Adam Grant encourages graduates to pursue virtues but avoid extremes

LOGAN – Adam Grant, a New York Times bestselling author and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania decided to take a different approach in his commencement address to Utah State University students Saturday morning.

From the start, Grant let those in attendance know he was going to do his speech differently. His idea was to give a graduation speech about graduation speeches, telling USU’s class of 2017 what those speeches were missing. He pointed out that most graduation speeches are about certain virtues, but issued a warning about them.

“It turns out it is pretty easy to be virtuous when things are going well in your life,” he said. “It is when you are down when your virtues really get tested.”

According to Grant, generosity, authenticity and grit are common virtues discussed at commencement exercises. He admitted they were all good qualities, but compared them to vitamins. Too much of certain vitamins, he said, can be dangerous.

“I love these virtues,” he said, “but I’m too worried that if you are too obsessed with any of them you might undermine your own resilience.”

He likened virtues the bowls of porridge in the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, saying they can be too hot or too cold.

“If you want happiness and success you need to find the sweet spot between the extremes of too little and too much,” Grant said. “You need to look for that ‘just right’.”

When it came to authenticity, Grant said he wouldn’t encourage anyone to not be true to themselves, but he also said it can hinder personal growth if it limits your true self from evolving.

When talking about persistence, he shared a story of when he was younger and had dreams of becoming a basketball star. He said he worked as hard as he could, but in two years couldn’t make the seventh or eighth grade basketball teams. He then switched his attention to diving, where he excelled and even became a collegiate diver.

“What I learned from that experience is actually that ‘never give up’ is actually really bad advice,” he said. “Sometimes quitting is a virtue. If you want to cultivate the virtue of grit, it doesn’t mean keep doing the thing you are failing at over and over and over again. It means define your dreams broadly enough.”

Grant said the idea of helping other others is good, that in the long run givers outperform takers, and that being generous is a more meaningful way to live our lives, but he cautioned that generosity can be taken too far, sacrificing too much of yourself at the expense of others. He said it can be “a recipe for burnout,” and used teachers as an example.

“The best teachers care deeply about their students,” he said, “but they also did what all of us are advised to do on airplanes. They secure their own oxygen masks before assisting others.”

Grant said there is one virtue he is aware of where less is never more, where more is always better: diversity.

“The fight to support underrepresented groups is never finished,” he said. “This is one virtue that doesn’t fall under Goldilocks’ rule.”

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