—
Tim Ferriss: Yeah?
Adam Grant:—a little more gently.
Tim Ferriss: Could just be very strongly squeezed.
Adam Grant: Yeah, exactly. But then on the other side of that, I think mostly, Tim, when we talk about blind spots, we think about our weaknesses, right? So there are things we’re not good at, but we don’t realize it and we can’t see them because we’re inside of our own heads. We also have blinds spots about our strengths.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s a great point.
Adam Grant: You might call them bright spots.
Tim Ferriss: Great point.
Adam Grant: There are things you’re good at that you don’t even know you’re good at. And—
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s a really good point.
Adam Grant:—I think that you need to see those through other people’s eyes too. So I have some colleagues who develop this great tool at the University of Michigan. It’s called the Reflected Best Self Exercise, and I have all my students do it, MBAs undergrads, senior executives, everyone in between. And they often come back and say it was eye opening and occasionally even life-changing.
What you do is you reach out to usually 15 to 20 people who know you well. You get to choose them, often different walks of life, so some colleagues, maybe a boss, a friend, a family member. And you ask them to tell a story about a time when you were at your best. And you collect all these stories. It is the most delightful week of emails you will ever get, like, “This is how amazing you are,” again, and again, and again. But then you have some work to do.
You have to analyze the stories, and find the common themes, and figure out, “Okay, what is the portrait of me when I’m at my best? And what is it that activates those strengths?” I first did this my first year of grad school. And I learned that apparently, I didn’t realize this, but one of my strengths was actually recognizing other people’s strengths. It showed up in almost every story was I was at my best when I was helping someone else be at their best. And so I said, “I’ve got to make that part of my job. I have to figure a way to do that because I love it and people are telling me that I’m good at it, or at least that they like it.” And I never would’ve thought of that. It just did not cross my mind.
And so it’s an exercise I’d like to see people do I think every couple years because sometimes you have new people in your life who see different strengths. Your strengths evolve. You find new ways to activate them. And I’m a big fan of that exercise.
Tim Ferriss: I love it. That’s—
Adam Grant: Have you done it?
Tim Ferriss: I have not, no. I’ve done the opposite, which is I suppose on brand for my historical—
Adam Grant: Your reflected worst self?
Tim Ferriss:—brand of self-flagellation. Well, no, it wasn’t specifically my reflected worst self. But I did a 360 interview process with a whole group of people I’ve worked with. And as Joe Gebbia, one of the co-founders of Airbnb that’s—
Adam Grant: I know Joe. We suffered through TED together.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, said to me when we were doing our podcast, or maybe when we were talking—either way he did it also, and I was like, “Am I the only one who had like a near nervous breakdown and just wanted to cry in my car?” He’s like, “No. Same thing happened to me.” And I was like, “Fuck, man, that was rough.” It’s like because a big part of what made it so rough for me is the way we did it. And I think this is how it’s typically done, but I’ve only done it once. You get all this feedback. Some of which can be very blunt and very brutal, which is all anonymized. And for me, that is very hard, not because I want to bludgeon the people who gave me hard feedback but because I want to fix or apologize. I want to fix things or apologize for past transgressions, or mistakes, or bad delivery or whatever it might be. And I can’t do that when it’s anonymized.
Adam Grant: So painful.
Tim Ferriss: And a good facilitator won’t give you the names, of course, even if you try to kind of trick them into it by triangulating, which I’m not too proud to say I tried. And really tough. So I like the idea of this Reflected Best Self Exercise, though, not to offset all of the psychic damage done by the 360, but because—I don’t know if you have observed this in yourself. I’ve certainly observed it in myself, and that is, and in many of my friends, who are good problem solvers, they are rewarded for solving problems, whether it’s in math class, in primary school, in for solving thorny dissertation issues, or solving problems with a marketing campaign, or spaghetti code, or whatever it might be. And as they are continually positively reinforced for solving problems, they begin to look at the world through the lens of finding problems.
And I certainly have done that. And as a result, I’m never looking for the—rarely have I looked for the strengths that are going unseen. I’m just looking for all the things that are screwed up, or the weaknesses, or the Achilles’ heel so that I can fix them. And I’ve become more and more convinced, I’m really glad you brought this up, that it is equally important to look for those bright spots, as you put it, not just the blind spots, really—
Adam Grant: I think so.
