Zibby Owens: Welcome, Adam. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Think Again.

Adam Grant: Thank you, Zibby. I’m thrilled to be here, but you should really reserve your enthusiasm for the end because we don’t know how this is going to go.

Zibby: You’re right. I might change my mind a hundred times. I’m going to rethink the whole thing as we go.

Adam: Maybe you should. In fact, maybe you shouldn’t have invited me at all.

Zibby: I have been debating that.

Adam: Maybe there are some things you shouldn’t rethink.

Zibby: In case anyone is confused, we are joking like this because that is the topic of Adam’s book, The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. I personally have found immense validation at the whole premise of this book being that it’s okay to rethink because I literally rethink every decision I ever make to the distress of everyone around me because I am constantly changing plans. Everybody has sort of viewed this as a weakness. Now I’m going to view it as a strength.

Adam: I’m not sure I really meant to come and just validate all of your analysis paralysis and all the ways that you might drive yourself and other people crazy if you rethink everything. I do worry, Zibby, that we live in a world where people are expected to stick to their convictions and we think that consistency is a sign of strength. Every time I hear people say that, I think, if you never change your mind, how are you ever learning or growing?

Zibby: It’s so true. I was actually talking about the topic of your book with a friend of mine and what it was about. She was like, “I’m so glad someone said that because I always feel bad for politicians when they have a different belief about a certain topic ten years later. Why are they not allowed to change their mind? I change my mind on lots of things,” she said.

Adam: I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately because we see so many headlines about flip-flopping. I do think there are times when we should be critical of that. If you’re changing your mind just to please your tribe or if you haven’t actually changed your mind but you’re towing a party line, then we probably shouldn’t give people credit for evolving. If people have reflected deeply on an issue, if they’ve looked at the evidence, if they’ve had conversations that led them to question some of their convictions, I think that’s a sign of progress in many cases.

Zibby: Yes. I didn’t mean to suggest flip-flopping to cater to the whims of popular vote would be a positive, but just that people are allowed to change their minds, as we do about lots of things in the course of daily life.

Adam: Bring it on.

Zibby: Your book talked about so many different amazing things. One thing that I loved was when you talk about kids and when people ask them what they want to be when they grow up. I have been taking issue with this question a lot lately when people ask my kids. I’m thinking, not only did I not know for sure, although I wanted to be a writer, I’ve changed my career and my job a hundred times. Not a hundred times. A lot. I don’t think it’s even a fair question anymore. People don’t know, necessarily, even when they’re our age what they want to be. Things are constantly evolving. Tell me about that and your whole discussion of it in the book.

Adam: I think it’s a great way to get kids trapped in plans that don’t actually make any sense for them. I remember as a kid being asked, what do you want to be when you grow up? The only acceptable answer was something heroic. I had to say an astronaut or a filmmaker. I had no idea what I wanted to be. It never occurred to me until much later that I didn’t have to define myself solely in terms of work. It’s not an acceptable answer to say, I want to be a good dad, or for you to say, I want to be a good mom. It’s also not acceptable to say, I want to be a person of integrity or generosity. This is such a peculiar American thing. If you go to Europe, people don’t ask, what do you want to be? They don’t even ask you, what do you do? when they meet you because it’s considered rude. They’d rather talk about what you love to do. At some level, Zibby, I think it would be a lot kinder to kids if instead of saying, what do you want to be when you grow up? we asked them, what are all the different things you want to do? and allowed them to recognize that they can have many careers and many identities. What they think is exciting to them might change over time. Maybe even the job that they want doesn’t exist yet.

Zibby: Totally. I mean, podcasting, what is that? What are we even doing right now? Zoom, podcasting?

Adam: This was not a job when we were kids.

Zibby: No. Would’ve saved me a lot of rethinking of what I wanted to do had I known .

Adam: You can talk to people, and that’s work? Really? Sign me up.

Zibby: I know. It’s amazing. It’s like a total joke. Speaking of kids, by the way, how great that, I think it was your daughter who came up with the cover idea with the match and the water. Awesome.

