Adam Grant: The Advantage of Anxiety | Summary and Q&A

February 16, 2017
Stanford eCorner
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Adam Grant: The Advantage of Anxiety

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In this video, the speaker discusses the concept of taking action in the face of anxiety and fear. He explains that individuals who are considered originals, such as Mark Cuban and Elon Musk, experience the same doubts and anxieties as others but choose to act anyway. The speaker explores different strategies individuals employ when faced with challenges, such as optimistic visualization or defensive pessimism. He also explores the role of anxiety in motivation and the importance of managing anxiety effectively.

Questions & Answers

Q: How do originals deal with anxiety and fear when pursuing their big ideas?

Contrary to popular belief, originals, like Mark Cuban and Elon Musk, experience the same anxieties and fears as others. However, they choose to take action anyway. They recognize their fears but do not allow them to hinder their progress. Instead, they embrace the uncertainty and push forward, overcoming their anxieties through their determination and willpower.

Q: How does optimism play a role in achieving success?

Optimism acts as a driving force for many individuals. When faced with a big exam or challenge, optimists envision a positive outcome and focus on the possibilities of success. This positive vision motivates them to study hard and perform well. Their excitement about the future helps them ace exams and triumph over obstacles.

Q: What is the concept of defensive pessimism?

Defensive pessimism is a strategy employed by individuals who anticipate failure. Rather than ignoring their anxieties, defensive pessimists embrace them as a source of motivation. This heightened sense of fear and doubt pushes them to work harder and prepare extensively, ensuring their success. Ironically, defensive pessimists often perform just as well as strategic optimists.

Q: Why does defensive pessimism continue to persist in individuals?

After experiencing success, defensive pessimists convince themselves that future endeavors will result in failure. This cycle of heightened anxiety and doubt becomes necessary for motivating themselves to work harder. Whenever they face new challenges, they fall back into the pattern of self-doubt and anxiety, which drives them to excel.

Q: Can a positive mood affect the performance of defensive pessimists?

Yes, a positive mood can actually sabotage the performance of defensive pessimists. When defensive pessimists are put in a good mood, their performance drops because they no longer experience the anxiety necessary to propel them into a state of effort and productivity. The absence of anxiety decreases their motivation and hinders their performance.

Q: How can anxiety become debilitating and interfere with thinking capabilities?

Anxiety can reach a point where it becomes overwhelming and disrupts an individual's ability to think clearly. In such cases, anxiety can cause individuals to freeze or hinder their cognitive processes. It becomes difficult for them to make decisions or take action due to the overwhelming emotions that cloud their thinking.

Q: What insights can be gained from evolutionary psychology regarding anxiety?

An understanding of evolutionary psychology reveals that anxiety is rooted in our survival instincts. Our amygdala, responsible for fear responses, developed to help us react quickly to potential threats. However, today we can experience the same intense emotional reactions to ordinary events that are not survival-relevant. It is important to manage these emotions effectively.

Q: What is the most common approach people take to manage anxiety?

The most common approach people use to manage anxiety is trying to calm down. They often resort to activities like listening to relaxing music or convincing themselves that everything will be okay. However, research suggests that this approach is not effective when anxiety is intense. It is challenging to suppress anxiety completely when it is akin to having a brick on a gas pedal.

Q: How can individuals manage anxiety more effectively?

Instead of trying to calm down, individuals can manage their anxiety more effectively by framing it as excitement. This approach, discovered by Alison Wood Brooks, allows individuals to maintain their energy and motivation while still acknowledging their anxieties. Excitement, like anxiety, is a high-intensity emotion, and by reframing anxiety as excitement, individuals can keep their foot on the gas pedal and convert their anxiety into a more energizing state.

Q: What do anxiety and excitement have in common?

Both anxiety and excitement share the element of uncertainty. When individuals have an upcoming event or challenge they are unsure about, they can choose to be nervous about it going poorly or excited about it going well. Both emotions involve the anticipation of an unknown outcome, but choosing excitement harnesses the energy and motivation of anxiety in a more positive and productive way.


The key lesson from the video is that individuals considered originals and successful often experience anxiety and fear just like anyone else. What sets them apart is their ability to take action despite these emotions. Optimism and defensive pessimism are two different approaches to managing anxiety, with each having its own benefits. However, defensive pessimism can become a hindrance if it results in excessive anxiety. Managing anxiety effectively involves reframing it as excitement rather than attempting to calm down. Anxiety and excitement share similarities, particularly in their association with uncertainty. By embracing excitement, individuals can maintain their motivation and energy while effectively managing anxiety.

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