Tim Ferriss:—really important.
Adam Grant: I think so. And it’s funny, I had a mentor, Rick Price, who was trained as a clinical psychologist before he moved into the organizational world. And he used to have a code with his wife that she would just always remind him, “Rick, sympathy, not solutions. When I tell you something, I do not necessarily want you to fix it. I just want to know that you care. I want to feel heard.” And I think for those of us who like to solve problems and probably especially for those of us who are men, that’s probably sage advice.
But the interesting thing that I think that surfaces for me is there’s another reason why you want to know what your strengths are, because we often misapply them or overuse them. There’s research from The Center for Creative Leadership, which has shown that one of the ways that you identify career derailers is you look at strengths that people overuse. So you’ve gotten reinforced all your life for being assertive. And then you talk over people in meetings so much that nobody else can get a word in. You’ve been reinforced for a lot of your career for having charisma, and that becomes a crutch. And you don’t prepare for the talks that you give. And you end up kind of underperforming or underdelivering. That’s of course I think when you think about yourself as a problem solver, that’s a case potentially of strengths overused.
And so one of the things that I’ve taken out of the Reflected Best Self is I don’t just want to be clear about what my strengths are, I want to know when is an appropriate time to use them and when might be a time to actually say, “You know, I might want to turn off this strength so that somebody else can use that strength.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, definitely, or turn off that strength so that you don’t use it to cover for weaknesses that perhaps you should address. That’s certainly something that I’ve experienced personally as well. It’s easy to become a hammer looking for nails. We only have a few minutes left, but I’m really curious to know—you mentioned sometime back the architecture of your week, how you have some days that are working on projects or talking to family but no one else, and I have—and this is fairly common among a lot of the high-producing individuals I’ve come across. I know Jack Dorsey did this for quite a while. Maybe he still does, but kind of separating out days, not just portions of days, but days for very specific things, product focus, or hiring focus, or fill in the blank.
And for instance, we’re recording this on a Friday. When I do any recording, I try to do my recording on Mondays and Fridays. And I also try to place the vast majority of my phone calls or admin-type tasks that I need to be involved with in some sense on Mondays. So I do have a weekly structure. I also have kind of certain daily non-negotiables that give me a structure around which to build everything else. It provides me with a sense of control that I find very helpful but also it puts a lot on autopilot so that I’m not making a lot of extraneous decisions.
So I’d love to hear if you have any routines or activities, whether it’s on a weekly or a daily basis, that you do very consistently? And that could be like the first two hours of your day. It could be what you do in the first hour. It could be the last half hour. It doesn’t really matter. But are there any particular routines that you treat as very important for yourself?
I did for a long time. And there’s still some that I use, but I’ve become a little less routine-driven in the past few years, I think in part because the moment we talked about in the classroom earlier of kind of losing track of the lesson plan and just following the student questions, that’s really unusual for me. I tend to be so laser-focused and linear that I worry I’m not being flexible and adaptable enough. And so one of the routines I’ve been working on is just being comfortable shifting my routine.
But I’m probably unusual in that way. So I’ll tell you the changes that I’ve made to new routines that I’ve found most helpful. One is as a morning person, I used to try to do all my creative work in the morning because I knew that was when I was most alert. And then I read a bunch of research showing that you actually do your most creative work when you’re a little fuzzier because that’s when your thinking is more nonlinear; it’s when you make more unexpected leaps and kind of free associations.
And so now what I’ll do is at night before I go to bed when I know I want to write the next morning, I still like to write when I’m fresh so that it actually makes sense, but the night before, I’ll actually start jotting down some ideas. It might be a couple sentences. It might be an outline. And then I’ve got hopefully some novel material to run with in a more organized way in the morning. And so you can obviously flip that if you’re a night owl and say, “Huh, maybe I actually have some creative ideas in the morning when I feel like I can’t think straight.” You don’t want to think straight if you’re trying to be creative. So that’s one that I really like.
