WorkLife with Adam Grant
Unlocking Hidden Potential with Malcolm Gladwell
October 24, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey, WorkLifers, it's Adam Grant. Today is the launch of my new book, Hidden Potential. It's for anyone who's ever felt underqualified or underestimated. To celebrate it, I have something special for you: a live show I recorded last night with Malcolm Gladwell in New York City.
[APPLAUSE] [00:00:26] Malcolm Gladwell:
Thank you. Thank you all for coming. Um, Adam, thank you for, uh, uh, for coming to New York. You know, we have done this many times.
[00:00:35] Adam Grant:
We have, and this is, it's usually on my turf, not yours.
[00:00:37] Malcolm Gladwell:
This is what I was about to say. I was going to ask you what is different this time around, and you, that's exactly right. You have finally come to my house, and I was reflecting on this, and I was wondering: what kind of an idiot am I that I have agreed to go to your turf like seven times in a row before demanding that, that we return the favor? This is like a, you know, in basketball, this is like someone ceding, you know, home territory and saying, “Oh, we'll just, let's just do it at your arena.”
[00:01:08] Adam Grant:
I will say, though, you once invited me to your actual house, where we had dinner, and you cooked.
[00:01:12] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:01:13] Adam Grant:
Do you remember this?
[00:01:14] Malcolm Gladwell:
Yeah, I wouldn’t say that was necessarily to your advantage, if I was cooking.
[00:01:17] Adam Grant:
Um, well, it definitely wasn't, because I've never told you this, but, uh, do you remember what you cooked?
[00:01:12] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:01:24] Adam Grant:
I think it was tilapia.
[00:01:26] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:01:27] Adam Grant:
Or it was, it was something that swims and I don't, I don't eat seafood, but I didn't want to hurt your feelings, so I ate it. So I feel like, I feel like we’re even!
[00:01:35] Malcolm Gladwell:
Oh, Adam. Adam, that, that, that's very touching. You, you, you took tilapia for me. That's, I, um, I wanted to start, um, we're going to be discussing your book Hidden Potential, but I'm looking at the blurbs on the back and I just want to not read the blurbs, but just talk about who has blurbed your book.
Okay, so, the first blurb is from Serena Williams, right? World's greatest tennis player. The second blurb is from Mark Cuban, the famous owner of the Dallas Mavericks, the guy who's on Shark Tank. The third quote is from... Malcolm Gladwell, me. The fourth quote is from Yo-Yo Ma, world's famous cellist, and the fourth quote is from US Navy Admiral William McRaven.
Okay, now, what’s the theory behind the order? Why, why does Serena, did she, did she say, “I’ll give you a blurb if you put me first”? Like, what, how does, who decided she goes first? Did Cuban say, “I'm willing to go second to Serena, but not, if I'm, if I'm behind Gladwell, I’m…” You're not getting a, what happened, how did that work?
[00:02:49] Adam Grant:
I didn't choose the order.
[00:02:50] Malcolm Gladwell:
It’s not alphabetical, ‘cause…
[00:02:54] Adam Grant:
Wait, are you, are you trying to argue for a higher placement than third?
[00:02:56] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:02:57] Adam Grant:
Is that what's happening here?
[00:02:58] Malcolm Gladwell:
No, no. I don't, I'm not sure.
[00:03:00] Adam Grant:
‘Cause I think, I think—
[00:03:00] Malcolm Gladwell:
I’m not sure I belong third. I don't know why I'm ahead of, why would I be ahead of Yo-Yo Ma? Yo-Yo Ma in every way is more culturally significant than I am. I will be for, I will be dead and forgotten and people will be listening to Yo-Yo Ma.
[00:03:12] Adam Grant:
[00:03:12] Malcolm Gladwell:
William McRaven defends this country. And you have him last? Like, what, where are your priorities, by the way?
[00:03:20] Adam Grant:
This is how you treat a guest in your home?
[00:03:23] Malcolm Gladwell:
Well, well, I mean, we have a history of me feeding you tilapia. So, alright, let's talk about your book. Um. Which I like a lot, by the way, otherwise I would not have blurbed it. You're interested in character, which is, is, that's sort of an interesting twist, isn't it? You would think an organizational psychologist would be someone who would be interested in structures, and procedures, and those kinds of things.
[00:03:45] Adam Grant:
I'm a psychologist first.
[00:03:46] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:03:46] Adam Grant:
And I happen to do a lot of my work on people at work. But what I care about is people, and the quality of their lives, and how much they get to grow. And so, if you happen to do that in an organization, great, but, like, I could care less about the org chart. Uh, but I'd care deeply about helping people reach their potential.
[00:04:03] Malcolm Gladwell:
Yeah. I wanted to make an additional observation about your books as a group. Um, and that is that, it's, they're fundamentally about character, as you say, but you're also very interested in sort of interrogating our intuitive ideas about character. Right? I'm, I'm always reminded, and you will know this, didn't, um, Lee Ross write a famous paper, which was all about how our intuitions about psychology are wrong in the large, in the, in the main, um, and then it seems to me a lot of what you're doing in your books. Is this a fair summary of them? Is you are continuing on that path of kind of interrogating our intuitive notions about psychology.
[00:04:44] Adam Grant:
Some would call that Gladwellian.
[00:04:47] Malcolm Gladwell:
No, I don't think, I think you're, don't, don't, you're deflecting now, Adam. You're...
[00:04:52] Adam Grant:
You literally just deflected!