Adam: Yeah. Joanna’s twelve. It was such an exciting moment for me because I knew we needed a cover that would get people to think again, but nothing we tried was working. I just happened to mention offhand one day that we were looking for a cover idea. Joanna says, “What if you had a match with water instead of fire?” It just clicked instantly. It really made me rethink where I get my ideas. My process was way too linear. I was like, we need an optical illusion, but a lot of them have been done before. They’re clichéd. Then the new ones we tried just didn’t work. They were too confusing. Joanna said, “Rethinking is about doing the opposite many times. Let me think about opposites.” She said, “Water and fire.” She didn’t even know that the opening story was about firefighters. I just thought, this is perfect.

Zibby: I was going to ask if it was based on that and how perceptive she was. That was amazing.

Adam: Complete coincidence.

Zibby: Wow. I’ve gotten my kids involved in my anthology book covers by having them just pose, but yours are now the idea generators.

Adam: This is the next step for your kids.

Zibby: This is the next step, yes, a hundred percent. In your TED talk, you talked about how you’re a pre-crastinator, which I loved. Tell me a little more about that.

Adam: Are you one too?

Zibby: I am one too, yes.

Adam: I had a hunch. I’ve always taken joy and pride in getting things done early. I was the kid in college who annoyed all my friends because I finished a draft of my thesis a few months in advance. When I have a deadline — let me say this a little differently. When I’m excited about a project, I want to finish it as soon as possible because I have this image of how great it could be. Every minute I’m not working on it is a source of anxiety. It might not get done. It might be terrible. I know a lot of procrastinators who feel that anxiety at the last minute. I just feel it a few weeks or a few months ahead of schedule. Pre-crastinating is essentially feeling that urge to finish way ahead of schedule. Tell me about your pre-crastination.

Zibby: I make false deadlines to avoid the anxiety of running up against a deadline. Then as you said, all my anxiety spikes around my false deadline. I don’t think I’m actually doing any good, so I felt relieved that there was now a term to describe this. Thank you.

Adam: I keep meeting people who say, look, I understand that it’s probably worse to be an extreme procrastinator than it is to be pre-crastinator, but this isn’t fun either. I’m always tricking myself into thinking that I have all this pressure on me to do something. It’s actually taking some of the joy out of my work.

Zibby: Totally. Let’s talk a little more about rethinking in general and why you wanted to write a whole book about it. Why is it so important that people know that it’s not only okay, but actually beneficial to rethink and dig deep and poke holes in our own beliefs and come up with new theories? Why is this important?

Adam: There’s so many reasons. The place I would start is to say that our first thoughts, our intuitions, are often not our best thoughts. There’s some research on students taking tests showing that if they have a first instinct and then they change their answer, on average, they actually improve their scores. Yet when you tell students that, they still hesitate to rethink their answers because, I think in part, there’s this regret that comes from saying, I had the right answer, and then I undid it and I made a big mistake. Whereas if you stuck to your first answer and you didn’t rethink it, there’s really nothing to second-guess. For so many of us, it’s easy to prefer the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt. Every time you question your own opinions or your own knowledge, you’re saying, you know what, I might be living in an unpredictable world. I might lack some control over my life. I might be excluded from the tribe of people who sees the world a certain way. Yet we live in a rapidly changing world. As knowledge evolves, as facts change, if we don’t update our thinking, it’s pretty easy to get stuck in the past. I think we probably should put an expiration on a lot of the beliefs that we form.

Zibby: Is there a belief you have that you’ve changed lately?

Adam: I have so many. Where do you want to start?

Zibby: I don’t know. Something about parenting.

Adam: I’ve rethought almost everything I used to believe about parenting. One of the big ones for me actually is a little bit of a twist on growth mindset. I was really heavily influenced, as I’m sure you and many others were too, by Carol Dweck’s work and said, okay, we should praise effort, not ability, was the big thing that stuck with me.

Zibby: The power of yet. They can’t do it yet.

