In an illuminating and cerebral discussion, Adam Grant discusses his new book “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know”—and the value of checking in and checking up on yourself.

Adam Grant

PROFESSOR / PODCASTER / AUTHOR

2021

Adam Grant / author / WorkLife / confidence / failure / goals / teaching

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

If you asked a child what they wanted to be when they grew up and they said, “I want to be an organizational psychologist,” you might think, hmm. But if you watch one of Adam Grant’s TED Talks on finding meaning and motivation at work, you might think, that kid was on to something. Adam Grant is a professor at Wharton school of business, where he’s been a top-rated professor for nearly a decade. He’s been recognized as one of the world’s 10 most influential management thinkers. He’s a columnist for The New York Times, and his last book is Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. He’s also the host of WorkLife, another podcast like Design Mattersin the TED Audio Collective. In each episode, WorkLife explores the science of making work not suck. Adam Grant, welcome to Design Matters.


Adam Grant:

Thanks, Debbie. I’m glad to be here. Although, I can assure you it’s all downhill from here.


Debbie Millman:

Well, let’s let our listeners be the judge of that. Adam, is it true that in one of your more recent class evaluations, one of your students stated, “While Professor Grants acts all down with pop culture, he secretly thinks Ariana Grande is a font in Microsoft Word.”


Adam Grant:

I wish. False, sadly. I think that comment belongs to a former professor here named Michael Sinkinson, who earned that honor. Sadly, I cannot take credit for that line.


Debbie Millman:

OK. Well, I have a couple of other course evaluation comments I’ll share with you later, but we’ll get to that later. Adam, you grew up in West Bloomfield, MI. Your dad was a lawyer and your mom was an English teacher. Growing up, your grandmother once drove two-and-a-half hours through a snowstorm so that your mother could exercise. Would it be safe to assume you come from a close, selfless family?


Adam Grant:

I think there’s variation in every family but I had some extraordinary role models when it comes to generosity, for sure.


Debbie Millman:

When you were in the second grade, I understand that you not only knew the names of all the Detroit Tigers players at the time, you also knew the names of everyone who had ever played for the team. Were you really that into baseball?


Adam Grant:

I didn’t really have anything else to do, so I guess so. My grandmother had taught me to read baseball standings and statistics when I was 7, and for some reason, it just lit a fire under me and I wanted to learn everything I could about the game. It’s safe to say I’ve forgotten now most of what I knew.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, really.


Adam Grant:

But once upon a time, I was definitely obsessed with sports.


Debbie Millman:

As you were growing up, you said that you would laser lock into one thing, which is something you use every day in your job now, and this manifested in your interest in Nintendo video games, and much has been written about this, but I do want to share some of it with my listeners. You would play for seven or eight hours a day without even getting up. This was reported in the April 17th, 1989 edition of the Detroit Free Press, which features you sitting cross-legged on the floor. This is when I really wish the podcast was a videocast. Your eyes zombie-like beneath a curly mop of brown hair, your mouth open, staring at the TV. And the headline reads, “The Dark Side of Nintendo.” So at that point in your life, would you say you were addicted?


Adam Grant:

No, I wouldn’t, because I felt like I had complete control over the behavior. It was a choice I was making. I had a goal. I wanted to master every game that I got. I didn’t succeed at all of them. But I have a vivid memory of that reporter coming. And wait, I’m sorry, my assignment is to play Nintendo? How do I get this every day? But I picked Metroid, which was a game that I had gotten to the very end of but couldn’t beat the final boss over and over and over again on. And so I just felt like I wasn’t happy when it was time to turn off the Nintendo because that was blocking me from achieving my goal. It wasn’t like I was craving it or I couldn’t function without it or the behavior was controlling me. It’s the same mentality I have now when I’m writing a book or when I’m preparing to give a TED Talk. I have a goal, there’s an idea that I want to get across, and I’m not thrilled if somebody tells me I have to put it aside if I’m in the process of focusing and concentrating.


Debbie Millman:

So it’s sort of being in that zone?


Adam Grant:

Yeah. It’s finding flow. I was totally absorbed. Cal Newport would call it deep work. I think at the time, it was deep play.


Debbie Millman:

And are you still interested in video games at all?


Adam Grant:

Well, yeah. I mean, how could I not be? Nintendo Switch is probably my current favorite and I play Mario Kart with our kids and our 7-year-old beats me sometimes, which is either maddening or awesome.


Debbie Millman:

Impressive either way. You mentioned sports and collecting other cards besides baseball. You were interested in high school in basketball, diving, and magic. And your focus on all three was rather formidable. While playing basketball, I read that you would not allow yourself to stop until you made 23 consecutive free throws, even if it meant missing dinner. What happened when you didn’t make the basketball team in high school?


Adam Grant:

It was really disappointing. It was my favorite sport to play. … And I went to sixth-grade tryouts, I didn’t make it. I went to seventh-grade tryouts, got cut. In eighth grade, I was very confident that I was finally going to make the team and didn’t make it. I remember being really disappointed. And after I didn’t make it, decided it was time to concentrate on something else.


Debbie Millman:

So you picked springboard diving.


Adam Grant:

I did.


Debbie Millman:

You initially said that you had very little talent. You walked like Frankenstein. You couldn’t jump or even touch your toes. So how did you make that team?


Adam Grant:

I was lucky to have a coach, Eric Best, who said, “I will never cut anyone who wants to be here.” And he did give me the bad news: I had no rhythm. I had to bend my knees in order to touch my toes, and so I didn’t have any of the flexibility that you look for. He jokingly mentioned that I didn’t jump very high, which would make it difficult to do complex dives. But he set a goal for me and said, “I think you could be a state finalist by your senior year.” And that just lit a fire under me. And I kind of channeled every waking hour of extra energy and attention I had into trying to figure out, how can I master this?


Debbie Millman:

Adam, what do you think fuels your goal achievement?


Adam Grant:

In the existential sense?


Debbie Millman:

Yeah.


Adam Grant:

I don’t know.


Debbie Millman:

I mean, I know you don’t like the whole psychoanalytic kind of Freudian stuff, but it does seem that when you’re tasked with a goal you really, no pun intended, like to rise to the occasion.


Adam Grant:

I don’t know. I think it’s part of the joy of life, is challenging myself and trying to stretch the edge of my capabilities. It’s interesting—my goals have shifted over time. I think when I was a kid, most of my goals were around personal accomplishment. And over time, I’ve gravitated more toward trying to figure out, how can I use my time and energy to benefit other people? But in some ways, the feeling is the same, right? I just find it so exhilarating to be completely absorbed in a task and trying to accomplish something that I know is going to teach me a bunch of new skills where I can see my progress and experience the thrill of getting better over time. I don’t know. There are lots of people who say, “Well, it’s the journey, not the destination that matters.” And I don’t think you can separate the journey from the destination.


Adam Grant:

I think part of the joy of the journey is knowing that there’s a destination out ahead. And, I don’t know, I’ve always found that extremely motivating. I can’t tell you why.


Debbie Millman:

When you reach a goal, do you then create another goal? Like, one of the things that my wife has told me, that when I reach something that I’ve achieved, that I then just raise the bar, that I’m never satisfied. Do you have that experience as well, or when you’ve accomplished something it’s sort of like a standalone finite thing that you hold onto?