[00:04:54] Malcolm Gladwell:
I don't, no, no.
[00:04:57] Adam Grant:
Is anyone else watching this happen? He, his deflection is accusing me of deflection. It's meta deflection.
[00:05:03] Malcolm Gladwell:
Okay. It’s not, no, listen. Am I... I'm just a flat out contrarian. There's a difference between someone who gently interrogates what we get wrong as intuitive psychologists and someone like me who just says provocatively and usually erroneously that everything we think is wrong. I'm a bomb thrower. You're not a bomb thrower.
[00:05:25] Adam Grant:
Yeah, I guess that's, I think that's a parody or a caricature of your work, but no, I think, I think I start with really wanting to understand what makes people tick.
[00:05:35] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:05:36] Adam Grant:
And how we can improve the quality of our lives. And then I, within that, I want to focus on what's surprising and unexpected.
[00:05:44] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:05:44] Adam Grant:
So yes, I think you're right.
[00:05:46] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:05:46] Adam Grant:
Which causes me pain to admit.
[00:05:49] Malcolm Gladwell:
Like with Think Again, for example, the idea of valorizing humility as a kind, as the kind of cornerstone, the key, uh, as the cornerstone of intellectual growth is really interesting and not one… I imagine if you gathered a group of people— of students—and ask them what did they think, what characters trait did they think was the key to intellectual growth, humility would not be in the top three.
[00:06:18] Adam Grant:
No, and that's why I wanted to write about it.
[00:06:19] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:06:20] Adam Grant:
I mean, I, I go to work when we used to go to a physical workplace. Um, and still, when I go to teach, um, I walk into the classroom and I think… Donald Trump and Elon Musk both attended this fine institution. What would I want the next Trump or Musk to learn? And strangely, humility is very, very high on that list.
[00:06:43] Malcolm Gladwell:
Yes. Uh-huh. I wonder how you could, uh… So, tell me about the thought process that led you to think, okay, the next stage in this journey through character, I want it, I want it, I want it to be about hidden potential. How did you get there?
[00:07:07] Adam Grant:
I, I went down this path because I was once told that I couldn't write.
[00:07:10] Malcolm Gladwell:
Who told you that?
[00:07:12] Adam Grant:
Um, The Harvard Writing Office. My first week of college, when they recommended me for remedial writing.
[00:07:19] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:07:20] Adam Grant:
Which I was then told was for jocks and people who spoke English as a sixth or seventh language.
[00:07:27] Malcolm Gladwell:
So wait, keep going. This is interesting.
[00:07:29] Adam Grant:
Yeah, so I, I, um, I failed the required writing test as a, as a brand new freshman. It was the first piece of feedback I got from Harvard. And if you think I had imposter syndrome before, like already worrying, like, “I'm the one mistake, I don't belong here.” Now I show up, I take the writing test, and they're like, “Nope, you must take an extra semester of writing.” Um, and you, you can't, like, you can't explain your thoughts coherently, and you don't know how to structure an argument.
And I was like, “I, I think I don't belong here.” And I think that's the point, right?
[00:07:59] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:08:00] Adam Grant:
That’s why I, I wanted to write this book, is we make so many judgements of other people's potential.
[00:08:04] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:08:04] Adam Grant:
And so often, they're driven by starting ability. Um, do you have the raw talent? Are you a prodigy? Um, do you look extremely capable? Um… And if the answer is no, you think you should give up.
[00:08:18] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:08:19] Adam Grant:
Because you don't have what it takes, and I think that's a huge mistake. I think it counts out a ton of late bloomers. I think it overlooks many, many slow learners. Um, and I think it also prevents us from stretching beyond our strengths and actually achieving more than we believe we're capable of.
[00:08:32] Malcolm Gladwell:
But, so, wait, but this is interesting. Because I would, you know, I associate you, you're 18, I, can you, can you give us a little more insight into your 18 year old self? You said you had imposter syndrome, why?
[00:08:45] Adam Grant:
I think, I didn't, I didn't have any sense of what it took to be a Harvard student. I remember going to my interview, and the interviewer was the first Harvard graduate I ever met. And, I just, I thought that was a different intellectual league. I didn't know if I was smart enough. Um, I didn't have any patents yet. Uh, I did not get a perfect SAT score. Um…
[00:09:06] Malcolm Gladwell:
But you got in.
[00:09:08] Adam Grant:
Yeah, but I didn't know exactly why or how. And they're just evaluating me from a bunch of pieces of paper, right, which is a pretty… It's a pretty poor proxy for somebody's potential.
[00:09:19] Malcolm Gladwell:
Yeah. Those of us who didn't get into Harvard are always baffled by those who did get into Harvard and profess to have imposter syndrome.
[LAUGHTER][00:09:30] Malcolm Gladwell:
But Adam, so, I’m, what I'm getting at with all these questions about your college years is to what extent this book strikes me… Each one of your books is steadily a little more personal. Some of the best parts of this book are where you illustrate some of your points with personal stories. And I'm wondering whether, in some sense, this book is a personal, is a more personal project than your previous.
[00:09:53] Adam Grant:
Yeah, uh, it might be. I, I think I've, I've gotten more comfortable realizing, like, I've gotten so much, um, I guess reader feedback and also listener feedback from podcasts, like, we, we like hearing your personal stories, like, don't always use the data as a crutch. I'm like, they're not a crutch, that's literally what I do, it's how I think. Like, if you ask me a question about anything, I'll be like, “Well, what is the best randomized controlled trial on that?”
