Last July, I opened my inbox to find an invitation to give a new TED talk. As a shy introvert, public speaking is something of an acquired taste for me. After years of practice, I had learned to relish the challenge of turning an idea into a memorable performance—and enjoy the experience of engaging an audience.
But this time, I found myself hesitating. I only had a month to prepare, and I was more than a little rusty. Due to COVID, it would be my first time on a live stage in a year and a half.
Since I’d written a few months earlier about languishing, I picked it as my topic and gave myself the first two weeks to incubate (read: procrastinate). Once the ideas gelled, I wrote a draft of the talk. Then, with just a couple weeks to refine, it was time to seek feedback.
The subject line of my email was “Challenge network, assemble!”
A challenge network is the group of insightful critics you trust to hold up a mirror so you can see your own blind spots. I think of my challenge network as my Avengers: they all have different superpowers that they use to save me from myself. They’re the people who sharpen your thinking and push you toward rethinking. They don’t hesitate to tell you if you have food in your teeth, because their goal isn’t to make you feel good—it’s to help you do better.
Ever since I wrote about the value of a challenge network in Think Again, readers have been asking for advice on how to build one. We know from research on the wisdom of crowds that good judgment depends on aggregating the independent thinking of people with diverse experience and expertise. Here's how I approached it.
1. Pick 5-8 people with complementary knowledge and skills. To get a variety of perspectives, I drafted a mix of insiders and outsiders: a few PhD students, a couple fellow writers and speakers, my literary agent, a few speaking coaches, and an unusually discerning wife (mine).*
2. Seek their constructive criticism separately. To prevent groupthink, I reached out to each of them individually and asked what I should add, subtract, and change. To create psychological safety, I told them that they shouldn’t feel any tension between honesty and loyalty—I see honesty as the highest expression of loyalty. I need you to protect me from embarrassing myself! Pull no punches!
3. Separate quality from taste. As the feedback rolled in, I paid particular attention to how often different themes came up. If only one person raised an issue, it might be idiosyncratic to them. If I four different people surfaced the same problem, it was a flaw I couldn’t ignore.
The most common critique was that I needed a personal story as the throughline. I couldn’t just talk about the science of languishing—I had to describe what it felt like in my own experience, and how I overcame it. My challenge network jogged my memory that family Mario Kart games had been a turning point, and within a few hours I’d rewritten a third of the talk.
Standing backstage, I was starting to feel butterflies. Then Chris Anderson cracked me up with his introduction: “Adam Grant has been a popular speaker in the past, but you never know—maybe this will be the time he bombs.”
Who are the Avengers in your challenge network—and how can you make sure they’re candid with you? Giving honest feedback shouldn’t require courage; it’s an expression of care.
*Special thanks to Allison Grant, Dylan Chalfy, Briar Goldberg, Corey Hajim, Karren Knowlton, Richard Pine, Reb Rebele, Marissa Shandell, and Tim Urban for their invaluable input.