Adam Grant:

I think I’m with you, Debbie. I had a funny conversation with a friend of mine after my second book came out. She called me and she said, “What are you doing to celebrate?” And I said, “Celebrate, what is there to celebrate? I’m a writer, we write books. That’s what I do.” And she said, “Well, don’t you think it’s a milestone to write a whole book and put it out there for the world?” I said, “Yeah, the first time, but now I’m used to it.”


Adam Grant:

And the more I thought of it, the more I realize that I wasn’t doing a good job marking the moment and appreciating a milestone. And I decided that from then on whenever I accomplish something meaningful, I would try to [take] a little bit of mental time travel and rewind to say, look, maybe this is not a big deal to me anymore. But if you had talked to me five years ago and said you’re going to publish your second book and people are actually going to read it, I would have been overjoyed. And so I’ve tried to stay in closer touch with my past self, and that makes it a little bit easier to savor.


Debbie Millman:

In going back to the idea of becoming a springboard diver, you mentioned Eric Best, and I found something that he said about diving that I thought was really interesting. He stated that, “Diving attracts the people who are too slow for track, too short for basketball, and too weak for football.” But he did tell you that if you put in a lot of energy, you would become pretty good. And you ended up becoming more than pretty good. You ended up becoming good enough to qualify for the Junior Olympics Nationals twice; you ended up an All-American in 1999, and diving at the NCAA level in college. Yet, I read that you considered yourself or maybe even you said that you were a fake athlete.


Adam Grant:

Oh, definitely a fake athlete.


Debbie Millman:

How does a fake athlete end up an All-American?


Adam Grant:

By picking a sport that meets all the criteria you just described.


Debbie Millman:

No. Adam, Adam. There is not a sport in the world that if I decided I wanted to attach myself to I would be able to be good at. I just have no coordination.


Adam Grant:

I beg to differ. Honestly, I spent enough years coaching diving; I think I could teach anyone to be a decent diver. Although it looks a lot harder than many of the sports we usually watch on TV, in some ways, it benefits more directly from practice and doesn’t require the same raw physical talent that playing many sports does. But I think I probably had a few advantages in diving, one of which is I could go in the water without much of a splash. And that was something that happened in part from practice, but in part, it’s affected by the size of your hands and the actual lines of your body. I think I had a little bit of an edge there. And that sound you hear when somebody does a dive that goes … and then they just disappear into the water, that’s called a rip entry because it sounds like a diver is tearing a hole in the water and ripping it apart to go through smoothly.


Adam Grant:

I did a dive in warmups for one of our major meets, and one of the other judges turned over to Eric and said, “Well, all he can do is rip,” as in he doesn’t jump high, he doesn’t spin fast, he’s not very flexible. And Eric said, “Yeah, so?” Because luckily in diving, entry is what matters most, and so if I can perfect that, I got away with a lot. I started pretty bad but there’s a lot of room for growth.


Debbie Millman:

In September of your senior year of high school, you had a dream that you went to Harvard, so you decided to apply. You didn’t tell anyone about the application. Why not?


Adam Grant:

I didn’t think I was going to get in, and I also wasn’t sure if I wanted to go if I got in. I just sent out the application on a whim. And I didn’t want anybody judging me on the basis of whether Harvard deemed me worthy or not, and then also whether if I got in decided to go or not.


Debbie Millman:

What was the reaction when you did get in?


Adam Grant:

I remember being shocked and excited and then a little bit apprehensive, wondering, am I going to be the dumbest person there, and will I have any friends? But as I got over that, as I started meeting future classmates, I realized, actually, a lot of these students are just regular overachievers like me—maybe this will be a decent experience.


Debbie Millman:

You studied psychology, and when you told your folks about your decision, you found out that your dad had been a psych major. You’d never known that before when he was in school. And your mom had a psych minor. And you stated that you grew up as a kid thinking that normal families say things like self-fulfilling prophecy. What were you thinking that you wanted to do professionally at that time?


Adam Grant:

I had no idea. I had a list of things that I knew I didn’t want to do. So I had ruled out med school because I was just grossed out by biology. I thought about psychiatry but I wanted to work on the regular problems that we all face as opposed to just pathology, and I also didn’t think I had the patience to sit with one client at a time and talk through problems. So, I didn’t know. I decided for a while that I was going to be a diving coach because I loved trying to pay forward what I learned from Eric. I also got so much joy out of helping young divers overcome their fear of heights and taking them through the process that I went through, which is suddenly discovering I can accomplish things I never thought I was capable of. And it was such an incredible experience of personal growth and confidence building for me that I just had a blast creating that or trying to facilitate that for others. So I thought for a while that diving was going to be my career.


Debbie Millman:

You also were practicing magic at that time, and I read that you would often practice in front of the mirror for hours at a time. So what kind of magic did you like? Do you still practice, and at that point, did you consider becoming a professional magician, a Derren Brown kind of person?


Adam Grant:

No. My favorite magic was card magic. The state illusions are fun to watch but usually, the secret behind them is disappointing once you discover it. And what I loved about card tricks was you could watch them close up and you still couldn’t figure them out, and they felt like they were skill as opposed to feats of engineering. But sometimes when I did find out the secret, I was even more impressed as opposed to suddenly deflated.


Debbie Millman:

Why?


Adam Grant:

Because it was difficult to execute and I could admire the effort and dexterity that had been built to be able to pull off a trick. I don’t practice anymore but I get talked into performing a couple times a year. And probably the nerdiest thing I did in college was to start a magic club with a friend, David Kwong, who is a professional magician.


Debbie Millman:

David, yes, I love his work. Oh, my God, is he good.


Adam Grant:

He’s so good. And in fact, that was one of the reasons that I knew professional magic was not for me, was we would go to these study breaks and do small performances for 15 or 20 students, and he just electrified the audience and I was kind of stumbling my way through. And I thought, OK, that’s a magician.


Debbie Millman:

Adam, you received your degree from Harvard College. While you were there you worked at the travel guide company, Let’s Go, selling ads. The first year, you had no training, you had no idea how to do the job. By the second year, you were successfully running a team, managing a budget, motivating staff, and hiring people. How did you learn to run this business so quickly?


Adam Grant:

I had a great manager, Cindy, who the year before when I was doing ad sales she had run the agency, and so I watched her do the whole job. We were a small team, just three or four people. So I think a lot of it was just learning by observation. Some of it was experimentation too. One of the things I loved about working at Let’s Go is we were able to create jobs for college students. I paid my way through college working there and I wanted more of those opportunities to exist for other people. So one day I came into work and I went to my boss and said, “Hey, if I can hire another person and they can generate enough revenue to pay for their job, would that be OK?” And she said, “Sure.” And I posted the ad that day, and I hired the person, and she paid for herself, and it was a great lesson in the value of experimentation and it really encouraged me to be more open to trial and error than I had been before.


Debbie Millman:

You went on to do your undergrad thesis studying the team at Let’s Go and found that the best predictor of the performance of the writers and editors who were putting the books together was their belief that their books were going to have a positive impact on travelers. Did that change or influence or inspire your sense of what it means to be a good manager?


Adam Grant:

It did. It was a really fun project to work on in part because I had spent a couple years getting my feet wet in the field of organizational psychology as an undergrad, and making a list of everything that I thought might possibly matter for motivation and job performance. And I put them all in my survey, and the only one that really mattered was feeling that your work makes a difference in the lives of others. And it made me realize that I had missed something important as a manager.


Adam Grant:

So I’m running an ad sales team, I had never thought to connect that team to the ultimate readers who benefited from the books that the ad sales were funding. I mean, it’s so obvious in retrospect. Why are you selling these ads? You’re selling these ads to generate revenue. Why do you want to generate revenue? So that we can make these books that people treat as Bible or a Torah or a Quran when they’re lost in a foreign country or when they want to experience that country like somebody who actually lives there as opposed to a tourist. And to get no feedback from those readers on how much they appreciated the books was, to me, I just look back and said, “Well, maybe other managers make this mistake too and maybe we should design jobs this way.”


Debbie Millman:

You then went on to get your master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Michigan in organizational psychology.


Adam Grant:

Go Blue.


Debbie Millman:

It only took you three years to get your Ph.D. You seem to love learning so much. Did you race through it? Why so quickly?


Adam Grant:

So two things happened. The first one was I came in with just an enormous headstart. When I started taking my first seminars in grad school, I had already read half of the articles on the syllabus because they were covered in my undergrad major and I had done three years of research in a couple different labs, and that meant that I started grad school with a couple years of doing what we were supposed to be doing when we arrived. I think I also, at the time, I subscribed to the When Harry Met Sally philosophy of career and life decision-making.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, I don’t know that one.


Adam Grant:

I mean I don’t know if it’s ever described that way but I’ve always thought of it as that line where, in the movie, I think it’s Billy Crystal, who says, “When you know what you want for the rest of your life, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”


Debbie Millman:

You want it to start as soon as possible. Yeah.


Adam Grant:

And I didn’t go to grad school to be a grad student. Yes, of course, I wanted to gain all this knowledge and build my skills and that was intrinsically interesting to me, but I wanted to share my knowledge. I wanted to teach. And that meant finishing grad school.


Debbie Millman:

After grad school, after you got your Ph.D., you were hired by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You were an assistant professor in organizational behavior. You were then hired as an associate professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 2009. You became the school’s youngest tenured professor. You were 28 years old. Now, I want to talk about some of the evaluations. Those are early evaluations.


Adam Grant:

Thanks for that reminder.


Debbie Millman:

That’s too juicy. I can’t resist. You’ve been ranked as the best professor at Wharton for years and years, yet at the beginning of your career there, one student wrote this on your evaluation form: “You were so nervous you were causing students to physically shake in their seats.” Another stated that the instructor is sweating so much I have completely stopped paying attention to the lecture. At one point, you were so freaked out for the first class you taught that you asked your wife to pretend to be a TA so she could reassure you that the students were going to come back for the next class. At that point, you also considered quitting. So what happened? This is another one of those instances where so much defeat, rejection, failure, whatever you want to call it, and yet you not only overcome it all, you then go on to become the best that there ever was. So talk about your thinking along those steps.


Adam Grant:

Well, best that there ever was, was the overstatement of the century. But I definitely got better. And I think part of what helped was those failures and early setbacks were in a very low-stakes environment. Those comments you read actually came when I was finishing grad school at Michigan. I finished between years so I had a year where I stuck around and taught while I was on the job market. And going into that, I knew because I was so nervous on stage, I was introverted and shy, I knew I needed practice, and I knew I needed feedback. So originally what I’d done is I volunteered to give guest lectures for a couple of friends’ and colleagues’ classes. I don’t know why they said yes.


Debbie Millman:

They’re friends. That’s what friends do.


Adam Grant:

They were too kind. And I gave out feedback forms at the end of each guest lecture, and that’s where those comments came. They weren’t fun to read but I learned from them. The main thing I learned from them was that I needed a lot more practice and that the human body can only be anxious for so many hours a day doing the same task over and over again. I flash back to all the times I was nervous as a diver, about trying a new dive or going into a big meet, and how what really caused that anxiety to subside was putting myself in that same situation over and over again. I guess what I learned from that was I needed to practice under conditions that were more similar to performance. So giving practice lectures in front of an audience of friends, not the same as going in front of a group of strangers who are actually in the middle of a class and having to speak in front of them. And doing that helped ease some of the anxiety.


Adam Grant:

I also saw in the feedback forms—I asked for criticism. But some people put in compliments unprompted. And even the criticisms, some of it was, well, why don’t you do more of this, I really like that part of the lecture. And it helped me see that no matter how nervous I was and how awkward I was in front of the class, that I had something to offer.


Debbie Millman:

I’m also a teacher and we are also required to get evaluations. I’m not only required to get evaluations from myself but because I run a department, I have to read all the evaluations of my colleagues and the program in general. And I could get 500 wonderful evaluations and then one “you suck” evaluation, and that sort of demolishes me for a few hours.


Adam Grant:

Have you been living inside my head? This is the second time you’ve described your experience and I’ve said, “Wait, that’s exactly my experience.”


Debbie Millman:

It’s gotten better as I’ve gotten older. It doesn’t demolish me for a week. It demolishes me for a couple of hours. How do you find the ability to recalibrate and to sort of get back to your baseline?


Adam Grant:

I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that out, honestly. I would welcome any comments that you have. How do you do it, Debbie?


Debbie Millman:

Well, I allow myself to sort of whimper. I allow myself to feel that inconsolable kind of feeling. I know now, having experienced it so many times, that it will eventually subside. But it is a painful … I don’t think people realize how painful it is. And my wife, she’ll get a negative comment on Twitter and it’ll ruin her day. It will literally ruin her day. She has nearly a million followers. People are constantly telling her how amazing she is. She gets one negative Twitter response and she cries. And I’m like, “Roxane, come on, girl.” But we take it really seriously. I wish that we didn’t, but we do.


Adam Grant:

I don’t know that I wish we didn’t, actually.


Debbie Millman:

How come?


Adam Grant:

Well, I don’t know Roxane Gay, you do.


Debbie Millman:

Right.


Adam Grant:

We’ve just met so I don’t know you well, either. But I’ve found that although it’s unpleasant, it generally makes me better. This just happened—I just got my fall semester evaluations and by all accounts even though I was teaching virtually, it went just about as well as it normally does. And maybe the evaluations were a tiny bit lower but they were not statistically different and there were lots of glowing comments and I should have felt great. And in a class of over 80 students, there were three who didn’t love it, and it kind of ruined my day.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, yeah.


Adam Grant:

And I thought, OK, I don’t want to teach this class anymore. Clearly, it’s not good enough. What am I doing here? Why do I teach? This is horrible. I put all the energy in


Debbie Millman:

Now you’re in my head.


Adam Grant:

Yeah. So in the moment, it’s depressing. But then what happens when I teach my next class is I’m thinking about those three students and I’m asking myself what mistakes did I make that prevented those students from getting out of this course what I wanted them to? One of the comments was actually really interesting. It said that I wasn’t available enough to the students.


Debbie Millman:

Wow, that’s shocking given what I’ve learned about you.


Adam Grant:

I was shocked too because I’ve gotten lots of feedback that I make myself too available to students and that they should be encouraged to come in prepared and make sure they use my time well. And so, wait, you can’t have it both ways. What I started thinking as I reflected on it a little bit more is, at this point, because my schedule has gotten busier and busier and there are more demands on my time and more people wanting my attention, people who are proactive are getting rewarded for it. And so when office hours were full, if students emailed me and said, “I couldn’t get a time,” of course, I made time. But what about the students who didn’t have the courage or the confidence to reach out? They might have missed out on those opportunities. And now, I need to make sure that I’m not allowing people to self-select into my calendar and I’m actually opening the door for everyone. And those moments happen every time I get negative feedback.