[00:10:14] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:10:14] Adam Grant:
Um, so this, this is not me avoiding sharing. It’s that, like, I, I consider systematic evidence to be a better source of knowledge than my idiosyncratic lived experience. But I realize that a lot of people's brains don't work that way, and I, I think I've come around to the idea that yes, if I'm sharing my story, story in service of explaining an idea or revealing a lesson, um, then that's not about me. That's actually me trying to, to offer a gift from my life to, to theirs. I think this book is a personal project because I’ve, I’ve realized over the course of writing it that all my, all my achievements that I'm actually proud of were things that I started out bad at.
[00:10:57] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:10:57] Adam Grant:
And I thought most of my life, the opposite was true. I thought what I was supposed to be proud of were the things that came naturally to me.
[00:11:03] Malcolm Gladwell:
So this is really interesting. And I want to dig into many parts of this, but I want to start with, we were talking earlier about a… The kind of hidden project in many of your books is interrogating our kind of lay notions of intuitive, about psychology that are incorrect.
And I'm curious about this. So, so, the lay notion this book is, to your just point you just made, the lay notion this book is focused on is we have this kind of veneration of innate ability, but in fact, the, what the evidence suggests is that, um, many of the most important accomplishes, accomplishments we have are not about what we start with, but what we acquire along the way.
And what I want to know is, what I'm curious about is, why do we have, in this specific respect, a lay notion that's so clearly at odds with the facts? Where did it... Why do we... Why would we venerate innate ability if innate ability is not nearly as important as, like, what's the reason for that?
[00:12:07] Adam Grant:
Such an interesting question. Off the top of my head, I think there are a couple things going on. Number one, um, how many parents do you know that are living vicariously through their kids? I mean, your, your kids are two in less than a year, so...
[00:12:22] Malcolm Gladwell:
It’s already started. It's already started.
[00:12:24] Adam Grant:
A lot of people, you know, whether it's, um, you know, wanting their kids to be, um, highly intelligent, um, or accomplished in their careers, or, um, you know, great athletes, or incredible musicians, whatever dreams people have unrealized, um, they often impose on their kids.
And I think saying, “I didn't have the natural ability,” um, is a convenient way to say, “You know what? Like… Maybe I didn't waste my potential. I didn't squander an opportunity.” Which is a lot of cognitive dissonance to live with, to say, “Maybe I could have been great and I just I didn't have the right approach to learning or the right level of discipline or the right coach.”
[00:13:06] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:13:06] Adam Grant:
Um, that's that's unsettling to think about. And so I think just, you know, kind of blaming, right, a, a lack of progress on tal, on raw talent. It lets us off the hook a little bit, would be one thought. I think the second thought is that when we see natural talent, we're just blown away by it. Um, you know, if you've ever watched a four year old play Mozart, um, you know, it's mind boggling.
And you realize, like, that is, that is a human that's cut from a different cloth than me. And so it's, it's hard to ever see yourself in that person. I remember, actually I’ll, I’ll give you a personal example on this since you invited me to talk more about myself.
[00:13:44] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:13:44] Adam Grant:
So, um, this is about to become the Adam Grant show. Are you ready?
[00:13:49] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:13:49] Adam Grant:
Alright, um, I remember when I, so you know I'm an introvert, um, I'm shy, I was extremely afraid of public speaking. And when I wanted, when I decided I wanted to do it. I said, “Okay, I have to go and learn from great speakers.” So the first thing I did was I watched videos of MLK's I Have a Dream speech.
It was completely demoralizing. I mean, I watched this, and I'm like, “I will never, no matter how hard I work at this, I will never get that good.” So I'm like, “I might as well quit now.” And I think that, I mean, it just, it feels unfathomable, right? When you see that the innate ability differences between you and someone else could be that great. Um, it just seems impossible for you, and so you assume then that that is what is required.
[00:14:34] Malcolm Gladwell:
What you're doing with MLK is you're assuming that what you're observing is an innate, in fact, he's practiced, he grows up in an oral culture, in the church, he's, grows up watching his father and others preach sermons. I mean, he's, he's surrounded in a world that is, you know, is, is, is speaking in that vein. It's like, he's the, he's the, he's actually not the right person to look at and see evidence of innate ability.
[00:14:59] Adam Grant:
That's exactly right. But we don't know it.
[00:15:01] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:15:01] Adam Grant:
Watch someone as good as, as Martin Luther King Jr. And you think that's gotta be a God given gift.
[00:15:07] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:15:07] Adam Grant:
There’s no way he was ever bad at speaking. Right? He's too good. It's impossible. What we don't see is the history you're describing. Um, we admire people at their peak. We don't get to see the distance they've traveled. We don't see the fact that he started entering public speaking competitions when he was 15 years old. That he had 20 years of deliberate practice under his belt.
That the year he gave the dream speech alone, he gave over 350 speeches. Which is probably as many speeches as you've given in your career.
[00:15:36] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:15:36] Adam Grant:
I would imagine. Um, so I think, I think we have unfortunate access to greatness. Um, we see people at their peak, um, and we assume that they started far ahead of us.
[00:15:48] Malcolm Gladwell:
But is this an, is this a universal affliction or an American affliction? Because I, I say, I bring it up because one of my favorite chapters in this book is you have a chapter on, talking about the educational system in Finland and how much it differs from the American system in the, in its sort of assumptions about learning.
