Dark Suits and Doing Good

I have a new lifestyle crush. That is to say, I have found someone whose life I would like to live mine in the vein of. His name is Adam Grant, and he’s awesome.

For those unfamiliar, Adam is the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School of Business (at 31, which makes me want to get my life going in the worst way!) and an organizational psychologist by trade. He has just published a book about success called Give and Take, and one of my high points last week was getting to see him speak about the book at Harvard. In fact, the lecture was held in a hall in which he’d had class as a Harvard undergraduate, and it was in that hall that he decided to be a psychologist and professor. Crazy to be there for such a full-circle moment.
(For more information on Adam, this New York Times piece on him and his book tells a great story. Long read, but a really inspiring one for me.)

I’ll admit that I had a hard time trying to put this post together, having seen Adam speak about a book that I haven’t yet read. But, like a few other dilemmas in my life, a TED talk saved the day. His TED talk, to be exact, from TEDxPhiladelphiaED in 2011.

In a bit of foreshadowing to his research about giving and taking as lifestyle practices, Adam speaks in this talk about the teacher that inspired him to be an educator, and how he never told her that she was his inspiration. When he did reach out to get in touch, he learned that she had retired due to burnout. He wondered, would that burnout have overcome her if she had known the impact that she was having?

After speaking about research and interviews that come to the conclusion that burnout is manageable, even avoidable, if the impact of the work is understood and truly believed, Adam provides some actionable strategies to connect inspired students and alumni to their sources of inspiration. This connection helps the teachers (or other mentors) understand their impact and can bring a sense of reward to stressful jobs, while affording former students and proteges to express gratitude for what they’ve gotten from these people.

As I watch many of my former students, graduate advisors, and interns move into the next stages of their lives, I want to be able to instill this sense of gratitude, prevent them from lives of burnout, and to equip an army of what Adam calls in his book “givers”. But how? Some ideas, between what Adam mentions in the talk and what I’ve really appreciated from the standpoint of both the mentor and the protege:

Reconnect. Adam suggests bringing successful alumni back to the classroom, office, or other arena to share their experiences since graduation and what their experiences with the teacher or mentor in question has meant to their lives. Current students get clarity on what their experiences could lead them to, and influential educators get to see the fruit of their labor.

Distill the beneficiaries of your work. There are days where you’re going to feel lost in your work. It happens to the best of us. Patrick Lencioni talks about curing irrelevance of work by concentrating on the ultimate beneficiary of your efforts- “who does your job help?”. Adam looked at this in university fundraising, a field with notoriously high turnover. In call centers where callers were introduced to students who were the beneficiaries of incoming funds, learning more about the stories of these students and the impact of solicited gifts, they had greater productivity and raised more money than those who hadn’t had the chance to see who their work was helping.

Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Say thank you. Write it down. Make that thank you timely and tangible. It doesn’t have to be a big production, but it does have to be authentic. Letting people know they’re appreciated makes a world of difference in believing their work is meaningful.

On days that you’re not sure what the point is (and let’s be real, we ALL have those days!), think about those who you benefit with your work. Sometimes, it takes a few rounds to get down to the final consumer, but take the extra steps. Try to learn their stories if you can. Those personal connections make all the difference in the world in making meaning for us from behind our office doors and cubicle walls.

There will be another post about Adam’s work when my copy of the book comes in. So stay tuned!

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