Adam Grant:

And I feel like, OK, it’s demotivating but it’s also an extraordinary learning opportunity. And then if enough time passes, I want to prove those students wrong next time. I want to let them know, you know what, you gave me good feedback and I don’t ever want another student to think about my class the way that you did, and so I’m going to try to change this.


Debbie Millman:

You asked what techniques I might have. I have a fortune cookie fortune taped on my laptop which is the best advice I’ve ever been given, which is “avoid compulsively making things worse.”


Adam Grant:

That’s great.


Debbie Millman:

Isn’t it the best?


Adam Grant:

That is such a good fortune cookie.


Debbie Millman:

And I find that when those situations arise, when my initial reaction is, that’s it, I’m done, I’m quitting, that’s the worst possible thing you can do. What do you do when the very thing that thrills and excites somebody is the one thing that just completely infuriates someone else?


Adam Grant:

I try to remind myself that some feedback is not evaluation, it’s just taste. Sometimes I actually, this happens in the classroom, I’ll put it out there for them. A simple example that happens every year in my mid-course feedback forms is some students will say they want me to lecture more and others will say they want me to lecture less. I’m like, well, OK. So what I do is I email out all the feedback verbatim and then I come into class and I do an analysis of it, and I say, “Here are the common themes.” And then I’ll say, “OK, I just want you to know, you’re all going to be dissatisfied by this class because some of you want me to lecture more, some want me to lecture less. And I think the perfect solution is to do neither and that will leave you all a little bit unhappy.”


Adam Grant:

And usually, the response to that is, oh, all of the sudden I realize that just because I have some feedback doesn’t mean it’s correct or it applies to everyone. And that is one of the lessons that I want to teach, is sometimes your feedback is actually just your opinion. It’s not an objective evaluation.


Debbie Millman:

That brings us right to your new book. I do want to just ask you one thing about your first book because I found something about your writing of it that I thought would be really interesting to talk about. In 2013, you wrote your first book. It was titled Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, and it explored the dynamics behind collaboration, behind negotiation, networking. But I read that you threw away 102,000 words of the first draft, which was only 103,000 words total. And you felt like you were never going to write a book and couldn’t make it as an author. A friend and mentor told you that he didn’t even know if anyone would be able to finish reading the book after he read the first draft. How did you handle this, and ultimately rewrite and finish the book?


Adam Grant:

That is all true.


Debbie Millman:

I love that.


Adam Grant:

The backstory is when I decided that I wanted to write a book, I’d just gotten tenure and felt like I didn’t have an excuse anymore just to write for academics, that I wanted to try to share my ideas more broadly. It was my students actually who talked me into it, and said, you have to start making some of your insights and your data available to people who don’t come into your classroom.


Adam Grant:

I’d read some incredible books that helped tilt me in this direction of organizational psychology and I was excited about the idea of trying to write one of my own. And I got introduced to a bunch of literary agents and was thrilled to sign with Richard Pine. And Richard said, OK, write me a book proposal, and he sent me some samples, and I started working on it. And I went into Nintendo mode and said, all right, well, I have a goal. I’m going to write the best proposal I can. I woke up the next morning, I started writing, I had all these ideas, and all of the sudden, I couldn’t stop. And after a couple months, instead of the proposal, I accidentally had written the book.


Debbie Millman:

Accidentally being the operative word here.


Adam Grant:

Yeah, no, it was an accident. Because I think Richard asked me for a proposal in June, and I sent him a draft of the book in August when he checked in and said, “Hey, how’s the proposal going?” And I said, “Well, actually I wrote a draft of the book.” And he called me and he said, “I don’t even think some of your academic colleagues will want to read this.” And I couldn’t figure it out at first and then I realized I’d gotten so lost in the weeds of all the studies that were interesting to people in my field, that I’d just completely missed the big picture. And Richard gave me some advice that has been one of the most pivotal ideas that I’ve focused on whenever I write. He said, “Write like you teach, not like you write journal articles.”


Adam Grant:

And all of the sudden, it clicked that bringing ideas to life and animating them and making them interesting and personal and practical, that’s what we do in the classroom, and if I channel that, I can do more of that on the page. Yeah, I kept about 1,000 words. I couldn’t let go of a few, but the rest, I threw out and started over and there are lots of things I would rewrite today and rethink if I could, but it was a much better book than the first draft.


Debbie Millman:

Adam, why do so many people have that same knee-jerk reaction when encountering some sort of obstacle? You do it. I do it. I was listening, my brother was having a conference call while I was in the car with him. He was talking to an associate and things are going really badly. He’s a doctor. After the call, he hung up and he was frustrated. He was like, “That’s it, I’m quitting.” And I’m like, “No, you’re not. You’re not going to quit over one disagreement with a colleague.” Why do we jump to that conclusion so quickly?


Adam Grant:

That’s a great question. I think a simple explanation would be too many people have fixed rather than growth mindsets. And when we fail or when we get negative feedback, the first impulse is to say, “well, that’s a sign that I lack the ability and this is not for me.” I think there’s more to it than that though. I think part of it might be a self-protective mechanism, that when somebody trashes a book draft or gives negative feedback on a semester that I poured my heart into, the knee-jerk reaction to say, forget it, I don’t want to do this anymore, is a way of distancing and detaching. Because in the moment if I’m completely focused on, well, yes, this my identity, these are my core values, this is who I am, it’s going to hurt a lot more.


Adam Grant:

And by saying, “you know what, I don’t need this or maybe this isn’t for me,” I no longer feel the same level of intense pain around it. And it allows me to then say, “all right, that class wasn’t me, that was just an activity I did for a semester.” “That book draft isn’t who I am, it’s just a tiny snapshot of my thoughts in a bunch of days.” And that allows me to see the work more clearly and analyze it in a less defensive way. But also then to really ask myself the question, “well, should I keep doing this—is this a good time to change course, or am I going escalate my commitment to a losing course of action?” Which too many do on too many projects. What do you make of that?


Debbie Millman:

My first knee-jerk reaction to that is, yeah, I think it may be an opportunity to sort of put some distance to then try to reorganize your feelings around it. But I also think it comes from early trauma where we’re hurt by something, and then in an effort to not be hurt anymore, we retreat. For me, at least, and my brother, who was socialized in exactly the same way, it was so interesting for me to witness that because I thought, oh, wow, we both do that exact thing in the exact same way. I wonder if that’s how we were sort of trained to deal with rejection or challenging obstacles.


Adam Grant:

Yeah, I can see that. One of the things I ended up thinking through really for the first time while writing Think Again was so many people experience an emotion and then start to internalize it, as if, well, OK, that’s my feeling, so it must be true.


Debbie Millman:

Fact.


Adam Grant:

Yeah. No, no, no. The emotion you feel after an intense event happens, that’s just a rough draft and you would never—you’re a designer, you’re an artist, you’re also a brand consultant—you would never frame your first draft, right? What you would do is you’d put it out there and then say, “All right, let me now look at it with a more critical eye and with a little more distance, and let me gather some feedback from other people.” And it’s surprising to me that we don’t do that more often and more deliberately with our emotions.


