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Adam Grant, author of Give and Take.
Adam Grant, author of Give and Take.

Education

Tenured before 30, professor offers five tips for student success Add to ...

Being generous – with one’s time, connections and work – will lead to more success than scrabbling one’s way to the top alone, argued Adam Grant earlier this year in his book Give and Take. Grant, the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (and the most highly rated) has concluded that one of the most rewarding ways to give is not through working alone but by facilitating connections. In that spirit, we paired up Afraj Gill, a 21-year-old student from Queen’s School of Business in Kingston, Ont., with Dr. Grant and let them talk – over e-mail – about how it’s possible to find time for family, work and projects.

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Afraj Gill: Tell me what your daily schedule looks like. How do you leave time for favours for other people and still get through your priorities?

My schedule varies quite a bit from one day to the next. In a teaching semester, I’m typically on campus four days per week, scheduled from early morning until the afternoon. I take phone calls on the drive to and from work, and I stack my office hours together in long blocks of three to five hours at a time. On those days, I come home for dinner, spend several hours with my family, and after our daughters are in bed, I devote about three hours a night to answering e-mails. This leaves three days a week for me to spend much more time with my family and make progress on my own individual projects.

On those days, I have no meetings and phone calls. I manage my time this way for two reasons. First, there’s a wealth of evidence that we’re better at serial than parallel processing – it’s more efficient to do one task at a time than multitask or switch back and forth.

By separating my helping and meeting time from my thinking and writing time, I’m less distracted and more productive. Second, research shows that giving is more energizing when we combine several acts of helping together in one day, rather than spreading them across different days. Sonja Lyubomirsky found that when people did one random act of kindness each day for a week, they didn’t become happier, but when they did all five random acts of kindness in one day, their happiness spiked. I find that when I’m able to help many students during office hours in one day, I feel that I’ve made more of a difference.

Your message is that people should give not out of a sense of obligation, but because it aligns with their passion, and provides them with enjoyment and a sense of purpose. How can busy students put this into practice?

One of my favourite principles is what Adam Rifkin, Fortune magazine’s best networker, calls the five-minute favour. Many students mistakenly believe that to be a giver, they need to be Mother Teresa or Gandhi, overlooking the fact that there are ways to add high value to others’ lives at a low personal cost. It just takes a few minutes to make an introduction between two people who might benefit from knowing each other, or to write a note to recognize the work of someone whose efforts have gone unnoticed.

Most employers hire based on raw talent, and disregard individual motivation (arguably, because it’s hard to measure). But you state that motivation precedes talent – that people should look for more motivated individuals, and not always talented ones.

When Benjamin Bloom studied world-class musicians, scientists and athletes, he found that they were rarely the most talented performers as children. What they had in common was a coach who made practice fun, and who took a personal interest in them. This motivated them to set higher goals, work harder and exercise more discipline. In the long run, these “gritty” people became the most talented people in their fields. For employers, these findings suggest that we may want to place more emphasis on work ethic, conscientiousness and drive. After all, the diligence with which people work is an excellent predictor of how close to their potential they will come. ...

In the corporate world, where things mostly revolve around hard-nosed negotiations and self-interest, why should people buy into the notion of giving?

Although there are parts of the corporate world that fit that description, I believe they’re more exception than the rule. Most companies are dominated by teamwork and service jobs, where skills in collaboration and relationship-building are critical. When people give, their team members value them more, and their clients and customers become more loyal. By helping others without strings attached, givers are able to develop broader and deeper networks – they connect with a wider range of people and form more meaningful connections.

If you could give one word of advice to students in university or high school trying to choose a career path, what would it be?

It’s tough to boil substantive advice down to a single word. The most useful advice that I received was:

1. Identify your personal values, or guiding principles. Nick Tasler has a free self-assessment that sheds light on the relative importance of different values.

2. Hone in on your strengths. My students love the Reflected Best Self-Portrait exercise, which involves inviting 15-20 people to write a story about you when you were at your best, and then creating a portrait about the common themes and patterns.

3. Draw a Venn diagram with three overlapping circles – values, strengths, and interests – and look for a career that fits in the center.

4. Set up a personal board of directors – a group of mentors who you admire and trust – who can provide feedback and share novel perspectives about possible career paths.

5. If all else fails, there are some thought-provoking books that offer valuable advice. My students often recommend So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, and The Start-up of You by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha.

 

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