Another one that I’ve adopted recently, which has been extremely productive for me is I actually take phone calls right after workouts because I’ve found that right after a workout, I’m just not in work mode yet. And so I feel like I need some kind of transition space to get back into focus. And oftentimes I’m like, “I just wasted the half hour after our weights or cardio. And so I might as well have had a conversation during that time.” And so that’s become wide space.
And then my last favorite routine, which is definitely on the new side, is actually to go to sleep listening to podcasts. For years I would read or watch TV going to sleep. But it’s so much more relaxing to not look at a screen. And I find that I process the information a little bit more deeply than if I’d read it. And I also fall asleep faster.
Tim Ferriss: Sounds like win-win. I haven’t tried going to sleep with podcasts. Do you have a favorite bedtime podcast or types of podcasts?
Adam Grant: I don’t like our kinds of podcasts at bedtime because I actually want to be awake and learn from them. I binged to The Shrink Next Door in a few nights, which was fascinating. And I ended up staying up way too late one night because I just wanted to know where the story went. But the other nights, it was great. I did Serial that way. So I guess it’s mostly more of the narrative or fiction-style shows.
Tim Ferriss: Cool. What does your workout regimen look like? You mentioned exercise.
Adam Grant: I lift weights twice a week. My target is three days a week of cardio, which is usually a mix of an ultimate frisbee game, tennis match, and elliptical. And then lately, actually just a few weeks ago, I got back on a diving board for the first time. I guess I retired half my life ago. And I’ve not been on a real diving board in more than a dozen years, and got back on to try to relearn some of the old tricks, which hurt very badly the next morning, but has been a lot of fun and a good workout too.
Tim Ferriss: What prompted getting back into the diving?
Adam Grant: A couple things. One, I happened to catch some, I think the Senior National US Finals. And after spending six years of my life almost every waking hour either thinking about it or doing it, the moment I watch it, I want to get back into it again. And also I’d been teaching our kid some techniques. And so it seemed like it was a good time to get my skills back in order.
Tim Ferriss: We’re not even a 10th of the way through my notes. It sounds like your early-day—
Adam Grant: Oh, geez.
Tim Ferriss:—lesson plans. But I know we have to wrap up shortly. Let me ask this. And I’ll have maybe one or two questions after this, but if you could put a quote, message, symbol, anything you want on a billboard, you’ve probably heard this question before, but metaphorically speaking, to get a message out to billions of people, let’s say, what might you put on that billboard? It could be—
Adam Grant: That one’s easy. “I think the most meaningful way to succeed is to help other people succeed.”
Tim Ferriss: Dig it. Well—
Adam Grant: Well, it’s kind of the way you live your life. So no surprise there.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I try. I try, man. And certainly the way that you have lived your life, and it’s, I feel like you’re just getting started. I’m very excited to see what you do next. And people can certainly learn more at adamgrant.net. Is that correct?
Adam Grant: As far as I know.
Tim Ferriss: As far as you know, as far as I know, and then on social, on Twitter @adammgrant, Instagram @adamgrant, Facebook adammgrant. Is there anything you would like to point people towards, anything else you would like to say, recommend for people, encourage people to check out, anything at all that you’d like to say before we wrap up?
Adam Grant: Maybe just one thought on productivity, because we’ve talked a bunch about it, and it’s such a core theme for you and your audience. I think one of the mistakes that people make when they try to boost their productivity is they’re focusing on the wrong goals. I don’t think being more productive is actually that motivating, right? It’s like, “I got more done. I wrote words today, more words today. Whoo-hoo!”
I think that for me, productivity is a means to an end. And I’ve always been more productive when I found a project that I care about or a topic that I’m really intensely curious about. And I think that frequently when you feel like you’re not productive, it’s not necessarily because you’re lazy or because you have bad habits, it’s because you’re not working on the right projects and you haven’t found the ones that are intrinsically motivating and meaningful to you. And so I think that I guess I would just say I think if productivity is your goal, maybe you’ve got the wrong goal.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a great point. That is a fantastic point and very well said. Maybe it’s not how you process an email, maybe it’s impotent goals. Maybe it’s the wrong project. That’s a great, great way to put it. Well, Adam, thank you so much for taking the time today. This has been a lot of fun. And—
Adam Grant: Thank you for having me, Tim. It’s been a delight and a treat to join.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, definitely. So I’m sure my audience will have more questions for you. so maybe we do a round two at some point. But for now, this is a great first installment. And I really appreciate you making the space to do this. And for everybody listening, I will have links to everything we discussed, lots of details, all the books, everything else at the page for show notes, as per usual, tim.blog/podcast where you can find everything. Adam, thank you again. And—
Adam Grant: Thank you. Can I close with one question for you?