Adam: Exactly, not yet. I haven’t figured this out yet, such a key phrase. Yet then I read some research showing that in the realm of generosity, if you want to raise kids to be giving and caring, it’s actually more effective to say you are a helper or you are a giver than to praise them for helping or giving. I’ve started to wonder if there’s something about character that’s different from achievement where when you say, you are a kind person, it actually starts to internalize it as part of their identity. Then the next time they have a chance to do something that shows compassion for someone else, they think, that’s who I am. My wife Allison rolls her eyes at me every once in a while when she catches me saying, you’re a giver, which just sounds really cheesy. I think the data are really interesting. Even as young as three, if you invite kids to be helpers instead of just to help, they’re about twenty-five to thirty percent more likely to show up and help. Even that young, they want to earn the identity. That’s something I’ve started to think differently about. What do you make of that?

Zibby: I love that. I think I’m going to use that to coerce them to do more chores by saying, you are the dishes helper tonight, versus, do the dishes. I’m going to try it.

Adam: I think there’s potential there.

Zibby: I think there’s a lot of room for growth.

Adam: I should say a caveat. Carol has some work showing that you still have to express disappointment when they don’t earn that identity, though. When parents show disappointment and say, you know what, I know you’re a helper, but you weren’t helpful today, that cultivates guilt. As Erma Bombeck put it best, guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.

Zibby: I love Erma Bombeck. I wish I could interview her.

Adam: Same.

Zibby: If anyone ever asked me that question, which no one has, but for the fictitious interviewer who wants to know who I would like to have dinner with who’s not alive anymore, I would pick her.

Adam: That is such a great answer.

Zibby: Yes, to a nonexistent question. Thank you. I’m glad I lined that one up.

Adam: People ask it all the time. In theory, you should always have an answer to that.

Zibby: Right. It’s at the ready. Tell me a little bit about the power of listening because you write a lot about that in the book. I particularly loved this little illustration you have where it says, “Let me interrupt your expertise with my confidence,” which is not only about listening, but also about the unbridled confidence.

Adam: I’m sorry. What were you saying? I couldn’t resist.

Zibby: I almost —

Adam: — Close call.

Zibby: Glad I had coffee. I’m with it. I got it. Okay, yes, power of listening.

Adam: The power of listening. I was really profoundly affected by this work in counseling psychology on what’s called motivational interviewing. It grew out of counselors who were doing work with people who were trying to overcome addictions. They found that preaching at people and prosecuting them for doing the wrong thing just didn’t tend to work. It made people defensive. Suddenly, they realized you often are in a position where you can’t motive someone else to change. What you could do, though, is help them find their own motivation to change. One of the best ways to do that is to do what we’re doing right now, which is actually to interview them, to ask them questions about what changes they’ve considered and how they went so far and then reflect back to them, hold up a mirror and help them see, you know what, I have some reasons to stay the course, but I also have some reasons to consider changing my beliefs or my behaviors. Then if they express an interest in changing, you help them think through what their plan might be. This has really changed the way I have conversations with a lot of people, whether it’s friends who are concerned about vaccines or it’s students that I give advice to in office hours.

For so much of my life, I’ve felt like my job is to try to help people get closer to the truth and when I think I’ve already found the truth, okay, I need to enlighten you. It does such a disservice to their own freedom of choice and also their own expertise and experience. What I’ve tried to do now when a student comes into office hours, for example, and they ask me for advice on a tough career decision, I’ll start by saying, tell me why you’re here. Are you here because you just want validation for a decision that you’ve already made? Are you looking for someone to help you think through what the thought process should be? Do you want me to challenge some of your assumptions and help you rethink what might be a premature conviction? Once I understand that, I can just ask them a bunch of questions to say, what are your values? What are you trying to achieve in this career decision? Then once I understand that, look, it’s your choice, but here’s how I might think through the decision if I were you. Based on what I’ve heard, here are the criteria that seem to matter to you. I end up being much more helpful in those situations. I also learn a lot more because I find out that the reasons I had for preferring a different path are not necessarily their reasons.

Zibby: So interesting. I feel like you can apply that to couples counseling and other areas of times when people end up not listening to each other, especially, perhaps, if everybody’s been home for almost a year because of worldwide pandemic and are having trouble getting along with the people they live with. Not that this is happening to me, but I’m just saying.