Debbie Millman:

Me too.


Adam Grant:

To say anytime you get some feedback or you get rejected or you fail and it makes you angry or depressed or you have some regrets, those are teachable moments. I think disappointment is often a lesson in preparing more. I think anger is a lesson in standing up for yourself. I think regret is a lesson in doing some rethinking in the moment as opposed to just in the rearview mirror. And I don’t think we learn those lessons enough and we don’t spend enough time then revising the emotions that we ultimately think better capture what the experience was all about.


Debbie Millman:

Your first book went on to be a bestseller. Millions and millions of copies. You’ve gone on to write many other books, one with Sheryl Sandberg, one with your wife. So let’s talk about your beautiful new book which is titled Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. First, congratulations on such a good book.


Adam Grant:

Thank you. I’m really honored that you read, let alone like it. This is that weird phase of book writing where I’ve rethought a bunch of things but it’s too late to change them right now.


Debbie Millman:

You rethought rethinking.


Adam Grant:

Yeah, which would be ironic if I didn’t, right?


Debbie Millman:

Right. Think Againexamines how and why we believe things and what it takes to rethink the way we think. Early on in the book, you state, “We don’t just hesitate to rethink our answers, we hesitate at the very idea of rethinking.” Why do we do that?


Adam Grant:

I think we do it in part because of the fear of regret. As you know, there’s evidence that students are reluctant to change their first answers on a test even though on average it improves their score. And that’s in part because if you had the right answer and then you undid it, you would just beat yourself up over that for hours, days, maybe weeks, if it was important. Whereas, if you did the opposite, and you said, “OK, I’m going to stick to my first answer and I should have changed but I didn’t,” there’s not really anything to punish yourself over. Because it’s not like you were so confident that that other answer was right. If it had been, you would have been more excited about it or more attached to it.


Adam Grant:

So I think we’re hesitant to not trust our guts, I would say. And then there’s also just, rethinking requires relinquishing sometimes predictability and control, and sometimes belonging as well. That if I’m going to let go of an opinion that I held dear or some knowledge that I believed was true, I might be outcast by the group I belong to, right? I’m no longer part of my tribe. And also, I don’t really know then what’s real and what’s fact and what’s fiction, and that can make it a little bit more different to navigate a complex world.


Debbie Millman:

One thing that blew my mind was the notion of humans being cognitively lazy. I learned that we’re mental misers, and I had never heard that term before, and have since, of course, heard it three times. Now it’s on my radar. We often prefer the ease of hanging onto old views over the difficulty of grappling with new ones. Why is that so common? Why is cognitive laziness something that many of us suffer from?


Adam Grant:

I think, Debbie, that too many of us prefer the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt. And it required a lot of energy and effort to change your mind. It also often requires admitting that you were wrong, which then calls into question, OK, do I have good judgment, am I an intelligent person? Those are questions we don’t like to ask about ourselves. And yet, I would so much rather find out that I was wrong so that now I can get closer to right than just continue to be wrong.


Debbie Millman:

But that takes a certain self-awareness and a certain confidence about your ability to continue to be who you are. And I think so many people hold onto things, as you said—this is the consensus, I’m surrounded by like-minded people. That’s why we all wear Nike shoes or carry iPhones and show them to others. We feel safer and more secure in groups of like-minded people once we have to rethink. It’s very vulnerable making.


Adam Grant:

It is. And I think we analyze this exactly backward, right? Because I’ve started to think now, and I really only landed at this after I finished writing Think Again, I’ve started to believe that if you don’t feel a little bit embarrassed by some of your prior opinions and assumptions, then you’re not growing.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah.


Adam Grant:

I think about this all the time with work. I talk to writers frequently—I’m sure you do, too—who can’t bring themselves to read their earlier books, or artists who don’t want to look back at their old paintings because, I don’t know, they’re just overwhelmed with this sense of I might be incompetent, and I can’t believe I put that out in the world, and I’m just mortified. And I think that’s exactly what we should be doing because that’s how you see the progress you’ve made, that not only has your taste improved, but also your skill has grown. And I think that that embarrassment at past work is actually a sign that we’ve gotten better. And those times when we look back and say, “OK, I was wrong,” or “that was stupid,” those are moments that really signal to us that we’ve learned something.


Debbie Millman:

I have been going through old journals recently trying to sort of figure out some past stuff, and I have been for years saying, “I don’t understand how I’m getting so much older—I still feel like the same person I’ve always been, and I still feel like I’m the same person I was at 16.” I’m like, no, no, no. I read that journal. The DNA of that person isn’t even the same, and thank God for that.


Adam Grant:

Yeah. That’s exactly where we want people to land, right? Is to say, “OK, of course, there’s some connection between your current self and your past self, but the more distance exists, the more you can see your own evolution.”


Debbie Millman:

As difficult as it is for us to rethink our ideas and believes, you write how we’re awfully quick to recognize when other people need to think again. And you write this about that phenomena: “We question the judgment of experts whenever we seek out a second opinion on a medical diagnosis. Unfortunately, when it comes to our knowledge and opinions, we often favor feeling right over being right. In everyday life, we make many diagnoses of our own, ranging from who we hire to whom we marry. We need to develop the habit of forming our own second opinions.” Adam, how do you go about doing that, and how hard is it really to change our own minds?


Adam Grant:

I don’t know. My favorite practice so far is to schedule check-ups. We all go to the dentist or the doctor even when we’re healthy. I think we should do the same thing on the choices we make in our lives. For years, I’ve advised students to do at least twice a year career check-ups, where they just ask themselves, OK, is the job that I have right now still consistent with the values that I hold? Am I learning what I hope to be learning? Is this culture a place where I can express my strengths and continue to grow?


Adam Grant:

And I think that we can do the same thing when it comes to life check-ups. I’m sort of startled at how comfortable we are sticking to the ideals and images of who we wanted to be that we formed way before we should have had any business locking into plans. Whether it’s what city you wanted to live in, or what you claimed you wanted to be when you grew up, or for some people even just something as fundamental as their sexual orientation, or their political affiliation, or what country they wanted to be part of. And I don’t know about you, Debbie, but I’m not that confident in my 9-year-old self’s ideals for who I want to become. And when people are still set on those images they created, I think, OK, you are overdue for a check-up, I can see all sorts of cavities in your life plan.


Debbie Millman:

Talk a little bit about the notion of intellectual humility. That was something that really struck me in the book as something that everyone needs to be able to figure out how to find.


Adam Grant:

Yeah. I think the psychology of intellectual humility has been one of my favorite areas to learn about in the past few years. Intellectual humility is, for me, just knowing what you don’t know, recognizing all the limitations in your understanding. And it’s actually not that hard to cultivate it. It turns out that if you take high schoolers, for example, and you just introduce them to this idea that when you admit what you don’t know, you’re more able to learn, they become more comfortable doing it. Who would have thought?


Debbie Millman:

And people love teaching other people what they think.


Adam Grant:

They do. And the risk, of course, is that … what’s the saying, that fools are so full of conviction while wise people are so full of doubt? Well, the risk is that we let ignorant people do all opining. But I think that we live in a culture that stigmatizes not knowing. And I think we’d be much better off stigmatizing certainty, and saying, “look, it’s not your lack of knowledge that gets you in trouble, it’s your conviction in the very things that you don’t know.”


Debbie Millman:

As somebody who’s worked in corporate America for several decades, I’m familiar with what outline as some of the most annoying things people will say instead of rethinking. They include that “I’ll never work here”; “that’s not what my experience has shown”; “that’s too complicated, let’s not overthink it”; and, “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” How do you work with people unwilling to rethink anything or are so jaded and beaten down that they can’t see beyond obstacles and roadblocks?


Adam Grant:

Well, I think my understanding of the most effective ways to do this is really informed by the psychology of motivational interviewing, which says that you can rarely change somebody else’s mind, but you can often help them find their own motivation to change their own mind. And one of the ways you do that is by interviewing them, literally, just trying to understand their thoughts or complex feelings about an issue. And when considering a change, the general premise is that people are often ambivalent. They have reasons to stick with the status quo but they also have reasons to consider a shift in their beliefs or their behaviors. And so if you can help them see that they’re full of mixed opinions, then they’re more likely to reflect and move in the direction of the change.


Adam Grant:

I think, with the business examples that you gave, I run into this a lot of the time, and my favorite place to start is to say, “That’s not the way we’ve always done it. That’s not how we do things. You know who really said things like that? BlackBerry, Blockbuster, Kodak and Sears. What do you think of that?” They usually will laugh a little bit and say, “We don’t want to be like them. What are your concerns?” And then that opens up a dialogue.


Adam Grant:

In other cases what I’ve done is, I’ve just said, “Look, if you didn’t value my expertise, why did you call me? Why am I here, I’m not really sure.” And just let’s call out the elephant in the room. And then they’ll say, “Well, I think you do have relevant knowledge but obviously, you haven’t worked in my company or my industry.” And I’ll say, “You are absolutely right. I know nothing about your specific world. I am a specialist in being a generalist when it comes to industries.” But that’s I think part of how I add value. Because what I want to do is I want to gather the rigorous evidence that you don’t have time to accumulate because you’re so busy leading from your experience. And when I see randomized controlled experiments in longitudinal studies across multiple industries show a pattern, I think it’s more likely that that pattern is the norm and something that’s different is an outlier and an exception than the reverse.


Adam Grant:

But I’m always excited to find outliers and exceptions, so can you walk me through, would it be OK if I show a little bit of what my data tells or what our field’s data suggests, and then can you show me a little bit of why you think your experience is different, and then we can try to get to the bottom of this together? And whenever I’ve remembered to do that and found the fortitude to have that conversation, it’s led in a much more productive direction.


Debbie Millman:

You mentioned just a moment ago the opining overconfident people. And you quote Charles Darwin in Think Again, and state, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” And you write how in theory confidence and competence go hand in hand, but in practice, they often diverge. Why is that?


Adam Grant:

Well, the most popular explanation for that divergence is the Dunning–Kruger effect. And the basic finding there is that the people who are most overconfident about their knowledge and skills are the people with, in many cases, the least knowledge and skill. And it’s not just ego. The David Dunning observation is that when you lack the knowledge and skill to produce excellence, that often means you lack the knowledge and skill to judge excellence. I know very little about art, and by very little, I mean nothing. And so I could believe that I’m a great art critic because I don’t even know what it takes to be a good art critic. And that means that in a lot of cases, as I learn a little bit, my confidence climbs quickly and my competence doesn’t.


Debbie Millman:

So the less intelligent we are in a particular domain, the more we seem to overestimate our actual intelligence.


Adam Grant:

That is the case. Although I should say, total beginners are often immune to this effect. If you literally know nothing, you’re not going to walk around acting like you’re a genius. It’s when you gain a little knowledge that it starts to become precarious.


Debbie Millman:

It’s so interesting, I recently—and it’s somewhat sad to admit that it’s a fairly recent understanding of myself, that when I don’t know something, I tend to disregard it as important. I can’t even believe I’m saying this but it’s one of the things that I’ve realized in reading your book. I tend to disregard something that I don’t think is relevant only to then find out that it’s relevant, and then I’m super embarrassed and humiliated that I ever could have considered the possibility that it was irrelevant.


Adam Grant:

Well, once again, I’ve had the exact same experience.


Debbie Millman:

So humiliating.


Adam Grant:

What’s behind that? As I hear you talk about it, it seems like part of it is just the high attentional filter strategy of being productive. To say if I allow my curiosity to get the better of me and I lower all my attentional filters and anything can come in, I will literally never get anything done because there’s always something new to learn. How much of that is your experience?


Debbie Millman:

You’re being kind to me. I don’t know. I mean, I’d like to think that. I’d love to think that. I just think that it’s sort of a tendency to disregard something that I don’t know because of what not knowing about it might reveal to me about who I am.


Adam Grant:

Is it revealing to you, or is it revealing to others, or to both?


Debbie Millman:

Oh, to others. Yeah, to others. Yeah.


Adam Grant:

Because I was going to say, it sounded like image more than identity for me.


Debbie Millman:

I think you’re probably right. But I also find myself more in the category of people whose competence exceeds their confidence, so I have more self-esteem issues than I’d like to admit.


Adam Grant:

Welcome to the club. It is interesting though because I think so much of this confidence exceeding competence trap is people getting obsessed with proving themselves instead of improving themselves.


Debbie Millman:

That’s so good.


Adam Grant:

It’s such a basic distinction. I mean, how many times—I’m embarrassed by the number of times I’ve sort of acted like I knew what someone was talking about when I was just clueless in a conversation because I didn’t want to look like the idiot in the room. When the first thing I should have done as a person who aspires to be humble and curious is to say, “Actually, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Could you please explain to me what in the world that means?”


Debbie Millman:

And it’s so funny how people do that. I talk to my students about this all the time. Because then once somebody thinks that you do know what it is, then they want to go deeper, and then in you’re in this downward spiral of shame.


Adam Grant:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

Because you can’t say anything meaningful, and then, of course, they know that you’re lying.


Adam Grant:

You just keep digging a deeper hole.


Debbie Millman:

Yep. Adam, one of my favorite parts of your new book is about conflict. In Think Again, you reveal that you’ve always been determined to keep the peace and suggest that it may be because your group of friends dropped you in middle school, or it may be genetic, or maybe it’s because your parents got divorced—whatever the cause, in psychology, there’s a name for your affliction and it’s called agreeableness. That is one of the major personality traits around the world. So would you define yourself as a people-pleaser?


Adam Grant:

Oh, definitely. And I think that’s part of why it hurts so much when I get negative feedback. It feels like I’ve violated the core of not only my personality but my being. And that is not fun.


Debbie Millman:

So that disappointment defines you. It defines you in that moment.


Adam Grant:

Yeah, I wish it didn’t sometimes. But it’s also then it becomes part of that motivation to improve, to say, well, I don’t want to let these people down.


Debbie Millman:

You also write how agreeable people don’t always steer clear of conflict. And this is something I really want to learn more about and practice in my own life. And I read that you’re terrified of hurting other people’s feelings. When it comes to challenging their thoughts you have no fear. So, why the difference? How do you manifest these different states of mind about and through conflict?


