Wharton’s Top Professor on How to Power Through Failure
“I don’t start out with confidence that I’m a good teacher, a good writer, or a good researcher. But I do have confidence that I’m good at learning things, and I’m motivated to get better.”
Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist, the top-rated professor at Wharton, and the New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World,and Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned award-winning law professor, and author of The Democratic Coup d’État. He recently sat down with Adam on his podcast, Famous Failures, to ask about the failures Adam overcame and the lessons he learned on his way to becoming a leading expert on how to live a more original, creative, and generous life.
Ozan: I’ve been a longtime follower and admirer of your work. Your books have influenced not only my own thinking and writing, but what I do in the classroom as well. I want to begin with a quote from Give and Take, where you wrote that when you teach undergraduates, you open your very first class with a story about your biggest failures. Why did you decide to do that?
Adam: I decided to do that for exactly the reason that you started Famous Failures. When we look at our role models, we tend to see them at the top of their game, when they’ve already made it. They seem to have a lot of natural talent, and we don’t get to see all of the stumbles that were part of the journey along the way.
I’m trying to de-mystify success, and show that anybody who’s achieved anything interesting has also failed a lot. And I want to also humanize myself, because I want to create psychological safety in the classroom. I want students to feel comfortable challenging me, asking me questions, seeking help, and asking advice. I don’t think people generally do that from a superhuman achievement robot.
Ozan: What specifically do you tell your students about your own failures?
Adam: In the first class I usually talk about how I took a job when I was a freshman in college, selling advertisements for the Let’s Go travel guides, and I was disastrously bad at it. I was supposed to call clients to renew their ads to the book—they had a 95% renewal rate the previous year. I went through my first week and made dozens and dozens of calls, and didn’t have a single contract. Not only that, I had three clients that demanded a refund from the previous year. So I became the first ad associate in the 40-year history of the company to not only bring in no revenue in week one, but also to lose money that was already on the books from the prior year. I said yes to the refund request, which was a violation of the contract that I had signed when I joined the company.
I talk about how uncomfortable I was cold calling, being an introvert and being relatively shy. I talk about how I knew nothing about travel—I’d never left the U.S. except to go to Canada (which my students tell me doesn’t count). I remember calling home and telling my mom that I was going to quit, and she said, “I didn’t raise my son to be a quitter! You work at that job until they fire you!”
It’s very much a growth mindset story—a story about learning some degree of grit, and relationship building, and then becoming relatively decent at the job. Through the anecdotes I share throughout the semester, my goal is to illustrate a huge mistake that I made, or a bad decision, or a failing idea, so that they can see the valleys along with the peaks.
“When we look at our role models, we tend to see them at the top of their game, when they’ve already made it . . . we don’t get to see all of the stumbles that were part of the journey along the way.”
Adam: There are the early failures. I was devastated when I didn’t make the 6th grade basketball team, or the 7th, or the 8th. And then I gave up on that, and went to soccer, which was the sport I’d been playing for ten years, and didn’t make the freshman soccer team in high school. Only later was it clear that this paved the way for my springboard diving career, which ended up being life-changing.
When I got to college I failed a writing test and was told I needed to take remedial writing first (which was supposed to be mostly for students who spoke English as a second language). I decided to skip the remedial class and pour as much energy as possible into the regular class. I stayed on campus for the entire Thanksgiving break and wrote all day, every day. Little did I know that would become a big part of my career.
In ad sales, eventually I did well enough that I was promoted to run the agency. But then I applied for the presidency of the organization and didn’t get the job. Looking back, I’m not sure I would have become a professor if I had been selected.
In grad school, I had lots of papers rejected by journals. During my first year, I sat down with a senior faculty member in my department who looked at my projects and said, “You’ll never publish even a fraction of these. You’re doing way too many things. You need to stop it. Cut the vast majority of your projects and only do three or four,” instead of the couple dozen that I had on my list. I decided it would be more fun to try to prove him wrong.
Another that stands out is getting really unpleasant feedback from undergraduates when I gave my first guest lectures, and then, as you know from Give and Take, the Air Force colonels and generals who hated my session. That was a huge failure that changed the way I introduce myself. And then there was writing 100,000-plus words of Give and Take, only to throw it out and start over from scratch.
Ozan: You have an incredible knack for taking these failures and leveraging them into successes. You went from a professor telling you that you’ll never publish a fraction of your ideas, to being the youngest professor to get tenure at Wharton. You went from getting bad evaluations in the first year of teaching an undergraduate class, to becoming Wharton’s top rated professor for six years in a row. How do you do that? What goes through your mind when you fail and then try to leverage it into success?
Adam: What goes through my mind is probably not different from what most people experience, which is, “This really sucks! This is horrible. How could this happen? This is not what I was aiming for at all.” I want to crawl into a hole, because it feels like I will never succeed at anything.
Then there’s another set of thoughts, which is, “Well, wait a minute. I’ve felt this way before and ended up overcoming the obstacle or finding a way to achieve my goal.” Or sometimes I realize that was the wrong goal and there’s a better one to pursue, or this was not something that I wanted to be involved in anyway. Sometimes my most important learning moments have come from these kinds of experiences.
I think there’s a battle between those two reactions. One is the defensive, self-protective, “This is something that I never want to experience again so I’m not going to try anything hard, or new, again.” The other is the curious, the proactive, the gritty, the learning-oriented, fill-in-your-blank set of reactions. What I try to do is choose the latter. It’s easier to do that now, knowing that I’ve been through it a bunch of times.
I had an interesting conversation with Reid Hoffman [co-founder of LinkedIn] about self-confidence. We were talking about how entrepreneurs feel a lot of doubt, and you see this in lots of creative fields. I asked him where he got his confidence. “You didn’t know LinkedIn was going to work, and as an investor, you didn’t know Airbnb, or Facebook, or any of your other investments were going to take off. Where did you get confidence that you could do something that you’d never done before?”
And he said, “Well, I didn’t have confidence in myself, in any of those skills, but I had confidence in myself as a learner.” I think that is such a powerful phrase to capture the way I’ve tried to react when I fail or struggle. I don’t start out with confidence that I’m a good teacher, a good writer, or a good researcher. But I do have confidence that I’m good at learning things, and I’m motivated to get better.
In the long run, the person I want to be is the person who says, “I didn’t give up at something I might have been able to improve at, and eventually excel at.”
Mental time travel is also helpful. Zooming out, I know that next month, this failure is not going to sting as much as it does today. In a year, I might have even forgotten it, if I look at my past experience. So in the long run, how will I want to have reacted? It’s like stepping on the accelerator of the learning reaction.
Ozan: I recently heard you speak on a different podcast about how you time travel backwards as well. When you find yourself losing excitement over big accomplishments, you go back in time and ask yourself whether you would have been excited five years ago about what you just accomplished. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about that.
Adam: I think there’s a broader comment that I would make to the mindfulness community about living in the moment and being more present-focused. In my view that’s the last thing you want to do when you fail. The whole challenge, which is often a test of our resilience, is being able to say, “This feels really awful in the moment, and I need to gain some distance from that moment by looking back or looking forward.” The ability to time travel mentally into the past and the future is key.
When my last book was published, I was asked, “What are you doing to celebrate?” My answer was nothing. Writing is part of my job. It’s become part of my identity. This is what I do. I write books. But one friend pushed back and said “Presumably you’re proud of it, or at least you’re not embarrassed by it, if you put it out into the world. And so, you should do something to celebrate.”
I thought it was a valid point, so I started thinking about the time when I would have been most excited about the fact that I wrote a book. It would have been before Give and Take came out, before I had the realization that I was going to become an author, and that book writing was going to become part of who I was. So I tried to imagine what my former self would have felt, and how I would have reacted. “Wow, this is really something I should take a moment to mark. I picked a topic that I care deeply about, and I had something to say about it that might be novel and useful.”