And it doesn't sound like the Finns, at least as is, as is expressed in their educational system, h-hold to a notion of innate ability and, and, you know, so, w-what are we dealing with here? Is, is this, is there something uniquely American about this idea?
[00:16:23] Adam Grant:
There may be, to some extent. I think when, yeah, when I think about what we do culturally in the U.S. that's different from other parts of the world, um, there is a tendency to make the fundamental attribution error more. Um, in the U.S.
[00:16:40] Malcolm Gladwell:
Though you should define that.
[00:16:41] Adam Grant:
Ah, but, yeah, the tendency to attribute people's actions, um, and station to their, their innate characteristics as opposed to their, you know, situation and affordances and opportunity and circumstances. Um, an idea that you thoroughly decimated in Outliers. I will point out, um, but we still do it a lot in the U.S., right? We, we like, we're an individualistic society. What we like to do is we like to say, “Okay, you, ah, you are where you are because of the things that are inside of you.” Um, and I think you're right.
I think in Finland, I think in Estonia, Um, I think in, we could probably make a whole list of other countries, Um, there's a stronger sense that, um, every child has hidden potential. And it's the job of parents and teachers and coaches, uh, to realize it, in two senses of the word. One, to recognize it, and then two, to develop it.
[00:17:30] Malcolm Gladwell:
It seems to me fundamentally paradoxical, and no one's properly explained to me why it would be the case that a culture like the United States, which is the highest achieving, you could argue it's the highest achieving culture in the world, on a, a number of metrics, should have a notion about achievement that is fundamentally wrong.
It just doesn't make any sense. In fact, if you said to me that America was the one place where people recognize that hard work, that everyone has a lot of potential and that it's, it's, it's revealed in hard work practiced over your life and that trying to judge someone on the basis of their performance at 12 is a fool's errand.
Um, if someone said that is the distinctly American view, I would have said that makes sense. What, uh, it doesn't make any sense at all that we should have it backwards of all, of all, of all cultures.
[00:18:18] Adam Grant:
I think part of the problem is, our country feels too big to invest in everybody. And so, what we often do is we say, “Okay, well, we're going to create gifted and talented programs. And we're going to build a winner take all system, so that the kids with the true promise are going to get to rise to the top.”
And that allows us to believe in, um, the notion of meritocracy. It allows us to feel like we've earned all the success that we've achieved as opposed to partially lucking into it. And so I think there is a function there, right? It allows us to think that America, like when we, when we talk about the American dream, and we say that anybody can live the American dream, this is the land of opportunity, um, we are justifying our system. And I think that serves a soothing function for a lot of people.
[00:19:07] Malcolm Gladwell:
Yeah. Another one of my favorite chapters in this book is about perfectionism. Um, and it's, it is sort of your critique of where perfectionism leads us, what it costs us. And you start with a, a really interesting discussion of your time as a diver in high school, um, and how you were a perfectionist. Can you talk a little bit about how your perfectionism manifested itself and how you came to believe it was self-defeating?
[00:19:36] Adam Grant:
Yeah. I, I, I, I actually, first I didn't know I was a perfectionist when I started diving. And then, at some point, it, it crystallized, and I thought it was a big advantage, because in diving, I mean, you've all heard Olympic announcers say perfect tens. And I thought, okay, in a sport that's judged on perfection, aiming for perfection has gotta be the way.
And it was such a liability for me, more than an asset. Um, I, there were a whole bunch of things that I did that were counterproductive. Um, one was, I just wasted a lot of time trying to perfect easy dives. As opposed to learning harder ones, which limited my degree of difficulty. Um, I was, I actually got an award one year from my teammates.
Uh, it was the If Only Award. And there was a little drawing of me on a paper plate. Uh, with a, with a cartoon that said, uh, “If only I had pointed my left pinky toe on that dive, I would have gotten an eight and a half instead of an eight.” And, like, that's not what mattered. Like, I should have been stretching so I could actually touch my toes without bending my knees. That would have made me a better diver.
Um, I think, uh, not only did I focus on the wrong things, I ruminated a lot, I beat myself up a lot, um, and I was constantly shaming my past mistakes as opposed to trying to sort of educate my future self, um, from those lessons, and that was, that was not helpful.
Um, probably the worst thing that I did, though, was the balking. Where, um, you know, diving when you're, you're gonna take off forward, you walk down the board and then jump to the end? Well, if my hurdle, if my takeoff, if my approach wasn't perfect, I would just stop and start over. And stop and start over. And then there's a two balk rule, and then I have to get off the board, and then I'm not doing dives all practice, because, like, what's the point of, yeah.
[00:21:16] Malcolm Gladwell:
You missed it. If you balk, to, in other words, if you stop and start again more than twice, you have to get dismount from the—
[00:21:24] Adam Grant:
Well, that was the rule that, uh, my coach Eric Best had to institute because otherwise I would just balk all practice So, but I—
[00:21:33] Malcolm Gladwell:
What’s it, what’s going on inside your head? Are you enjoying? Are you enjoying being a diver?
[00:21:38] Adam Grant:
Yeah, I loved it. I loved it, but I was really frustrated feeling like I couldn't get it right. I couldn't get it right. I was really bad.
[00:21:46] Malcolm Gladwell:
And then when did you start reflecting on the experience and kind of… I think there’s, well the reason I ask this question is, forgive me, Adam, if I could play Dr. Freud for a moment, and if you'd like to recline.
Um, I feel there's a lot more, there's a lot more of, your books are a lot more of a personal project than you let on. And this one in particular, I was reading this one, and you have these little moments where you start talking about diving, and I think, you know, if I was a psychoanalyst, I would say, “Adam, this book is really about you trying to make sense of the mistakes that Little Adam made.” And the experiences that Little Adam had. Is that, is that not fair?
[00:22:28] Adam Grant:
I mean, I wouldn't frame that in Freudian terms, because I think he set psychology back a century.
[00:22:34] Malcolm Gladwell:
Of course. Of course you would say that.
[00:22:36] Adam Grant:
[00:22:36] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:22:38] Adam Grant:
I mean his, his approach was so unscientific. And if you disagree with him, well you're in denial. Like, how is that helpful to anyone?
[00:22:47] Malcolm Gladwell:
Exhibit A. Who’s in denial here.
[00:22:49] Adam Grant:
Uh, I, I will say there are some good meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials of psychodynamic therapy that show that it can have efficacy for some people in some situations, but I'm still extremely skeptical. Anyway, uh, you’re, I will not be paging Dr. Freud.
[00:23:04] Malcolm Gladwell:
Adam, may I, could I remind you where you are? You're in a place called Manhattan, and you're dissing psychoanalysis. What? Why did...
[00:23:12] Adam Grant:
I don't know, Malcolm. I just...
[00:23:13] Malcolm Gladwell:
An act of self... You want people to buy your book afterwards? And this is what you're telling them? Half of this room is in therapy!
[00:23:17] Adam Grant:
I... First of all, I think most of these, most people here have already bought the book. And I also think there's a point at which you stop blaming your behavior on the sins of your parents.
[00:23:28] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:23:28] Adam Grant:
And start taking responsibility for your adult choices.
[00:23:31] Malcolm Gladwell:
Adam, I brought... Wait, wait. I brought this up because I was wondering whether you were doing a version of the same thing, which was at the age of, how old are you now?
[00:23:40] Adam Grant:
[00:23:42] Malcolm Gladwell:
At the age of 42. Still working out the problems you had as a swimmer in, as a diver in—
[00:23:47] Adam Grant:
Oh, don’t ever call a diver a swimmer. Yeah. No, that's like me calling you a jogger. As a runner.
[00:23:53] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:23:54] Adam Grant:
I think there's a difference between trying to work out the problems of little Adam, which is how, um, Malcolm Freud would approach this discussion. And trying to figure out if there are lessons from my biggest struggles and also my greatest moments of growth, um, that could become teachable moments for me and others.
[00:24:13] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:24:14] Adam Grant:
I’m trying to reflect on, um, you know, the fact that I really was my own worst enemy for a good part of my diving career. But then I ended up ascending to a much greater height than I ever thought possible.
[00:24:25] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:24:25] Adam Grant:
I should not have gotten where I got as a diver. I shouldn't have been a... Like, where, what was I doing in the Junior Olympic Nationals as somebody who literally was called Frankenstein because I didn't bend my knees when I walked? Like something about this does not add up, and so I think that juxtaposing those kinds of moments with what does the social science tell us, um, is really powerful.
[00:24:43] Malcolm Gladwell:
But if you had, I guess what I'm trying to say is, the, the work that you've done, the extraordinary work that you've done as an adult, is in some way, we're all beneficiaries of some of these struggles you had as a, if you had been this kind of non-nerdy golden boy who was a kind of diving prodigy and to whom things came easily, we don't get this book.
[00:25:09] Adam Grant:
[00:25:09] Malcolm Gladwell:
Yeah. To go back to our earlier point, this is another kind of crucial flaw in the kind of obsession with, um, innate ability and the, the way in which we celebrate, um, we happen to celebrate those who achieve things early and mirac—without apparent effort.
And that is that we're not thinking about the downstream consequences, right? We're not thinking that a lot of what looks like struggle at an early age is simply kind of raw material in preparation for some kind of future, better thing. Right? Being a, struggling as a diver, as a freshman is in the grand scheme of things, a pretty small thing.
But it's a little kernel that becomes something really interesting when you're 40 and you're interested in, in, in writing about hidden potential, right? Starts to matter then.
[00:26:00] Adam Grant:
I think you're onto something important here. And, um, I think I, I read a book once, they called it Desirable Difficulty, by you.
[00:26:08] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:26:09] Adam Grant:
Uh, I, I think that. Yeah, this is actually something that Maurice Ashley stressed to me that I hadn't appreciated. So, um, you know Maurice from the book is a chess grandmaster, and I think an extraordinary coach who recognizes and brings out the hidden potential in kids that nobody else thought had a chance.
And one of the things Maurice said is he has watched in chess over and over again: the biggest prodigies young are the ones who have the biggest struggles when they're older. Because it came too easily to them at first. And they're just, they're used to kind of having this, this natural success. And all of a sudden, they lose the game, and they can't take it.
And they, they haven't, I think the, the fundamental problem there if you look at the research is, they have not built the character skills that are necessary to face obstacles. Um, they don't know how to, to embrace discomfort. They don't know how to accept the right imperfections and say, “These mistakes are actually part of my growth.” And so I think that sometimes early success does a major disservice to our future selves.
[00:27:12] Malcolm Gladwell:
Mm-hmm. I, I reminded a couple weeks ago I was sitting in a coffee shop in Orlando, Florida. Long story. And I, I e-mailed...
[00:27:22] Adam Grant:
You e-mailed me about this.
[00:27:23] Malcolm Gladwell:
I e-mailed Adam. There's two surgeons sitting next to me, of course I was eaves-eavesdropping. And one of them had a daughter who had, was at Cornell Medical School. And he was boasting about how she was, she loved Cornell, Cornell's amazing. She got into Cornell, isn't that fantastic, blah blah blah.
And I emailed Adam and I was like, “How does this guy get it completely backwards? Why doesn't he boast about his daughter that… ‘My daughter's having an amazing time in medical school. Isn't it amazing that she's the kind of person who can go into an institution and find what's meaningful to her and flourish?’”
And you know, he was focused on Carnell and he wasn't interested in the character traits his own daughter had that allowed her to flourish and be happy and find meaningful. And I was just like, there's something about parents, what you're describing is why are parents so bad at kind of decoding the psychology of their own children? It just strikes me as like.
[00:28:22] Adam Grant:
[00:28:22] Malcolm Gladwell:
Why are we making these mistakes? Then why on earth are we so in love with prodigies? Like, I don't, I just, again, I mean, I'm just baffled by this.
[00:28:30] Adam Grant:
I mean, when psychologists study this, they talk about parental over involvement and over identification. And the notion that as a parent, like we were touching on this earlier, you start to define your own success by your children's accomplishments. And I just want to sit parents down. I see this all the time with, with our students at Penn.
Um, I want to sit these parents down and say, like, “What your children achieve is not a reflection of your greatness as a parent. Like, you should be much more concerned with who your kids become and how they treat other people.” Um, great, be, being a great parent is not about how much prestige your kids attain in their school choices or in their jobs. It's not about career success. It's about character.
[00:29:15] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:29:16] Adam Grant:
I think you might have found someone who had not yet internalized that message.
[00:29:20] Malcolm Gladwell:
You, you say, on this subject of perfectionism, I want you to talk a little bit more about what, just, in general, what, what precisely is damaging about, uh, uh, and, uh, having a perfectionistic attitude? And what is, what do you feel we should have instead?
[00:29:39] Adam Grant:
Okay, so, um, if, if you look at the current work, which I think is the most comprehensive and rigorous to date, um, what we see goes wrong with, with perfectionists is one, um, they lose the forest and the trees. So they tend to focus on small details and overlook the big picture.
Uh, two, they do a lot of the rumination and sort of self shaming as opposed to self compassion that's necessary for learning from your, your mistakes. Um, and three, they, um, they actually tend not to, to stretch themselves much. Um, they want to focus on the things they know they can master, um, as opposed to venturing into uncharted territory.
And by avoiding failure, they actually avoid risk taking and they avoid learning and challenging themselves. Um, and that means they end up with a a static or even ever narrowing comfort zone, as opposed to an expanding domain of expertise.
[00:30:27] Malcolm Gladwell:
You make the comment in the book that you think perfectionism of the sort you've just defined is on the rise. Uh, why would it be on the rise?
[00:30:35] Adam Grant:
So, empirically, perfectionism has risen in the U.S., in the U.K., and the great nation of Canada. I think if you look at why it's increasing, what everybody does is they say social media. Like, it's gotta be social media, everybody has a perfect image of themself on Instagram, and that's leading our kids to have unrealistic expectations.
That may be part of the story, but guess what? Perfectionism started rising a generation before social media existed. It started rising when Mark Zuckerberg was in diapers. So there's gotta be something else going on, and my read of the evidence is there are two things that seem to be contributing to it, and both of them are parental behaviors.
One of them is, uh, rising parental expectations for kids. Uh, holding children to increasingly impossible standards. And two is increasingly harsh criticism of kids who don't meet those standards.
[00:31:30] Malcolm Gladwell:
Did you, so why would, okay, let's, let's take one step further. Why would parents, I mean, it seems like an obvious question, but I don't know that I know the, a kind of good answer. Why would parents’ expectations have risen? So we're talking about the 90s.
[00:31:47] Adam Grant:
[00:31:47] Malcolm Gladwell:
80s, 90s. What's driving parent, parental expectations in that era?
[00:31:52] Adam Grant:
So we don't, we don't know. I think the, probably the consensus hunch right now is that, um, the world has gotten more competitive. So, you know, however hard it was to get into college, um, in the 80s, it got a little bit harder in the 90s, and it, it got increasingly difficult over time, and so, in a world that feels more and more zero sum, um, I think we've, we've probably seen a lot of talk about how, um, the current generation of, um, of kids is the first in America that might not, sort of, outdo their parents or have a better standard of living than their parents.
And so when you see that world, when you see a world of scarcity, you think, “I've got to do whatever it takes to help my kids succeed,” forgetting that the very things you're doing to try to help your kids succeed are just turning them into achievement robots who one day realize, like, this is no way to live a life and burn out.
[00:32:42] Malcolm Gladwell:
How were you? How did your parents, would you think your parents were guilty of that?
[00:32:46] Adam Grant:
My mom used to tell me, “Adam, no matter what grade you get, as long as you do your best, I'll be proud of you.” And then she would add, “But if you didn't get an A, I'll know you didn't do your best.” She said it with a smile. I think she was half kidding, but I, I took it seriously.
[00:33:07] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:33:08] Adam Grant:
So yeah, I guess there was a little, I didn't, I didn't get the harsh criticism though. But I definitely felt like expectations were high.
[00:33:13] Malcolm Gladwell:
Yeah. Um, the last chapter of your book, you, you talk a little bit about interviews and admissions and college admissions and things. And I had a, I had some big and some small questions about that. You have a very interesting part where you talk about what the evidence, social science evidence tells us about the success and/or failure of affirmative action programs. Can you summarize what we, what social science tells us about that?
[00:33:38] Adam Grant:
Yeah, I, I went in to read the evidence to ask, what is, what is the impact of these programs? A lot of people have strong ideological positions on them. I feel like my job as a social scientist is to look at the most careful research that's been done and, and try to paint the picture of what do we know. And I think what, what the evidence suggests is that affirmative action programs are a double edged sword.
Um, even for the very people they're trying to help. So, on the one hand, um, they do manage to open doors for people who have historically been denied opportunity by virtue of group membership. On the other hand, if you enter a university or a workplace that is known to have affirmative action, you perform worse if you are a beneficiary of that program than if the program didn't exist.
So, we see this with women, we see it with racial minorities. Um, what happens is, and I, I don't think this will shock anyone. Um, people start to doubt whether they really deserve that spot. Um, am I qualified? Do I belong here? Um, it's a massive version of imposter syndrome and not the healthy kind.
And then, um, other people question it too. And they're like, “Well, I, I don't think you really got in on your own merit.” And that self doubt and constantly being doubted by others, that takes a toll. Um, it's exhausting to deal with. Um, it's distracting to constantly question your capabilities, day in, day out.
And so, you know, I, I came away from this evidence thinking, I, I don't, I, I don't know, I don't know where I stand. I think that we're sort of damned if we do, and we're damned if we don't. But, I do think there's an alternative approach that might be helpful to think about.
[00:35:20] Malcolm Gladwell:
What, um, two questions. But that one is, um, why doesn't that same logic hold for the white beneficiaries of affirmative action? I'm a legacy kid, gets into Harvard because daddy went to Harvard. Why aren't I walk, walking around with a big burden of imposter syndrome? I'm only here because daddy gave 17 million dollars to... Does it not work? Do, are white people exempt? What?
[00:35:44] Adam Grant:
Can we just pause to acknowledge the fact you just called legacy admission affirmative action for white people?
[00:35:49] Malcolm Gladwell:
That’s what it is.
[00:35:49] Adam Grant:
I think that's an accurate characterization. I, I think that not only should legacy admission be banned, I think that if there, it used to be used by a lot of Ivy, Ivy League schools as a tiebreaker. And I think it should be a reverse tiebreaker. If you're on equal footing with somebody whose parents didn't go to an elite institution, then you already had an advantage! So the other person should get in.
[00:36:12] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:36:12] Adam Grant:
I think, first of all, a lot of people don't know who the legacies are. I think also there's not the same stigma. Historically, there hasn't been the same stigma associated with legacy admission. So affirmative action is seen as lowering standards.
[00:36:23] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:36:23] Adam Grant:
Um, and in most cases, it's not, right? It's just saying, we're gonna look at um, at people who all meet the qualifications and requirements and then we're going to make sure that those whose groups have been historically disadvantaged get a shot. But, um, I think in the, in the case of, you know, of legacy, uh, there hasn't been that stigma. It's been assumed, “Oh, you come from a genius family. You belong here.”
[00:36:46] Malcolm Gladwell:
Yeah. So the problem is really not, it's not necessarily the problem is inherent in the notion of, in this case, treating a group of disadvantaged students differently. It's the narrative we tell around the policy that we don't have the same kind of, we have a disparaging narrative around racial affirmative action, but not a disparaging narrative around rich people affirmative action.
[00:37:09] Adam Grant:
Look, we, we had a Supreme Court ruling that happened as the book went to press.
[00:37:14] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:37:15] Adam Grant:
And I think actually, um, one of the, the ideas that I float in this book is, is maybe an option now that we ought to take seriously, which is maybe we should stop defining people by their group membership. Maybe instead of assuming that just because people came from a particular background, um, that they had the same degree of difficulty and the same adversity.
We should actually get to know the individual students. And find out the obstacles they faced. And then adjust our expectations of them. According to how much poverty did they individually face. Um, according to did they, um, did they run into major challenges. And I think that that, that seems like a much more fair way to give people who have been disadvantaged a real shot.
[00:37:59] Malcolm Gladwell:
Yeah. Wait, I wanna, it's a very, I, I mean there's much to be said for that idea. Um, and that's a longer conversation, but I wanna ask, we're running out of time. But I have one last thing I want to say. So this is, I'm now, I'm asking you to give me some advice, because I'm working on a book right now. And this is very, I deal with this very question we're talking about in this book.
[00:38:19] Adam Grant:
Are we talking about the, uh, the revision of The Tipping Point?
[00:38:23] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:38:24] Adam Grant:
Or a different book?
[00:38:24] Malcolm Gladwell:
The revision of The Tipping Point.
[00:28:25] Adam Grant:
Are we allowed to say that publicly, that you're rewriting The Tipping Point?
[00:38:27] Malcolm Gladwell:
Yes, I'm revising The Tipping Point. And I, so I, I was thinking of posing the following question, given what you're saying, what advice would you give to a bright, uh, ambitious African American student who's interested in STEM, wants to be a doctor or engineer or scientist of some kind? Who has two, uh, uh, admissions, um, offers, one from an Ivy League school and one from an HBCU. So one where he goes, or she goes with the stigma of affirmative action. And one where she goes without the stigma. What would you tell that student?