Adam Grant:

I really wasn’t aware of it until I was writing the book because I felt for a long time, there’s this contradiction in my personality, where on the one hand, I want to please people and social harmony is extremely important to me. And some of my student feedback for years has been that I’m too supportive of stupid comments. I’ve had students write that over and over and over again. I want to encourage everyone. And at the same time, I’ve been called a logic bully and I’ve had people complain that I’m too challenging and maybe too direct with some of my constructive criticism.


Adam Grant:

Well, how can these two tendencies exist in the same person? Well, the more I’ve studied agreeableness, the more I’ve realized it’s really about social inclusion in belonging. And what agreeable people are trying to do is fit in. That means I don’t want to offend anyone. It means I don’t want to be excluded from the group. The moment that I feel that I’ve earned someone’s respect or developed trust with them and I don’t think the relationship is in jeopardy, I shift into what I think is another dominant part of my personality, which is being both curious and extremely concerned about getting closer to the truth.


Adam Grant:

And that means if somebody believes something that I think is incorrect or not supported by data, that I feel like it’s my moral responsibility as a social scientist to try to set the record straight. And that’s something we see with plenty of agreeable people: If you care a lot about trying to figure out what’s accurate, if it’s important to you to live your life by things that are true, then you have to disagree with people who are believing things that are false. And yet, of course, you can disagree without being disagreeable. Debbie, I have to say, in the hour-plus that we’ve known each other now, you strike me also as highly agreeable. Agree or disagree?


Debbie Millman:

Agree. But that’s a trick question. What else can I possibly say?


Adam Grant:

I disagree, I think a lot of people would jump on that question.


Debbie Millman:

No, I mean, it’s been something that I’ve been working on for most of my adult life, to try to get the nerve to say “no more,” to establish better boundaries. But on the other hand, I think very similarly when it comes to things that I know I know about, which really have nothing to do with my likability but more my sort of research and data and intelligence, I really am very willing to go all-in very quickly, and really fight tooth and nail about what I believe. My ex-husband said, “Debbie’s always persuasive, she’s not always right.”


Adam Grant:

That is a dangerous compliment to receive, isn’t it?


Debbie Millman:

It really is. And that’s not why we got divorced. You say that some conflict is necessary. The absence of conflict is not harmony, it’s apathy. I love that. It’s sort of like the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.


Adam Grant:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

You need some of that.


Adam Grant:

Yeah, I think if you don’t ever have conflict with people you work with or people you love, then you’re either stuck in groupthink in some kind of filter bubble or echo chamber, or you just don’t care enough to disagree with them, which means they’re not learning from your perspective. And I think that’s an injustice to both of you, or to all of you, if it’s a team.


Debbie Millman:

One of the ways that I learned about challenging someone that is really, really firm in their thinking is to question, how do you know? And its value in conflict is really profound. Can you talk about what that question does, or when the appropriate time to ask that question is?


Adam Grant:

I mean, you’re the expert, right? You wrote Brand Thinking. This is what you do for a living. To me, this is part of the heart of the interaction component of design thinking. So, you tell me.


Debbie Millman:

The harder thing for me is to know what not to ask. That’s the challenge that I have. In any really good conversation, I’ll have in front of me now, in talking with you, nine pages of questions. The hard thing for me is to think about what I should edit out as opposed to keep asking because of somebody’s patience, because of somebody’s time constraint. So the how-do-you-know, for me, is a nice way of asking somebody in some ways to double down. My usual response, and this is something that I’ve grown to use more and more as I’ve gotten older, is when somebody says something that I find outrageous, I just say, “Excuse me?”


Adam Grant:

Oh, that’s good.


Debbie Millman:

It forces them to be clear about their own point of view. And I do find that whenever I say, “excuse me?” with that sort of little polite question mark at the end, uptalk, that people tend to retreat. Psychologically, you need to tell me why people do that.


Adam Grant:

No, I’m just listening to it,and especially watching your facial expression there, it’s so interesting. Your look, it’s a great combination of curious and puzzled. You’re kind of intrigued and confused at the same time. And what I think is so effective about that, and I hear it in your voice, too, is it comes across as nonjudgmental but you’re also encouraging the other person to think again and say, “Whoa, hold on. Wait a minute.” Except you’re not doing that in such an aggressive way. That is effective. Do you have people though just restate what they said and stick to their convictions?


Debbie Millman:

Yes, absolutely. Yes.


Adam Grant:

And then what do you do?


Debbie Millman:

Then I tend to retreat because I know that they’re really not willing to be persuaded otherwise. When somebody says the exact same thing twice, it’s because they really don’t have anything else to add.


Adam Grant:

Yeah, that’s interesting. And then you can always say “tell me more,” and if they have nothing, they realize their thinking is incomplete.


Debbie Millman:

Believe it or not, my mother is a Trumper, and so we’ve had what’s been a really difficult estrangement over the years that has turned into an abyss, and I have just given up.


Adam Grant:

Sorry to hear that.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. I’ve tried to understand where she’s coming from, but there’s no there-there, and when someone says “fake news,” it is quite genius in its creation in that it just establishes that what you know and have heard is not true without any evidence to the contrary.


Adam Grant:

This is maybe my optimistic streak shining through but I wonder about how some of the principles that I found useful in other areas would work in this world. I can’t say I’ve really tried it. But I know when talking with a friend who’s very opposed to vaccinations, I found him more open when I said, “Listen, I understand that you believe that there are government conspiracies. And I would love to … I know some conspiracy theories have actually come true, right?” So I’m not just blanket dismissing them. I’m just trying to figure out how we can become confident that this particular one is true. I said, “What’s really baffling to me is you have a huge community of independent scientists, many of whom have tenure and can say whatever they want—how would you orchestrate such a complex conspiracy of famously strong-willed, stubborn people who will sometimes not change their minds or admit that they were wrong even if their careers depended on it?” And he could really answer it. And he said, “Well, maybe that’s not a total conspiracy but it’s hard to publish the studies that show the side effects and the dangers of vaccines.”


Adam Grant:

And I said, “OK, well, let’s take a closer look at the evidence there.” And I found that on a specific topic like that, just asking him “how does that work,” it led to a more open conversation because at least we could talk about the same reality.


Debbie Millman:

Right. The same reality is the key.


Adam Grant:

Yes. Is there any opportunity there or is it an uphill battle?


Debbie Millman:

At this point, I think it’s a sort of ceasefire only in that when somebody says that they only are willing to listen to their Sean Hannity, that there’s just not a real chance for any … yeah.


Adam Grant:

That’s sad.


Debbie Millman:

But that’s just also a lesson in letting go. You talk about the things you know. You know what you know, what you think you know. You know what you don’t know, and then you don’t know what you don’t know. And in this case, I don’t know how I’d ever be able to reach a place where there’s mutuality without really giving up a fundamental sense of who I am, and I’m not willing to do that anymore. I mean, I tried for years. There’s just only so much recalibrating and pretzelling that you can to please other people, and then you just have to give up.


Adam Grant:

Yeah, I cannot imagine how hard that must be. I’m famously bad at letting go.


Debbie Millman:

So am I.


Adam Grant:

This is one of those afflictions of the agreeable.


Debbie Millman:

Yes.


Adam Grant:

If we just take this issue as an example. If we could go back to 2015, and we knew everything that we know now, one of the things that I would advocate for is a set of independent standards for how we evaluate our candidate. And I’d say, “All right, look, I don’t care whether you support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, or anybody else who’s running, what you need though is an independent set of criteria for what qualifies as good or bad leadership. And if you make this list in advance, you’re going to hold yourself accountable, you’re going to keep yourself honest for not then excusing every single thing that crosses the line by moving the line each time.” And I think we need to do that across the board, right?


