Magicians may be loath to reveal their secrets, but this former illusionist is spilling the beans on success.
“My mother was always the person who looked for ways to recognize and appreciate other people,” says Adam M. Grant, at 32 the youngest tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school. “She would pick out the most thoughtful gift. When a salesperson would do something nice, she always wrote to the boss about it. My dad coached every youth sports team. He would volunteer to do the civil air patrol as a pilot and taught swimming to children with disabilities. Their lives were replete with success.”
Following in his parents’ footsteps, Grant has taken the “greed is good” ethos that seems to pervade American business and turned it inside out in his best-selling book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. Its thesis is that it’s not the sinister “taker” who wins in business, but the optimistic and generous “giver.”
Backed by ample research, Grant posits that givers win because they “form broad and long-lasting bonds and find their work meaningful,” making them better at it. And since they don’t see everything as a zero-sum game, they’re willing to let the other person in the transaction win, too. His work has made him the subject of an article in The New York Times Magazine and a feature on the Today show. He consults for Google, the NFL, and Merck.
Unlike other stars of academia, however, Grant doesn’t stint on his time in the classroom. He is the highest-rated professor in the Wharton MBA program, where he teaches leadership and teamwork as well as negotiation. He even instructs undergraduates—something that top professors often eschew—on the subject of organizational behavior. He has been known to meticulously answer 200 e-mails a day and to hold longer office hours than any other professor. His classes combine real-life examples, lots of interactive role-playing, and relevant clips from his favorite TV shows, including The Office and Seinfeld. “In business schools, you always heard the lines like ‘No good deed goes unpunished’ or ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’ and derisive comments about do-gooders,” Grant says. “But my research shows just the opposite. Giving and success really do go hand in hand.”
Grant is still doing publicity for Give and Take while he looks for a topic for his next book. He expects that, like Give and Take, it will be something for the general public, not just business leaders. Meanwhile, he will be back in the classroom teaching this fall.
Grant learned the giving/success equation early on. An all-American high school diver, he continued pursuing the sport at Harvard. While diving may seem like an intense individual competition, even there generosity pays off. “Ninety-five percent of your time, you’re waiting and watching other kids dive, so you observe and you critique, giving your knowledge. Then you cheer, and in the end everyone has gotten better.”