Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist who has been repeatedly recognized as Wharton University’s top-rated professor (although he’s only 35 years old). He’s also written multiple New York Times bestsellers, including Give and Take–a modern masterpiece that makes the scientific case for why giving in the workplace leads to success.
Recently, Grant delivered the commencement speech at Utah State University, where he shared some of the lessons from his years of research.
We can sum up the message in a single sentence:
True success is all about finding proper balance.
At first glance, this advice may seem simplistic. But Grant goes on to illustrate how easy it is go overboard when it comes to the traits we value–and why that harms us more than it helps us.
For example, consider the following:
When generosity goes bad
“I’m a huge fan of generosity,” says Grant. “I’ve spent my whole career studying it, and I wrote an entire book about how it can drive not only our happiness but also our success … But there’s such a thing as being too generous. It’s a recipe for burnout.”
Grant cites teachers as a perfect example. “We love teachers who are selfless,” he says, but the research shows that “the most selfless teachers ended up being the least engaged in the classroom–and their students did the worst on standardized achievement tests.”
The more effective teachers, according to Grant, were the ones “who cared deeply about their students but also did what we’re all supposed to do on airplanes–they secured their oxygen masks before assisting others.”
In other words, they made sure to take care of their own needs first (which included identifying their limits and making sure to get the proper rest), then giving when they could. “They felt less altruistic,” said Grant, “but they actually helped more. Their giving was energizing instead of exhausting.”
The moral: Be generous, but don’t lose sight of your own needs in the process.
“Never give up” is terrible advice
Grant tells how he loved sports as a child, to the point at which he set his sights on becoming a professional basketball player. But despite intense training and extraordinary persistence, he repeatedly failed to make his middle and high school basketball teams.
So, what did he do?
He switched his focus to diving, in which he ended up qualifying (twice) for the junior Olympic nationals and competing at the NCAA level.
“Sometimes, quitting is a virtue,” argues Grant. “Grit doesn’t mean ‘keep doing the thing that’s failing.’ It means, ‘define your dreams broadly enough that you can find new ways to pursue them when your first and second plans fail.’ I needed to give up on my dream of making the NBA, but I didn’t need to give up on my dream of becoming a halfway decent athlete.”
The moral: “Don’t give up on your values. But be willing to give up on your plans.”
Identifying the right values and working to develop them in yourself are certainly vital steps to success. But remember, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
If you really want to prosper, go a step further–and find the sweet spots that help you to become the best possible version of yourself.
(You can read a transcript of Adam Grant’s full commencement speech to Utah State University graduates here.)