Adam: Hypothetically. It is interesting. Motivational interviewing’s been applied in some of those areas. There’s work on divorcing parents, for example, trying to reach a settlement about who takes the kids and what the schedule looks like. When the mediator uses this approach and says, I want to interview each of you about what your goals and your values and your intentions are, they’re significantly more likely to actually reach an agreement. The work on listening, to me, is so interesting, that just sitting down with someone that you sometimes don’t get along with and saying, hey, I realize I haven’t always done a good job hearing you. I’d love to ask you some questions to better understand your viewpoint. I’m just going to listen for three, four, maybe five minutes. That is enough to create significant understanding between both people.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. I’ve thought a lot about listening because I do this all day. I know I talk a lot too, but I really am listening. I listen to people. I hear them. I think about it all the time, and what it does just to have someone know that someone’s listening. That alone, no matter what you say after, wow, somebody cares about what I have to say for half an hour. I really do care. I feel like it makes people so grateful for that simple act of just not being distracted and listening.

Adam: It’s such a rare commodity, isn’t it?

Zibby: I know. It’s so simple.

Adam: It is. It’s the most basic skill that we’re supposed to have. You’re a professional listener. It’s surprising how rare it is for us to sit down with someone else and have a conversation where they’re not just waiting for their turn to talk, but they’re genuinely curious about who we are and how we got there. I’m reminded of some work I did studying astronauts. Their big challenge was to build trust. This is going to sound like a bad joke. It’s not. There was an American, an Italian, and a Russian that were supposed to go to the International Space Station together. They didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. There was some gender biases and some culture clashes. One of the things they did around a campfire one night during their training was they told their origin stories. They listened to each other talk about the defining moment when they realized that they wanted to go to outer space. All of a sudden, they realized, you know what, we have all these differences, but we also share a really uncommon commonality, something that only hundreds of people in human history can relate to. It was sort of a turning point for me because I realized everyone has an origin story. We’ve all had those defining moments that have shifted our ideas of who we want to be or how we want to lead our lives. How often have we actually shared those moments with the people that we interact with every day? I would say probably not often enough.

Zibby: Totally. Also, I find if you ask people even something simple about themselves when they’re not expecting it, like how you met your spouse because I’m always totally curious about those relationship origin stories, you end up learning so much about the person in another context too. People just want to tell you. I really want to hear. It works out perfectly. Speaking of wanting to hear, tell me a little more about how you got to where you are and how, also, your professional diving experience somehow made its way into your story.

Adam: I’ll start with diving. I fell in love with diving right before I started high school. It was probably a bad idea because I was afraid of heights. I was completely inflexible. I walked like Frankenstein. I had an incredible coach, Eric Best, who said, “I will not cut an athlete who wants to be here. I will invest as much time in coaching you as you put into the sport.” He saw more potential in me than I saw in myself. My biggest hurdle in diving, aside from all the physical limitations, was I was just terrified of trying new dives. I would sit at the end of the board shaking waiting to — I look back now and think, what was I doing? Why? I remember one practice in particular where I was supposed to do two and a half summersaults and a twist and dive in headfirst without getting lost. I just stood there shaking, frozen, for twenty, twenty-five minutes. Finally, Eric said, “Adam, are you going to do this dive one day? Are you ever going to do this dive?” I said, “Of course. I know this is a major goal of mine. It will help me reach some of the heights that I’ve really dreamed of for the last few years.” He said, “Then what are you waiting for?” There were so many moments like that in my diving career that really helped me appreciate the importance of psychology. As I started coaching, and especially after I retired from diving, I found myself applying a lot of what I had learned from Eric with other divers and wanting to pay that forward. At some point, it clicked that if I became a psychologist, there was so much knowledge collecting dust in a bunch of boring academic journal articles that could actually help people live more meaningful lives and maybe have fewer regrets too. I think diving probably planted a lot of those early seeds.

Zibby: Wow. You did all the diving. You started coaching. You stumbled on psychology. You decided that was for you. Then what happened?

Adam: Then I was lucky to have a few professors who just transformed the way I saw the world. I took a social psychology class with Ellen Langer where every day I would come into class and I’d have an assumption shattered. Then I took an organizational psychology class with Richard Hackman who really turned upside my view of what it meant to have a motivating job. He got me to rethink what my career path might be. One of the things I hated most about the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question was there were a lot of different things I wanted to do. I didn’t see how they could fit into one career. As I listened to Richard talking about how he didn’t know what he wanted to do, so he just got a job where he got to study all the jobs he found interesting — he studied orchestra conductors when he wanted to be a musician. He studied airline cockpit crews when he wanted to be a pilot. He studied intelligence agencies and how to make their teams great when he wanted to be a spy. I thought, this is the perfect job. I’m going to try to study and improve other people’s jobs. It really crystalized then.

Zibby: When did writing make its way into your life?

Adam: I’ve always loved writing. The first time I thought seriously about being a writer was the summer after freshman year of college when I started writing a novel. I was reading a lot of thrillers and mysteries and sci-fi books. I thought it would be fun to try to write one. Then I got busy and forgot about it. Then the next year, I read a bunch of books that really took psychology and made it mainstream. I started reading Malcom Gladwell. I read Csikszentmihalyi on flow. I read Cialdini on influence. I was mesmerized by the way that psychology came to life. I thought at some point in my career, maybe I want to do that. Then I forgot about it again and got very focused on doing research and teaching my classes. Then after I got tenure, I felt like I no longer had an excuse to only communicate to other professors and decided it was time to try reaching a broader audience.

Zibby: Then what was it like when Originals became such a hit?

Adam: It was sort of a shock. I had really taken the experience a little bit for granted. The short version of the story is, my first book, Give and Take, came out in 2013. I didn’t expect anyone to read it. I promised my students that I was going to try to build a bridge from the ivory tower to main street. It got a lot more interest and attention than I expected. At some point during that process, I just started to take for granted that I was an author. Originals comes out. A friend calls me and says, “What are you doing to celebrate and mark the moment?” I said, “Nothing. I’m a writer. That’s what we do. We write. I write books. This isn’t a milestone.” She said, “Really? Seriously? You poured more than a year of your life into this project. Shouldn’t you do something to appreciate it?” After thinking about it for a little while, I realized I need to get better at getting in touch with my past self. What I ended up doing is thinking about, how excited would the me of five years ago have been if I had not only published a second book, but people actually read it? I would’ve been ecstatic. I’ve tried to keep that in mind every time I accomplish something that seems worthwhile or took a lot of effort, to say, I might not appreciate this now, but there’s an old version of me that would’ve been overjoyed. I need to keep that in mind.

Zibby: The old version who was playing Nintendo so much that you got written up in a local paper. That version, perhaps?

Adam: That version, yes, the dark side of Nintendo kid. Who would’ve thought, I guess I’m probably going to be a professional video gamer?

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Adam: Advice to aspiring authors, I think it’s dangerous to take advice from people who don’t know you at all, but I would say that the advice you give to other people is often the advice you need to take for yourself. If you’re an aspiring writer, you probably know some other people who like to write, maybe even some people who write for a living. I’m sure they’ve come to you at some point asking for advice on what to write or how to overcome procrastination or how to improve their work. I would just say pay attention to the guidance that you give them and then apply it to your own writing.

Zibby: Love it. Adam, thank you. This was so much fun. Thank you for not making me rethink my decision to have you on my show and for spending the time with me today.

Adam: It was such a treat to be here, Zibby. Thank you for having me. I have to ask you, is there something you think I should rethink?

Zibby: Maybe how often you post about amazing podcasters. Maybe you should do that more often.

Adam: Oh, I like it. I have not done that enough. That’s a very good point.

Zibby: There you go.

Adam: I’ve been doing a whole bunch of fascinating interviews over the past week or two getting ready for book launch. I’m thinking about maybe doing a round-up post so that they’re all in one place as opposed to saying, I’m going to do a one-off share of each episode. Then it’s only going to reach a subset of an audience. Maybe I can amplify it by putting them all together. What do you think?

Zibby: I like that. I think that’s great.

Adam: I’ll run the experiment. We’ll see how it goes.

Zibby: I’ll be watching.

Adam: I really appreciate you having me. Thank you for also just doing so much homework. I can’t believe you read the book and also watched the TED Talk. I hope it didn’t ruin your day.

Zibby: It didn’t at all. I found all of it super fascinating, truly.

Adam: Thank you. This was a pleasure.

Zibby: Take care. Bye.

Adam: You too. Buh-bye.