Adam Grant Is (Not) Superman

He’s got best-selling books, famous friends and millions of devotees. He’s become the sage of the business world. So why is the wunderkind Wharton prof still searching for answers?

Photograph by Jonathan Pushnik

Adam Grant is impatient.

I can see it in the way that he’s sitting, perched forward, eager and anticipatory, as though he might leap up at any moment. In the way that he’s talking, quickly, as if he’s thinking faster than he can speak, brushing off platitudes and small talk with ruthless efficiency. Even in the way that he’s drinking, gulping from a bottle of water in quick bursts, which I assume isn’t because he’s especially thirsty but rather because, well, why waste time sipping?

We’re in a lounge slivered deep in the bowels of the Linc. It’s the afternoon before the NFL season opener, and Grant has just finished giving a talk at the annual Eagles Care Summit, a day-long symposium for the team’s nonprofit partners. The crowd is made up of directors and staffers of the city’s top nonprofits, and Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and Wharton professor, is their rock-star shaman.

“He’s a celebrity in Philly,” said one nonprofit director at the conference.

“He’s larger than life,” said another, before she pulled out her dog-eared copy of Give and Take, Grant’s New York Times best-selling book about how helping others fuels success. This is why they love him so much: He literally wrote the book on giving.

They all listened with rapt intensity as Grant talked about how to give effectively, how to prevent the burnout that givers often experience, and how to most successfully encourage others to give. They participated in his breakout exercises, laughed at his jokes, scribbled down notes. But now, sitting in the lounge afterward, he admits he’s not entirely satisfied with how it went. There were some jokes that didn’t quite land, some insights that weren’t conveyed all that well, some things he could have — should have — done differently. He’ll work on the speech later, tweaking it endlessly, but he has other matters to attend to first.

He has to prep for his undergraduate course on organizational behavior — one of Wharton’s most coveted classes, which you have to apply to get into. He has to meet with the students who are surely waiting outside his office to ask for career guidance or a connection to someone in his famously impressive Rolodex. He has to field his emails — he gets up to 200 a day — which include advice requests from strangers and high-level conversations with some of the world’s most influential business leaders, who look to him as a confidant and trusted friend. He also has to prep for season two of his popular TED podcast, WorkLife; write an op-ed for the New York Times; and contribute to the many groups that count him as a member, like his groundbreaking Authors@Wharton speaker series (which has brought power players including Arianna Huffington, Mark Cuban and Richard Branson to Penn’s campus) and Wharton People Analytics, a research initiative he co-directs. And at some point, he needs to go home to his grand French-country-style spread on the Main Line and spend time with his wife and three kids.

Yes, Adam Grant is impatient. He wants to dive straight into topics that create impact and invite challenge. So let’s cut right to it: This was going to be a story about The Superhuman Adam Grant, the highest-rated professor at Wharton (now 37, he earned tenure at 29 — the academic equivalent of a six-year-old getting a driver’s license) and scientific soothsayer to some of the country’s smartest students and most powerful companies. You know, a glowing, inspirational story about everything a Very Important Person does and how he gets it all done. But halfway through our interview, Grant nimbly performs one of his thought-twisting, table-turning tricks — interviewee turned interviewer: “You haven’t asked me any hard or edgy questions yet. Is that deliberate?” Then he says he’s disappointed that people haven’t been honest enough about his flaws; tells me he most definitely does not want a glowing profile; and flips this whole story on its head.

I shouldn’t be surprised. This is what Adam Grant does. He challenges people to go deeper, to ask tougher questions and give more honest feedback. “Life’s complicated,” he says. “Nothing is inherently good.” Even — especially — him. It’s this super-rational, both-sides-of-the-coin approach that makes him so attractive to business leaders (of organizations like Google, Facebook, Goldman Sachs and the NBA), who look to him for guidance on sticky issues like how to hire people, keep employees motivated, foster good ideas, and build a healthy workplace culture. Or, as he puts it: “How to make work not suck.”

But though he shudders at the idea of being considered a guru, Grant has certainly profited from today’s era of the idolized super-expert. And while he swears it’s not about him as much as it is about his ideas, he has worked to transform himself from introverted nerd to captivating showman. Grant has built a brand out of using hard data to explain how we deal with human things like grief, resilience, originality, leadership and generosity. But what’s ironic is that Grant’s success threatens what he craves most: to be challenged in a way that keeps him growing.

And I suddenly understand why Adam Grant and I find ourselves at an impasse as we sit at the Linc: I’m searching for what makes him exceptional, while he’s searching for what makes him human.

“We need blue face paint.”

It’s a Wednesday night in late August, one of those nights where everything is coated in a hazy glaze of heat and end-of-summer lethargy. Grant has just made this pronouncement to a trio of his Wharton colleagues as they sit in a common room in one of Penn’s on-campus buildings. They’ve been living here all week as they teach Management 610, an intensive five-day class that’s required for all first-year MBA students at Wharton. The room is littered with the detritus of a late-night college cram session: scattered cups of tea and half-drunk cans of La Croix, piles of candy, some fruit for good measure, a jumble of papers, pens and books. They’re working on a short video presentation for the class to illustrate leadership, and they’ve settled on a parody of the famous Braveheart scene in which Mel Gibson’s William Wallace — his face streaked with blue face paint — rallies his troops with an impassioned speech about freedom. And though it’s late, almost 11:30, and though there’s still so much left to do, Grant wants the blue paint.

“It’s a one-minute clip — just one minute of a two-hour lecture, but that’s the work he puts in, making sure that he’s not leaving anything on the table,” says Grant’s fellow professor, Samir Nurmohamed. “Working with Adam is like getting to play on a basketball team with LeBron James. As a rookie.”

Speaking of rookies: Grant was 28 when he started teaching at Penn, an unimposing guy with piercing blue eyes, a shiny bald head, and endearingly anxious mannerisms, fresh off teaching stints at the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (He earned a PhD from the former — in three years, no less — and before that, a psychology degree from Harvard.) Grant soon became something of a legend at Penn, with undergrads desperately trying to uncover the secret sauce behind getting into his class. He was a wunderkind, sure, but also relatable, one of them. And then, in 2013, he wrote a book.

“I thought I was going to write Give and Take and go back to my job as usual,” Grant says. A very rational thought; plenty of professors write perfectly good books and return to life as normal.

Maybe it was because his message — that a culture of giving in the workplace can actually lead to greater success, profitability and productivity as well as happier employees — was a refreshing antidote to Wall Street greed. Maybe it was because of timing: Grant’s work dovetailed nicely with a rising culture of self-improvement, in which we celebritize anyone with a whiff of expertise — from house flippers to life coaches — in a quest to work smarter, eat cleaner, be happier, live better. Or maybe it was because we finally started craving someone with more substance than wishy-washy gurus and vapid influencers, and Grant’s data-driven philosophy had some meat on its bones. (Yes, giving can be good, but when confused with selflessness or not approached strategically, it can also backfire.) In any case, the book came out, along with a buzzy New York Times Magazine profile of him, and Adam Grant, Professor, was suddenly publicly crowned Adam Grant, Business Savant-Slash-Thought Leader, and catapulted into the limelight.

Adam Grant speaking at a TED conference in Vancouver in 2016. Photograph courtesy of Bret Hartman/TED

His inbox flooded with requests, which have, over the years, grown in distinction: Could he offer career advice? Could he critique a dissertation? Could he give a commencement address? Could he be on the Today show? Could he do a TED talk? Could he consult at the Gates Foundation, Google, Goldman Sachs, Facebook? Could he present at the World Economic Forum in Davos? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. (For more requests he said yes to, consult his résumé. It’s 32 pages long.)

“Adam is an influencer at levels that would have been hard to comprehend a decade ago. People reach out to him for advice at every level on how to change the typical corporate culture,” says Howie Roseman, the executive vice president of football operations for the Eagles. “Adam has transformed culture at companies that have been stuck in the mud for decades.”

Grant helped the Eagles pinpoint ways to select the right players and staff — givers, not “takers” — for their organization. (We all know how that turned out.) He collaborated with Google, studying its workplace culture so that employees, in the wake of the company’s growth, could find more meaning in their jobs. He helped Goldman Sachs figure out how to attract and retain more workers, and he worked with Warby Parker to refine its hiring practices. His second book, Originals, which dispels myths surrounding creativity and entrepreneurial success, helped execs like Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson & Johnson, figure out how to better structure their companies to generate more innovative ideas, and helped countless fledgling entrepreneurs rethink their risk factors. (Successful people, Grant noted, don’t necessarily take bigger risks; they take more controlled ones.)

According to Neil Blumenthal, co-founder of Warby Parker and a former teaching assistant of Grant’s: “He’s helping to make organizational design, strategy and talent management sexy. And adding quite a bit of scientific rigor to it.”

While scientific rigor might not be sexy, it’s what makes Grant a scholar instead of a mere guru, and what keeps his teachings more grounded and credible than the lofty philosophies of some Tony Robbins-like life coach (though Grant’s Twitter feed — a scroll of motivational musings on subjects like success, authenticity and confidence — tilts that way). It is, to cut right to it, what keeps him from being a bullshit preacher.

“I think he knows that business leaders react to data and to knowledge, and he has the ability to draw upon the science, the data, and the behavioral analysis, and to simplify them in a way that allows them to be used, to make them compelling and relevant and real,” says Sherryann Plessé, a principal at Vanguard who has collaborated with Grant. “I can’t tell you how many academics I’ve partnered with through the years and I don’t know what they’re talking about.”

And this is part of what makes Grant exceptional: It’s not just that he’s able to produce these ideas. It’s that he’s able to share them in a way that truly resonates. The drive to do so stems, he says, from psychologist George Miller, who in 1969 declared that psychological science should be given away to the public. As Grant says, “This is not the kind of science that you lock up in an ivory tower.” A whole generation of organizational and social scientists, he explains, built a bridge from academia to the working world; he’s just crossing it. But, to Plessé’s point, that’s easier said than done.

“He’s able to communicate to the broadest possible audience these insights that he and others have painstakingly brought to light. But for most academics, bringing to light means you write up a journal article,” says Angela Duckworth, a popular psychology professor at Penn and a New York Times best-selling author in her own right. “There’s a craft to being able to tell the story behind an insight, to really get it into people’s heads, and then to get them to actually do something. There are companies that run differently because of Adam Grant. There are teams who aspire to a different culture because of Adam Grant — because of his podcasts, his books, his articles for newspapers and magazines. And that, to me, is at least as noteworthy as the scientific research.”

But Grant’s bridge is actually more like a tightrope: If his message is too academic, too mired in statistics and arcane details, his broader audience will tune him out. If it’s too simplified, “too clickbaity” — 5 Easy Ways to Make Giving Work For You! — he risks losing credibility in his field. It’s a difficult balance, he admits, and one of the hardest parts of his job. But, as with everything in his life, he’s working on it. He doesn’t mind. He likes the challenge.

There’s a picture of Adam Grant, age seven, in the April 17th, 1989, edition of the Detroit Free Press. He’s sitting cross-legged on the floor, his eyes zombie-like beneath a curly mop of brown hair, his mouth agape. He’s clutching a Nintendo console and staring at a television. The bold headline next to his photo is ominous: THE DARK SIDE OF NINTENDO.

His mother, a teacher, described her son in the article as a “very bright little boy.” He was creative, he liked to read and play soccer, and he was a member of the student council at his elementary school in the suburb of Detroit where they lived. The only problem, she told the paper, was his Nintendo fixation.

“When I got interested in something, I was totally obsessed with it. I could play video games for seven or eight hours without even getting up. I would just sort of lock in, laser in on one thing, which is something I use every day in my job now,” Grant muses. “When I have a goal, I’m totally obsessed and focused on it.”

His friends called him Mr. Facts. He was particularly annoying during baseball-card trades, spitting out batting averages and home runs with encyclopedic and mildly alarming accuracy. In second grade, he knew not just the names of the current Detroit Tigers players, but the name of everyone who had ever played for the team. Grant was — and still is — relentless in his pursuit of mastery. (He calls himself “compulsively goal-oriented.”) He became interested in magic as a kid, even performing as a professional magician for a time, and he would practice in front of a mirror all day.

In high school, Grant shifted his single- minded focus to diving. At a tongue-in-cheek award ceremony, his teammates presented him with the “If Only” award: a paper plate illustrated with a cartoon Adam and a speech bubble: If only I had pointed my left pinkie toe, I could’ve gotten an extra half point on that one dive. …

This endless quest to be better, give more, learn more, and eliminate blind spots (Duckworth calls it kaizen, the Japanese word for continuous improvement) is something that defines Grant and has shaped his success. Take his public speaking. Grant, for all his performing — diving, magic, teaching, talks, podcasts — isn’t naturally extroverted. In fact, he’s had to work very hard to be the sort of personality that can most effectively get his message out. To make more of an impact, Grant knew he had to turn himself into a brand.

“He’s had to train himself on how to speak publicly, how to make better eye contact with folks, how to engage in settings with large groups of people. When I speak to his tenacity to create change, it started with himself, which is pretty remarkable,” says Warby Parker’s Blumenthal.

All of this self-refinement could read as inauthentic — or, at worst, self-serving — but Grant is obsessive about challenging himself. He literally has a “challenge network,” a cohort of people he relies on to give him unvarnished feedback; he keeps a résumé of his failures (it’s three pages); and he constantly asks for advice on what he could tweak, tune up, or totally reconsider. I’d argue that kaizen is part of the reason he agreed to this story in the first place. An editor once told him that having a story written about you is like looking at yourself in a fun-house mirror. But hey, a fun-house mirror is still a mirror.

Still, I wonder if, in the face of all this self-improvement, there is any room for something else, something novel and, arguably, wonderful: contentment. Grant’s written three best-selling books, one of which he co-authored with his friend Sheryl Sandberg. (Yes, that Sheryl Sandberg.) His TED talks have been viewed by millions; he consistently wins Wharton teaching awards; he’s considered one of the world’s most influential management thinkers; and he still finds time to take his kids to water parks and, of course, play video games with them. Is he satisfied yet?

“No!” He recoils in horror at the idea. “Where’s the fun in that?” I laugh, but this is Adam Grant, and it’s not a rhetorical question. “No, seriously,” he says, leaning forward intently. “What do you do then? That sounds so … boring.”

It’s hard to hear Adam Grant on the phone. It sounds as if he’s surrounded by dozens of squealing children. Or perhaps monkeys. It’s a Friday night, a few days after our sit-down at the Linc, and I don’t know where he is — one of his kids’ activities, surely. He doesn’t bother to tell me, and I don’t bother to ask. I cut right to it: I tell him that he seemed impatient, brash, when we met. As though he doesn’t have time for anything that doesn’t help further his goal of making an impact.

He doesn’t hesitate: “I don’t.”

Grant spins every interaction he has through an opportunity cost analysis: Who am I helping if I do this, and is that more beneficial than if I were to help other people doing something else? This laser focus on strategic giving is the key to his hyper-productivity — and it’s what makes him authentic — but there’s a personal cost. He admits he doesn’t have friendship interactions simply for the sake of being friends: “The idea that somebody would reach out and say, ‘Let’s hang out?’ No. No. No, I don’t hang out. There’s always a goal attached to it.”

This is what makes Adam Grant exceptional: his ability to cut through all the noise and drill down into what will have the most influence. As for the stuff that’s left on the cutting-room floor (small talk, happy hours, rambling conversations with friends about nothing, Netflix binge-watching, contentment), well, it proves you can’t have everything. He’s only human, after all.

Ask people to describe Adam Grant, and among the glowing accounts of how he’s shaped their careers, challenged their thinking, refined their workplace culture, furthered their research, pushed them to just be better, there are descriptions that verge on contradictions: “He’s an artist and a pragmatist,” says one. “A mix of optimism and realism,” says another. “An outgoing introvert,” says another. A balance, then. Just as he likes it. Life’s complicated. So are we.

“He’s a role model of what an academic in 2018 can be,” says former student Raquel Kessinger. She ticks off everything he is: smart contributor to research, fascinating teacher, consultant to private industry and the public sector, caring mentor. “And he’s human enough to walk into the classroom and share with a room full of students the mistakes that he’s made and teach people from those. He’s superhuman. I tell him that all the time. He’s absolutely superhuman.”

Then she quickly recants, and I understand why. Grant would hate to read the word “superhuman” in a story about him. It’s far too superlative, too glowing, and it doesn’t paint the full picture. She pivots, starts talking about how much you can learn by watching how Grant works, the way he methodically and thoughtfully structures his weeks, days, minutes, to have the most impact.

I scroll through my phone late one night as I finish this story. I’m procrastinating, which, according to Originals, can actually lead to more creative and innovative ideas. (Hoorah!) I land on a text from Nurmohamed, Grant’s fellow Wharton professor. He’d sent me a photo of the group of Management 610 professors the night of the Braveheart taping. There are four of them, and Grant is front and center, his cheeks scrawled with blue. He’d eventually rustled up a blue marker and asked Nurmohamed to draw on his face. Naturally.

But there’s something else, which I’d forgotten. I zoom in on the picture. It’s Adam’s t-shirt, the shirt of a guy who is at once remarkably normal and decidedly exceptional.

The t-shirt is blue, faded, and there, on the front, huge and yellow, is the Superman shield.

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Published as “Work in Progress” in the November 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.