[00:39:10] Adam Grant:
That’s, that’s a fascinating question. I'm not sure I'm qualified to advise on it is my first reaction. My second is—
[00:39:15] Malcolm Gladwell:
You just wrote a book called Hidden Potential.
[00:39:19] Adam Grant:
Yeah, but… I, I'm trying to to look at what works for most of the people, most of the time.
[00:39:25] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:39:25] Adam Grant:
Not necessarily assume that I know the path that's gonna be most effective for a complete stranger. Um, I'd wanna see, I’d wanna see much better data about what are the life trajectories of, you know, of students with similar profiles who both have the same set of opportunities and then end up, um, for a variety of reasons in, you know, in one or the other?
Um, I, I guess the first thing I would want to do though is I'd want to know what are your goals? Like, are you trying to maximize your status or objective career success? Are you trying to, um, you know, to, to lead a life you can be proud of? Um, are you pursuing happiness or meaning? Like, I think there, there are lots of different outcomes, and I think the, the big mistake that I see, I, I've, I've had a lot of students come by office hours with these kinds of dilemmas.
Um, over the years, often they're grad school dilemmas or they're job dilemmas, but sometimes it's high schoolers trying to choose a college. And the, the main advice that, that I find myself giving them is, is to say, you don't want to just define your, your success by achieving your goals. You should think about success as living your values.
If you have a career target that you hit, but it requires you to compromise your principles, that's not success, that's failure. It's the worst kind of failure because you're, you've abandoned what matters most to you. So, why don't we talk about what your values are? Um, is one of your core principles, uh, to break a, a bunch of gro—excuse me, to break glass ceilings?
Do you want to prove to people that other people can follow in your footsteps? Um, Karen Knowlton is here, uh, Karen did some brilliant work on being a trailblazer. Is, is one of your core priorities in life to open a door and clear a path for other people? If so, you can ask, “Do I want to do this by starting out in an Ivy League school, or do I want to, to go to an environment where I might be more supported, um, and maybe it's easier to blaze a trail later?”
I don't know. I can't predict the future. Um, that's the kind of conversation I'd want to have, and it wouldn't end with advice. It would, it would end with me asking, um, what have you learned through this conversation about your values? And which path do you think is going to help you avoid straying from them?
[00:41:39] Malcolm Gladwell:
Adam, it's a, it's a beautiful answer to the question. You started by saying you didn't think you could answer the question, then you gave me a beautiful answer to the question.
[00:41:45] Adam Grant:
But that's because I didn't answer the question.
[00:41:47] Malcolm Gladwell:
No, no, no. But it, but it goes to, and this is actually a, I think a lovely moment to kind of sum up. Um, we are, if, when I read this book, when I read this book, the, the first and overwhelming thought I had was, we really are at, we really are asking the wrong questions about something like potential. We're just like, our premises are all wrong. Right? That's what you're getting at here. Right? In one, one chapter after another, you're just saying, “Wait a minute. We're starting with this perspective,” and it's just like, we're, why? What do we, you know, it's that, that kind of need to go back to, um, to fundamentals. And re-ask some really basic questions is what this, what is so, what is really wonderful about this book. And, um, please go and buy Adam’s book.
[00:42:37] Adam Grant:
Thank you all.
Our team includes Daphne Chen, Courtney Guarino, Constanza Gallardo, Dan O'Donnell, Gretta Cohn, Grace Rubenstein, Daniella Balarezo, Banban Cheng, Michelle Quint, Alejandra Salazar, and Roxanne Hai Lash. Our fact checker is Paul Durbin. Our show is mixed by Ben Chesneau. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
The live show is recorded at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell and Pushkin for hosting. And I would be honored if you order a copy of my book, Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things. It's available in audio, print, ebook, pretty much any format except stone tablet.
You are also a Buffalo Bills fan. As a long suffering Detroit Lions fan…
[00:43:35] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:43:36] Adam Grant:
Which one of us do you think feels more pain?
[00:43:38] Malcolm Gladwell:
We got a glimpse and then God stepped in and cruelly ripped it away, pushed the ball right. And pain that I suffered, have suffered over my 60 years of affiliation with this franchise, um, dwarfs whatever you went through. If, if what happened to me on Sunday happened to you, you wouldn't be here. You'd be crawled up, curled up in a small ball in the closet of your upstairs bedroom.
[00:44:09] Adam Grant:
You are so wrong about this. So I, look, you're, you're obviously subscribing to the sort of close call counterfactual theory of misery, which it, it's just like it hurts you all know. I think that, that like Danny Kahneman studied it. Um, if you miss a flight by five minutes, it’s devastating. If you miss it by an hour, nobody cares. Like you were so close, and you say that hurts so much. Here is my argument back to you.
[00:44:32] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:44:33] Adam Grant:
You have had hope in your life as a football fan.
[00:44:35] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:44:36] Adam Grant:
Meanwhile, I went to one playoff game where I had to watch Brett Favre run left and throw a ridiculous pass right to Sterling Sharp, ruin the Lions’ next 30 years, Barry Sanders retires as the greatest running back in history, 30 years old, like I've never even gotten a taste of joy.
[00:44:56] Malcolm Gladwell:
[00:44:56] Adam Grant:
So, my life is, is much worse as a football fan. I rest my case.