Wharton’s No. 1 professor: 'Never give up is bad advice. Sometimes quitting is a virtue.'

Adam Grant
 Marla Aufmuth | Getty Images

When it comes to success, unwavering determination is often revered as the secret to achieving your dreams. If you have grit and just never give up, then you will, eventually, win.

Not so, says Adam Grant, the No. 1 professor at top-tier business school Wharton, best-selling author and management consultant to the likes of Facebook, Google, Goldman Sachs and the NBA. Grant says there's a time when grit will get you nowhere but stuck further in a hole.

"Never give up is bad advice. Sometimes quitting is a virtue," says Grant in a speech he delivered to Utah State University graduates.

Grant researched graduation speeches before giving his and learned that most extol the importance of living with generosity, authenticity and grit. And while he doesn't argue that these are values worth respecting, he also offers a warning.

"If you're too obsessed with any of these virtues, you might undermine your own resilience," he says. "Virtues can be a little bit like vitamins. Vitamins are essential for health. But what if you get more than your body needs? If you take too much Vitamin C, it won't hurt you. If you overdose on Vitamin D, though, it can do serious harm: you could wind up with kidney problems."

Grant does not dispute that great success often requires determination in the face of rejection.

"Persistence is one of the most important forces in success and happiness," says Grant. "There's the author whose novel was rejected half a dozen times. The artist whose cartoons were turned down over and over. And the musicians who were told 'guitar groups are on the way out' and they'd never make it in show business. If they had quit, Harry Potter, Disney and the Beatles wouldn't exist.

"But that's only half the story," he says. "For every J.K. Rowling and Walt Disney and Lennon and McCartney, there are thousands of writers and entrepreneurs and musicians who fail not for lack of grit, but because of how narrowly they apply it.

"Sometimes resilience comes from gritting your teeth and packing your bags," says Grant.

Grit doesn't mean 'keep doing the thing that's failing.' It means 'define your dreams broadly enough that you can find new ways to pursue them.'
Adam Grant
best-selling author

For example, when Grant was young, he wanted to be a basketball player. He dreamed of being in the NBA, he says. And yet, despite his gallant efforts practicing as a kid, Grant didn't make the seventh grade team or the eighth grade team. And when he got to high school, he still wasn't even five feet tall.

He dropped his basketball dreams. Instead, he picked up diving.

And while he wasn't an instant champion — "My coach told me I walked like Frankenstein and his grandmother jumped higher than me" — he did excel with time and hard work. Grant qualified for the junior Olympic nationals twice and competed at the NCAA level in diving.

"Grit doesn't mean keep doing the thing that's failing. It means define your dreams broadly enough that you can find new ways to pursue them when your first and second plans fail. I needed to give up on my dream of making the NBA, but I didn't need to give up on my dream of becoming a halfway decent athlete."

He also didn't have give up being an author just because his publisher didn't want the first book he wrote. Grant scrapped the original rejected draft — all 102,000 words — and started over nearly from scratch. His new draft became "Give and Take," which went on to be a New York Times bestseller translated into 30 languages.

"Don't give up on your values, but be willing to give up on your plans," he says.

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