Debbie Millman:

Oh, absolutely.


Adam Grant:

This is something I’ve been rethinking. I think that if we had an independent standard for public officials, I’d even set a low bar. I would say, “if this person would be fired for their actions if they were running a public company,” which is a very low bar, “then they probably shouldn’t be an elected official anymore.”


Debbie Millman:

I think it’s really interesting to look at what we’re willing to accept from male candidates versus female candidates. Hillary Clinton never ever would have been considered if she’d been married three times and had five children with three different spouses. And you talk about, quite a bit in the book, about the different criteria between men and women and what is acceptable and believable. And that’s also another really interesting big part of the book.


Adam Grant:

I wish I had realized this sooner. I think that for a long time, I naively assumed that the early data I read on all the ways that women are disadvantaged at work, the ways that women have to be that much better in order to get the opportunity to lead, and how that’s most often magnified if women also are of color and belong to a double minority group. And I think I just, in part because I wanted to believe in a just world and I just naively assumed that in the 21st century, we finally made progress and we are now evaluating people on their character and their competence or their contribution as opposed to a set of identities that for the most part they probably didn’t choose. And we are just so far from that reality. The data are staggering.


Adam Grant:

You know this from the book, but one of the data points that really opened my eyes was a meta-analysis, a study of studies of about 100,000 leaders, just comparing male and female leadership. And in self-ratings men were more confident. In 360 ratings, when they were evaluated by people who are actually qualified to judge their skill, women were rated as more competent. Debbie, do I think that women are inherently more competent leaders than men? No, I don’t think any demographic group has a premium on leadership. Do I believe though, that women had to be that much better in order to land a leadership position given all we know about the barriers and biases? Yes. And I’m embarrassed that I didn’t come across that sooner. If you’re married to a bad feminist, I just feel like I was a bad person to not be aware of this and not try to do something about it.


Debbie Millman:

But you have, you have now. I mean, this is something that we’re all socialized to feel at a young age in terms of how we’re allowed to extol our virtues, how we’re allowed to brag, how we’re allowed to have an opinion even. The whole notion of confidence is something that you write about at great length in the book, and that’s another part of what I loved so much about reading your book. You write about how there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that confidence is just as often a result of progress as the cause of it. We don’t have to wait for our confidence to rise to achieve challenging goals. We can build it through achieving challenging goals. So would you say that courage to take that first step is more important than confidence, because confidence is only going to come after you do that successfully?


Adam Grant:

I think so. And this is another moment of rethinking for me because people talk about confidence all the time and confidence just doesn’t appear out of nowhere. It usually comes through experience. And generally speaking, confidence grows when you achieve mastery, when you make progress, when you reach a goal that you thought was unlikely for you. And so I wonder if we’ve actually created a bit of a cage for people who lack confidence by saying, “Well, you need to build your confidence in order to go for it.” Like, no, no, no. You need to go for it and then the hope is through your learning and through your growth, the confidence will come.


Adam Grant:

Sara Blakely had such a good way of capturing this. I asked her a few years ago how she had the confidence to start Spanx when she had no experience in fashion or retail. She had never applied for a patent before. And she said, “Well, I didn’t have the confidence that I could do this but I knew that what I’d done throughout my life was I had built new skills and I knew I could learn.” And that was confident humility. It was her saying, “I don’t know how to do this today, but I’m confident I can figure it out tomorrow.” And then over time, the real confidence comes through, saying, “OK, yeah … I was able to apply for a patent because I sat in a bookstore and I read a book about patents for dummies. I was able to build a prototype.”


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, that’s how she did that on her own because she couldn’t afford it. Yeah. I, over the years, have come to realize that confidence is really just the successful repetition of any endeavor.


Adam Grant:

Oh, that’s a great definition.


Debbie Millman:

You develop the ability. You’ve done this enough times that you can statistically predict that you’ll likely do it again. For those of us that can drive, we have car confidence. We didn’t start out with it, but we have it.


Adam Grant:

Say that again though. Tell me your definition of confidence again. I love that.


Debbie Millman:

The successful repetition of any endeavor.


Adam Grant:

That’s brilliant.


Debbie Millman:

I thought about it for a really long time.


Adam Grant:

That is really brilliant because what’s baked into it is you have to do it successfully and multiple times before the confidence comes.


Debbie Millman:

Right.


Adam Grant:

That’s such a poignant way of capturing what’s missing from most people’s ideas of confidence.


Debbie Millman:

I think the first step is the courage to take that sort of blind faith step into the unknown and not knowing whether or not … sort of like the way a baby starts to walk, right? You just sort of … and then you do it. And then if you’re able-bodied you have walking confidence.


Adam Grant:

Did you watch The Last Dance, the Michael Jordan documentary?


Debbie Millman:

No.


Adam Grant:

Probably my favorite line in the whole documentary was when the coach, Phil Jackson, said, “We’re only successful in the moment we perform a successful act.”


Debbie Millman:

Yes.


Adam Grant:

And it really drove home this idea that confidence comes through repeating success but also seems like a powerful way of avoiding complacency. And you’re saying, “Wait a minute, you have to get to the repetition, the ability to do this multiple times.” And that means tomorrow, if you don’t keep practicing whatever’s making you successful, you haven’t earned that confidence.


Debbie Millman:

Right. Adam, my last question is this: When you started writing Think Again, you thought your goal was to teach the next generation how to change their minds. But you’ve stated that you now have a different view. You want to help people get, all of us, into the right mindset about changing their minds. So that’s a question of skill and more a question of will. You believe we all have the capacity to think again, we just don’t use it enough. So for all of my listeners, what would be the one tip for anyone listening to begin to rethink what they think?


Adam Grant:

Oh, if I had to pick one, the one that’s jumping to mind right now is be careful about attaching your opinions to your identity. The moment that something you believe becomes part of who you are is the moment that it’s hard to let it go. And the question always comes up then, “well if my beliefs aren’t my identity, then who am I? What is my identity?” And I would say, “Well, I would prefer to anchor identities in values rather than opinions.”


Debbie Millman:

Or productivity. That’s a whole other conversation.


Adam Grant:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

Which is also really a belief. I’m only as valuable as I produce things.


Adam Grant:

I mean that’s a great example, right? Well, what’s the value there? The value there is excellence or mastery. And who said that you have to do a certain quantity of work in order to be excellent in a given day? You made that up. It’s something that too many of us got attached to probably too young and then we really internalized it. “I am a hard worker.” As opposed to “I am someone who strives for excellence.” And there are times when I get there by working less.


Debbie Millman:

Adam, this has been revelatory. Thank you so much for helping me rethink so many things I take for granted. And thank you so much for joining me today on Design Matters.


Adam Grant:

This has been such a treat. Thank you for having me. I’m floored by how thoroughly you read the book and reflected on it, how much homework you did on my background. Can we be friends?


Debbie Millman:

Yes, absolutely. I’d love it.


Adam Grant:

Awesome.


Debbie Millman:

Adam’s new book is titled Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. His website is adamgrant.net, where you can find his books and his podcast, WorkLife. This is the 17th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and look forward to talking with you again soon.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman