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The Science of Achievement, With Adam Grant - The Ringer

Author: The Ringer

Source: https://www.theringer.com/2023/10/27/23934263/the-science-of-achievement-with-adam-grant

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Today, we’re taking a break from war to talk about the science of human potential and a new book on that subject from the psychologist and bestselling author Adam Grant.In Hidden Potential, Grant shares stories and studies across sports, religious history, coaching, and economics to explain why we’re bad at cultivating our own potential and identifying ability in others.We talk about education and affirmative action, scouting quarterbacks, coaching Steph Curry, and, for reasons that will soon become apparent, the spread of Protestantism.If you have questions, observations, or ideas for future episodes, email us at [email protected] the following excerpt, Derek and Adam Grant look at some of the major misconceptions about talent and success and discuss what actually drives growth.Derek Thompson: I am excited to have you.You’ve written books about these big ideas: originality, generosity, curiosity. Each book of yours, I’ve read not just as a story-filled how-to, but also as a critique of some busted conventional wisdom in our culture.Like, “Nice guys finish last.” No.“Changing your mind is a sign of weakness.” No.That’s wrong.So let’s start there. What is the cultural error?What is the busted conventional wisdom that Hidden Potential is responding to?Adam Grant: I think there are two myths that I want to bust with this book broadly.One is that natural talent is the most important driver of success and growth.I don’t believe it is, and I don’t think the evidence supports that thesis.The second is that hard work is the key ingredient after natural talent, and I don’t think that’s what we need to unlock our hidden potential either. I think, of course, effort is important, but what ultimately matters is not so much how hard you work, as how well you learn.Thompson: So I have a meta question about this whole concept of potential.There are a lot of stories in this book about sports.And that’s great because I love sports, and I love these stories.But I’m 5-foot-8, 150 pounds.My basketball potential is not infinitely plastic. My potential as an NFL linebacker is not a matter of mere effort.Sometimes, if we’re being honest, we really are bound by the outcome of genetic lottery.But also, as so many of your stories show and as so much of the literature in psychology and developmental psychology shows, we consistently, both as individuals and as society, underrate ambition, underrate our ability to change, to improve, to become excellent at things that we used to suck at.And I wonder, as someone who used to suck at diving and public speaking, who is now quite prolific at both of these things—or, at least, was recently with diving—how do you reconcile these ideas: the force of genetics but also the possibility of improvement?Grant: I actually think that sports examples don’t help us here because we’re much less flexible and pliable physically than we are psychologically.So yes, there are Steph Currys and Tom Bradys who overcome the limitations of their bodies or find ways to repurpose some of their physical strengths to maybe compensate for their deficits.But when it comes to any skill you want to learn that’s not in sports, that’s not dependent on basic raw physical talent, speed, agility, strength, etc., it’s much easier to mold yourself into something you’re not.So I think about this, the contrast between getting good at diving and getting good at public speaking: massively different for me. Those are two things I started out terrible at, remarkably terrible.I mean, you can watch the videos of me diving as a 13-, 14-year-old.It’s embarrassing.I was the worst diver on my team, and it was a miracle that my coach didn’t cut me.And it took me years and years of pouring every ounce of my energy into diving, stretching, training on a trampoline, lifting weights to get my body to a place where I could qualify for the Junior Olympic nationals. And even then, after six years of diving being my obsession, I get to college and I’m completely out of my league because there are people who have worked just as hard as me and have springs in their legs and can actually touch their toes without bending their knees, easily.Contrast that with getting better at public speaking; I’m an introvert, and I was also extremely shy, and I would shake getting on stage, and within a few weeks the shaking started to dissipate, and within a few months I stopped breathing like Darth Vader all the time.And it was only an occasional blip.And it just really speaks to the fact that I think the skills around how we think and how we behave are much easier to learn than the ones that often put a real ceiling on our potential as athletes.Thompson: I want to blow out this idea of potential and improvement by thinking about it at the biggest possible scale.I’m interested in the concept of historical progress.You have tucked away, on page 45 of this book, a study that blew my mind the first time that I saw it. It is a study by Sascha Becker and Ludger Woessmann about the Protestant Revolution and how the Protestant Revolution changed the course of history.Get us started by telling us about this study.Grant: I’m going to make a faithful effort.It blew my mind too, honestly, Derek.And I love that it struck a chord with you because one of the things I’ve always admired about your writing is the way that you connect the micro to the macro and you dig deep into human psychology, but you also show us the broader social and political forces that are shaping collective progress.So this study, I feel like it was done for you in some ways. So, yes.Basically, this is a pair of economists, and they’re interested in following up on Max Weber’s insight that the Protestant Reformation essentially changed the world.And the Weber argument, which you know well and have written about, is that what Protestants brought us, what Martin Luther gave us in the 1500s, was a different work ethic.That before, labor was kind of a vice, and now, it’s a virtue.You have a calling.So people are going to become these extraordinary agents of grit and discipline and perseverance. And that’s why the Protestant Reformation fueled an industrial revolution.That’s why capitalism flourished.It was thanks to the work ethic that a religion gave us.And Becker and Woessmann said, “Not so much.We’re not sure that that’s false, but we don’t think it’s the only story.” So they set out to track this.And the way they do it is, they first show that, sure enough, as Protestant beliefs start to sweep through different regions, you can actually see economic growth follow in those regions. You can even see it at the level of a whole country.But hard work was not necessarily the active ingredient there.This excerpt was edited for clarity.Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.Host: Derek ThompsonGuest: Adam GrantProducer: Devon ManzeSubscribe: Spotify

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