Tim Ferriss: Yes. Yes, you can.
Adam Grant: You can decide whether you want to run it or not. But—
Tim Ferriss: Fire away.
Adam Grant: I would love to know what big project is on the horizon for you next and what your biggest challenge is right now?
Tim Ferriss: Ooh. Yes. All right. So big things on the horizon for me are some very large scientific projects involving researchers and studies related to mostly classical psychedelics as applied to what are considered widely intractable psychological or psychiatric disorders, whether that is PTSD, or treatment-resistant depression, where I’ve already helped to fund studies at places like Johns Hopkins, or eating disorders. There’s a very long list.
And that would be a very large project and more of a series of projects coming up. Let’s see, biggest challenge would be perhaps wanting to disappear for a while, for an extended period of time, which I’ve been doing in increments of weeks, but feeling a very strong call to sort of disappear off into the wilderness for a while, and “struggle” is too strong a word, but feeling perhaps conflicted about the best way to do that.
I feel confident that I and my support structure will figure it out in some way, but, yeah, kind of reconciling that. It’s very difficult to explain feeling. It’s really more of a very core emotional or visceral drive that I have without much left-brain analytical Excel spreadsheet data to support it. And I think coming from a life where I have certainly over-relied on that analytical machinery, I think it’s going to take me some very interesting places.
It’s just really building up the courage or dare I say faith. Oh my God, what a word that is, to sort of follow the feeling and believe that the understanding will come later. So that’s maybe a very strange answer, but that’s the answer.
Adam Grant: No, it’s interesting. What I like about it is you get so much done that you can disappear for a long time and still be annoyingly productive. The one other thing I was just top of mind wondering about is you got LeBron and his trainer. Who are your next dream guests, and if you could have anybody?
Tim Ferriss: You know who I’d love to have on? And the timing might actually be pretty good. There are quite a few. A lot of the names, no one would recognize. But many of my old mentors and professors, and I just recorded one that should be coming out soon, but I would really enjoy to have a long conversation with Oprah and also with Howard Stern. And they both recently had books come out. So I think the timing could be decent.
It would only be worth doing if they were willing to really pay ball and have a long-form conversation like this one. But I find both of them endlessly fascinating. And I think that their abilities, if you listen between the notes of music, so to speak, to really observe how they can craft conversations, navigate interviews, and so on, it’s really remarkable, and not to mention the macro-level perspective of their careers. But those would be two that come to mind.
Adam Grant: That’s very cool. Well, you kind of want them to interview you, then, so you could experience it. But I guess turning the tables works too.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, well, I mean certainly both of them are pretty good at saying, “Oh, you’re going to interview me? Wait a second. I have some questions for you.” So who knows. But I think that would be fun, if they’re willing to play ball. I wouldn’t want to have someone drag them kicking and screaming into doing it because I don’t think that either side would enjoy that. But if they were game, I think that a long-form conversation with either or both of the would be quite fun. And thanks for asking.
Adam Grant: I look forward to hearing both of those.
Tim Ferriss: Well, to be continued on that one. And I will let you get back to your day. But, Adam, speaking of to be continued, as we said before recording, it is no small miracle that we haven’t actually bumped into each other, given the many, many concentric or I should say overlapping circles that we live and operate in. So it’s nice to spend this amount of time on the phone having this conversation, and hopefully be able to share some food, break some bread, raise a drink at some point in the not-too-distant future.
Adam Grant: I will look forward to that. In the meantime, thank you again for having me.
Tim Ferriss: Of course. And to everyone who is tuning in, thanks so much for listening, and until next time, take peek at tim.blog/podcast.
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