How Adam Grant, a "shy introvert," went from terrified public speaker to top-rated professor at Wharton
Plus, a giveaway of Adam's latest bestselling book, HIDDEN POTENTIAL!
We have some great Sunday Candlelight Chats planned, with special guests such as the great psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman; bestselling novelist Angie Kim; and more. Plus, I’ll be appearing on Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Letters from Love", on Sunday January 7. Please stay tuned for details!
Also: a full video replay of last Sunday’s Candlelight Chat will be sent out tomorrow (Saturday).
To participate in the chats, and to receive the replay, you’ll need a paid or scholarship subscription to the Quiet Life. We put a ton of labor (of love) into this work, and truly appreciate your support!
As I mentioned in my last post, I started our first Sunday candlelight chat by talking about how nervous I was. After all my years as a public speaker, I’m “de-sensitized” by now to the worst of my stage fright. But, as a shy person, it never truly goes away. And it always flares up when I’m doing something new - like gathering you all on a Zoom call for a heartfelt chat.
These topics resonated with many of you. So today, I thought I’d share this excerpt from Adam Grant’s characteristically excellent new book, Hidden Potential. If you haven’t read it yet, we also have a book giveaway for 15 of our subscribers! We’ll do this lottery style, picking the 15 winners at random. To enter, just fill out this form. If you’re selected, we’ll e-mail you to let you know, and the publisher will mail the book to you in early January.
And now, here’s Adam, from his new book:
GETTING THE COLD HARD TRUTH
The message from my body came through loud and clear: You do not belong here. Between the sweat drenching my shirt and the butterflies in my stomach, I had no business being onstage. As a shy introvert, just raising my hand to speak in class was enough to give me jitters. In the days before caller ID, I even got nervous answering the phone.
As a graduate student, I was determined to get over my fear of public speaking the fast way. I didn’t have time to dip my toe in the shallow end of exposure therapy; I dove right into the deep end of flooding. I volunteered to give a series of guest lectures in my friends’ undergraduate classes. I needed their input to learn. But when I asked those friends for feedback afterward, they came back with vague compliments. Interesting content. Enthusiastic delivery.
When they have helpful input, people are often reluctant to share it. We even hesitate to tell friends they have food in their teeth. We’re confusing politeness with kindness. Being polite is withholding feedback to make someone feel good today. Being kind is being candid about how they can get better tomorrow. It’s possible to be direct in what you say while being thoughtful about how you deliver it. I don’t want to embarrass you, but I realized it would be a lot more embarrassing if no one told you about the broccoli sprouting from your gums.
When you kick off a presentation, you know you’re in trouble if you say, “Good morning!” and multiple people respond, “Great point!” To help students overcome their hesitations, I gave out anonymous feedback forms. I wanted to become a sponge: I would absorb everything I could from the audience and then filter out what wasn’t useful. Little did I know I was going about it the wrong way.
The students panned my performance. Your nervous breathing sounds like Darth Vader. Then I interviewed for my first job at a top university, and the hiring committee rejected me. No one told me why until months later, when a colleague finally came clean. You lack the confidence to command the respect of our students. The following year, when I delivered my first session for U.S. Air Force leaders, the colonels crucified me. I gained nothing from this session, but I trust the instructor gained useful insight. It was a crash course in demoralization by useless criticism.
It’s easy for people to be critics or cheerleaders. It’s harder to get them to be coaches. A critic sees your weaknesses and attacks your worst self. A cheerleader sees your strengths and celebrates your best self. A coach sees your potential and helps you become a better version of yourself.
If I wanted to master the art of public speaking, I needed a better filter. I decided to turn my critics and cheerleaders into coaches. I’d tried to do that in the past by asking for feedback. But research suggests that’s a mistake.
Instead of seeking feedback, you’re better off asking for advice. Feedback tends to focus on how well you did last time. Advice shifts attention to how you can do better next time. In experiments, that simple shift is enough to elicit more specific suggestions and more constructive input. Rather than dwelling on what you did wrong, advice guides you toward what you can do right.
People sometimes worry about coming across as insecure, but seeking advice doesn’t reveal a lack of confidence. It reflects respect for another person’s competence. When you seek their guidance, people judge you as more capable. You’re a genius! You knew to come to me!
I replaced my usual feedback questions with a basic request for advice.* What’s the one thing I can do better? Suddenly people started giving me useful tips. Don’t lead with a joke unless you’re confident it will land. The audience wasn’t always ready for my dry humor, and hearing crickets amplified my anxiety. Open with a personal story—it humanizes you. I was trying to make it about the audience, not myself, but I was distancing myself from them instead of connecting with them.
After a decade of practice, I got an invitation to give a TED talk. I opened with a story about the time I failed to invest in Warby Parker, and managed to wait a full 42 seconds to unveil my first joke, which got laughs. A later joke did bomb, and you can hear my nerves at several points, but all things considered, the talk went over well. Over the next five years, I was invited to stand in the red circle three more times, and Darth Vader only made a cameo.
After every talk I give, I ask the hosts what I can do better. It reminds me that not all advice is created equal, and the more suggestions you collect, the more important filtering becomes. How do you know which sources to trust?
OK, this is Susan again. How about you? Have you ever noticed this difference between asking for feedback vs. asking for advice (or are you even now making up your mind to try it)? Do you relate to Adam’s story?
We always love to hear from you in the comments below, and are so glad you’re here,
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