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10 February 2021

Adam Grant Q&A: “What would make my life better? Outsourcing sleep“

The psychologist on character building, the myth of the hunter-gatherer, and why we need a four-day week. 

By New Statesman

Adam Grant was born in Michigan in 1981. He is a professor of organisational psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, a bestselling author and the host of the podcast “WorkLife”.

What’s your earliest memory?

I had an allergic reaction to something I ate in pre-school. I have a vivid memory of rushing to the hospital and feeling sad and confused about leaving my lunch behind.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Superman. Now, I try not to put people on pedestals – everyone has their Kryptonite. Instead of seeing my role models as heroes, I admire them for specific virtues they exemplify.

What book last changed your thinking?

Work by James Suzman shattered my assumption that our hunter-gatherer ancestors had brutal work lives. For most of human history, it turns out, we worked 15-hour weeks and led lives of leisure.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Jacinda Ardern for confident humility, Abraham Lincoln for generosity and Nelson Mandela for courage.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Organisational psychology. I study how to make work not suck. My job is to make jobs more motivating, teams more creative and cultures more collaborative.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The version of the world where it isn’t falling apart. Failing that, it might be fun to spend a day in ancient Athens, a week in Renaissance Florence or a month in Enlightenment Scotland.

What TV show could you not live without?

I’m torn between The Office and Seinfeld. More recently, my votes go to The Umbrella Academy and What We Do in the Shadows.

Who would paint your portrait?

Leonardo da Vinci, but only because I’d offer to help him procrastinate less and get more done.

What’s your theme tune?

It’s hard to argue with “We are the Champions”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“The advice you give to others is usually the advice you need to take yourself.” I mostly follow it, and when I don’t, I try to give the advice I need to hear more often.

What’s currently bugging you?

Some of my pet peeves are, “That’s not the way we’ve always done it,” “That will never work here,” and “That’s not what my experience has shown.”

What single thing would make your life better?

Outsourcing sleep to someone else so I could have more hours in the day and still feel rested. While we wait for that app, it would be great to see more companies and countries adopt the four-day work week.

When were you happiest?

I’d love to live in a world where people are more focused on building character than searching for happiness. I’m all for the pursuit of happiness, but above that I hope people care about finding meaning and standing by moral principles such as generosity, integrity and justice.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

TV writer, astronomer or entrepreneur.

Are we all doomed?

In the existential sense? I hope not. 

“Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know” by Adam Grant is published by WH Allen

[see also: Rachel Clarke Q&A: “I’m afraid I specialise in death”]

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This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair