Adam Grant’s new book is coming out this month and it already looks like a best seller… and not just because of the amazing marketing machine that is already in place. This guy is on fire.
Grant’s style combines the rigor of research with a semi-autobiographical tone that is compelling and enlightening. On a more personal level, Grant is teaching me important lessons in my exploration of the generalist mindset and how it relates to patterns of success or failure in the contemporary economy.
His previous book, Give and Take looked at different reciprocity styles and strategies. His new book, Originals discusses themes of creativity and nonconformity… with perhaps a dash of novelty-seeking / openness-to-experience traits. Grant is plumbing the depths of under-appreciated aspects of human personality — more technical details on that below.
Givers in a Taker’s World, Generalists in a Specialist’s World
Adam Grant is a Giver, an Original, and a Generalist. He seems to live the values (and struggles) of the Givers he describes in his earlier book, and very likely, exhibits many of the tendencies of the Originals showcased in his new book. Certainly the being a magician part. He also seems to characterize the mindset and skillset of a highly successful generalist.
Back in late 2008, during the long tail of the global financial crisis, I was talking to an investment banker named Fred. I told him I was researching the subject of “the relative career success of generalists versus specialists” in a world of hyper-specialization and rapid change (a long-standing fascination – nay, obsession — of mine).
Here’s what Fred said:
“Yes, we live in a hyperspecialist age, but as a result, generalists can be overpaid or underpaid.”
Fred elaborated that there are circumstances where it’s not good to be a specialist. He asserted that being a generalist is a matter of disposition… and therefore inescapable. He later noted that having a generalist mindset can also be the result of one’s education style.
Fred’s language of “overpaid or underpaid” struck a chord in me at the time.
What separates unsuccessful generalists from successful generalists? Especially in an economy that seeks to perfectly compensate “perfect fit” specialists for each and every function?
Another way of phrasing the question: What’s the difference between a wannabe Malcolm Gladwell from an actual Malcolm Gladwell?
Short answer: It’s about having the right mix of Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience.
Longer answer: It’s kind of like Adam Grant’s successful versus unsuccessful Givers… and very likely something to do with his Originals.
Personal Tendencies + Adaptive Strategies
In Givers & Takers, after giving props to Robert Benchley and his Law of Distinction, Grant proceeds to define a proposed “reciprocity style” spectrum between “giving” and “taking,” with “matching” somewhere in between. He then goes on to show how the Givers occupy the bottom and the top of the career ladder.
Grant notes that while Givers at the bottom get walked over, there are a few things they can do to enable themselves to make it to the top without sacrificing their natural tendency to give. As they approach the top of the ladder, people will tend to root for them and push them even higher. Structurally this resembles the following:
(values-or-temperament-based trait) + (skill-based behavior) = (outcome)
PERSONALITY + STRATEGY = WIN
Thank you Adam. This potentially answers my conundrum about generalists vs. specialists which Fred characterized as “overpaid or underpaid.”
It’s more than just luck, circumstances, talent or IQ. My hypothesis is that, just like Grant’s Givers, generalists have a temperament at keeps them at the bottom due to the often unforgiving nature of business.
However, generalists can also occupy the top tier of organizations, especially when they adopt the right strategies and develop certain skills. Also, part of it is about moving across the generalist-specialist spectrum and becoming an Eclectic.
I suspect some of the winning skills and strategies for generalists will be mentioned in Grant’s about-to-be released book, Originals. I also suspect that his notion of an “Original” may be a closely related concept to my beloved “Eclectic” type. We shall see.
Finally, according to some personality research studies there is a troubled relationship between high Conscientiousness and high Openness-to-Experience. My view is that learning to turn on or off obsessive focus by pairing it (or decoupling it, as needed) with distracted curiosity is the key to building an eclectic and useful portfolio of expertise.
For those who identify with being an Original, an Eclectic, an Eccentric, or even just a run-of-the-mill Creative, understanding and mitigating these personality and behavioral distinctions can make all the difference between frustration and fulfillment.
Adam Grant vs. the BFF (Big Five Factors)
From a bigger picture perspective, Grant is a high functioning generalist who is exploring a series of under-appreciated aspects of human personality.
To phrase it in Five Factor Model of human personality terms, his first book and related stories of “Powerless Communication” describe behavioral strategies characterized by high levels of Agreeableness. His recent New York Times article, “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate,”(cf. wandering and letting things stew), draws out the relative merits of low Conscientiousness… and provides a direct lead-in to his new book that pokes around some corners of the domain of Openness to Experience.
As of this moment, Adam Grant’s marketing bio says he “specializes in building productive cultures of generosity and originality.” Let’s wait and see his niche expand further. Will the book he writes in about 2-3 years shine a light into the adaptive goldmines of low Extroversion and high Neuroticism? Or have those mountains been stripped bare already by others? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, it’s wonderful to read and be inspired by this arch-generalist who has mastered and braided for himself an eclectic and intertwining set of skills, interests and domains of expertise.