James Altucher interviewed Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant) about giving, taking, and five minute favors. At first Altucher says he was reluctant to have Grant on because he said ‘yes’ and James was writing a book about ‘no.’ Add in that Grant is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and subtract Altucher’s feelings for academia. Despite his hesitations, Altucher read (and liked) Grant’s Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.
The premise of Grant’s book is that people who give in the right way succeed more often than those who take, match, or people who give in the wrong way. Wrong giving would be making copies, writing simple computer code, or running an unnecessary meaning. These givers typically go wrong in three ways; being too trusting, being too empathetic, and being too timid. Matchers don’t succeed because they never reach out to extend their network and takers don’t succeed because they want credit for work done rather than improving their work. In his book Grant lays out the spectrum and provides compelling examples for each thing.
The interview begins with Altucher asking Grant about how he’s continued to be a giver since the book came out. Specifically, Grant says he’s had to change his system for dealing with emails, drawing the line when it starts to compromise your own goals and values. This meant he had to set some boundaries. His post-book schema included a ranking system for the people in his life; family, students, colleagues, everyone else. This is an example of system thinking, where Grant doesn’t have to decide an items importance, rather who it’s coming from.
Scott Adams is a big fan of system thinking and tells a story about, his first plane ride west. He was heading off to being his career when he met a CEO who offered this career advice:
He said that every time he got a new job, he immediately started looking for a better one. For him, job seeking was not something one did when necessary. It was an ongoing process. This makes perfect sense if you do the math. Chances are the best job for you won’t become available at precisely the time you declare yourself ready.
For Adams this built a system of thinking about working, Grant learned a system for prioritizing emails. I would wager that Grant has eschewed a goal like Inbox Zero in favor of the system.
In the interview Altucher asks what it means to be on the giving spectrum. Grant says;
“We have the takers who are always trying to get things from others, they don’t want to give back unless they have to…on the other end of the spectrum we have giver who are not volunteers or philanthropists, but who just enjoy helping others.” A final group is the matchers who operate “quid pro quo.”
It sounds good to be a taker in the same way it sounds good to make sure you always eat first at the family reunion. The first few times will be fine but soon people will resent you for eating all the potato salad. Professionally Grant says that takers who are competent can be threats to other people and will be treated like one.
Altucher says he tries to not be taken too often, but that’s been happening for 2,000 years. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote:
In the ring, our opponents can gouge us with their nails or butt us with their heads and leave a bruise, but we don’t denounce them for it or get upset with them or regard them from then on as violent types. We just keep an eye on them after that. Not out of hatred or suspicions. Just keeping a friendly distance.
Grant suggests we oscillate between each place and our trends determine what type we are. Being an exclusive giver isn’t without it’s problems though. Grant says, “that’s dangerous, it’s a great recipe for burnout or just getting burned by takers.” In these cases Grant suggest acting more like a matcher, with a bit of giving sprinkled in. Matching can also act as a filter if there is too much taking going on because it upends the balance of giving and taking.
Past guest Carol Leifer used this matching strategy with Altucher, who reviewed her book and so she came on his podcast. This sort of matching jives with her book where she writes that she’s been burned too many friends of friends. She’ll be asked to vouch for someone who turns out to be a dud and so now she’s more reserved with initial giving. Leifer’s matching strategy is one that Grant suggests in the book, to be a focused and cautious giver.
Grant has found that givers are both the most and least successful. “It comes down to being thoughtful about who you help, how you help, and when you help.” Giving the right way means:
- Successful givers are cautious with takers.
- Successful givers help in specialized ways. This means you’re helping in a way that excites you and get the reputations that you have a certain kind of expertise.
- Successful givers take care of their own work first and have separate windows of time to help other people.
Taking care of your own business should be the first priority of givers. Scott Adams writes that selfish generosity is the best kind. “If you do selfishness right, you automatically become a net benefit to society. Successful people generally don’t burden the world. Corporate raiders, overpaid CEOs, and tyrannical dictators are the exceptions.” Grant uses different language but comes to the same conclusion, first do your own work well, that alone will be helpful.
Take the example of Cate Cole, who Grant brings up as an example of the right kind of giver. Cole started out as a waitress at Hooters and now runs Cinnabon. Another example of the right kind of selfish is Trina Barkouras, a recent Shark Tank entrepreneur. Her pitch is worth watching.
Grant discovered the idea of giving while at a youth diving camp. He tells Altucher that couldn’t help not helping a competitor get better, giving him tips as he watched. That other diver ended up performing better than Grant at a later competition but that didn’t matter because Grant chose his values over his goals. He tells Altucher, “There are lots of ways that we can help others that cost very little.”
Altucher proposes that the beat writers of the 1950’s was a pocket of givers. Grant adds that the same is true of the author community, “when I was starting out I reached out to a number of people that I hardly knew and some people that I didn’t know at all.” Grant felt like a huge taker at first, but found that most successful authors were happy to pay it forward. Not only that, but if you ask a giver to give – they like it. Asking was hard at first for Grant but he tells Altucher, “There is a huge difference between taking and receiving.” The former is something selfish but the latter is in service of something bigger, an idea or others.
One key part of Grant’s book is the idea that our networks are composed of strong and weak ties. He tells Altucher, “strong ties are the people we know well and trust, weak ties are more like acquaintances.” Grant found that weak ties help more, and this was dissonant at first. Peeling back the layers Grant found that strong ties are too incestuous, whereas weak ties are more broad. Your circle is probably homogeneous in skills, connections, and values. If you want to move away from that you need a connection that takes you in that direction. Those people are your weak ties.
Grant’s book includes ideas beyond giving and taking, including how collaborating works best. In the interview he tells the story of an automotive company that became more innovative when they connected employees with a common goal and got out of the way. This happened at Pixar too, where Steve Jobs wanted bathrooms only in the building’s atrium. Jobs thought was that if people were always walking past each other then they would be able to connect and create more. His plan got toppled when a pregnant employee made the case that she couldn’t make the 15 minute walk. Jobs compromised with a single cafeteria.
The interview with Grant is a nice sampling of his book, but do dive into that if you want more about how to give the right way and the benefits it brings. Grant writes about being vulnerable, how to be better motivated, and how to cultivate givers. He uses a nice blend of stories and research throughout.
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