Ozan: You’re a prolific writer. You’ve written three New York Times bestsellers, you’re an active blogger, and you contribute regularly to the New York Times. How do you fail when it comes to writing?
Adam: I fail in a bunch of ways. The first way I fail is when I write drivel that I refuse to put into the world. It’s not even good enough for a blog post. For a lot of people, that’s just part of the writing process.
I’ve written about this myself. Original thinkers have a lot of bad ideas, because they have a lot of ideas, period. But I feel like I’ve written enough words that I should be able to write something worth salvaging every time I sit down. And so, to me, it’s a failure when I write something that no one will ever read.
The second fail is when I write something that I think has been misunderstood. I find that this happens most often when I’m writing something that’s a little bit contrarian or challenging to conventional wisdom.
“Sometimes doing something interesting, or meaningful, or helpful, is the best way to convince other people that they want to spend time with you.”
For example, I wrote an article about authenticity last summer. Why is it that people who value authenticity more are less successful in their careers? Their performance evaluations are worse, their promotion rates are lower. It’s been documented in many studies, across multiple decades. When you care deeply about being authentic, sometimes that sacrifices your appropriateness or your effectiveness. There was a backlash to the article from an audience of people who assumed, incorrectly, that I was telling them to be inauthentic. That was a disappointment because the way that I wrote it, to try get people to think, ended up making some of them defensive and led them to push back on my definition of authenticity, as opposed to embracing the conversation about whether there’s such a thing as being too authentic.
Another example is my most recent piece in the New York Times, on networking (Good News for Young Strivers: Networking is Overrated). I argued that sometimes accomplishments are a better way to build a network than the activity of networking itself. And there were all these people who said, “Well, no! Networks are really important! You don’t get it!” Yes, networks are important, but that doesn’t mean networking is the most powerful way to develop them. Sometimes people try to connect without a track record of achievement, or without a contribution that helps somebody else. It’s an empty way to start a relationship. You don’t have to be a great networker to build a great network. Sometimes doing something interesting, or meaningful, or helpful, is the best way to convince other people that they want to spend time with you.
I wouldn’t consider these articles failures, but I failed in the sense that I had a goal of getting people to think differently, and maybe act differently. I missed some of the audience that either misconstrued my point, or to whom I didn’t communicate my point clearly enough.
Ozan: Is there anything that you would have done differently for those two articles, knowing what you know now?
Adam: Absolutely. I think there’s sometimes a tendency, both for authors and editors, to favor headlines that are attention-grabbing. Sometimes that means you get a larger number of eyeballs on the piece initially, but then you have fewer people who are persuaded by it, and maybe even fewer people who are motivated to share it, which can ultimately hurt its reach.
Next time, instead of the provocative title that the editors picked, “Unless You’re Oprah, Being Yourself Is Terrible Advice,” I would pitch something softer like, “Being Yourself Is Great Advice, Unless…” A headline that would better convey the message: there’s a time and a place to be authentic, and we need to think about how to do that effectively, so it doesn’t prevent you from achieving your goals.
Ozan: I call this the “to be sure,” or “to be clear” portion of the article, where you address counter-arguments. You want to build that into the headline itself.
Adam: Exactly. My editor at the New York Times said, “Look, if I can give you one piece of feedback on your work, I want you to be more nuanced. And when you take a stand against something, bring up the counter-argument.” And I said, “Wait, I did that! Nobody paid attention to that! Here’s the paragraph where I did that.”
Sometimes making a more extreme version of your argument can bring people toward the mid-point, and also spark conversation, which I think is important. Then there are other times, depending on the topic and how you deliver the argument, that it just completely causes people to close their minds and shut down. As Murray Davis explained, people are interested when you challenge their weakly held assumptions, but they’re defensive when you challenge their more strongly held assumptions. Yet sometimes challenging strongly held assumptions is the most important thing that you could do. That’s the time to use a little bit less powerful communication, and say, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if? Or, is there a time when?” As opposed to saying, “You’re wrong.”