The professor who changed my life
By Adam Grant, Organizational psychologist
In 2002, a group of seventy people signed up for an unusual experience. They were wholly unprepared for what it would do to them. It caused some of them to fall in love -- and others to finally move on from (decreasingly) significant others. Many of them changed their career plans. When it ended several months later, participants said over and over that the experience changed their lives and worldviews.
I can attest to it firsthand, because I was one of those seventy, and it had that impact on my life. It was the best class I've ever taken, taught by the best professor I've ever had.
I knew his name was Brian Little and that he had won Canada's highest award for university teaching. I knew that he had only been on campus for a semester, and two friends told me they would stop speaking to me if I didn't take his class. From the first class, it was clear that Brian was the real-life incarnation of Robin Williams' greatest characters: he had the passion of the teacher in Dead Poets' Society, the emotional intelligence of the psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting and the humor of Patch Adams (OK, and Mrs. Doubtfire, too). Brian dazzled us with his encyclopedic knowledge, helped us understand our own quirks and everyone around us, and made college a more joyful, less stressful place. The way he cared about his students was contagious: we felt like we were part of a community. To this day, I feel an instant connection whenever I meet someone who took one of Brian's classes.
The learning didn’t stop there. Three years after graduation, a college friend called me to say that he was torn about whether to change career plans, and when he started thinking about one of Brian's lectures, he immediately knew what to do. Brian became my mentor and thesis advisor. For the first time, I knew what I wanted to do with my life: I would become a psychologist and a professor. If I could have even a fraction of Brian's impact on students, it would be the most meaningful career I could imagine.
A dozen years later, I received an invitation to speak at TED. Then I learned that Brian would be speaking in the same session, right after me. It felt like opening for The Beatles (and I was relieved that I didn't have to speak after him).
When he stepped on stage, I was transported back to what it was like to sit in his classroom. Brian's TED talk is a glimpse into the very best of the human condition. Wisdom is dropped. Hilarity ensues.