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Adam Grant is the wunderkind of business professors, a Harvard and University of Michigan graduate who, at 31, is the youngest tenured faculty at Wharton Business School. He has just published Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, which explains how good guys can, after all, finish first.

Grant argues that there are three archetypical types in work and professional life: givers, takers, and matchers. Takers—we’ve all met those—are people who mooch off of others, always looking out for #1 and taking advantage of every connection and opportunity for credit and glory. Matchers are those with a tit-for-tat approach: willing to help others in return for a favor or in anticipation of a favor, generous, but only with a definite expectation of a “return on investment” for their generosity.

Givers, who are willing to give to others of their time, energy, enthusiasm, and networks, are more complicated. Grant begins with the observation that, in a wide variety of professional settings, givers tend to do either very well or very poorly:

[M]edical students with the lowest grades have unusually high giver scores, but so do the students with the highest grades. . . . Even in sales, I found that the least productive salespeople had 25 percent higher giver scores than average performers—but so did the most productive salespeople. . . . Givers dominate the bottom and the top of the success ladder.

Grant explains this paradox by arguing that givers are of two types: those who are too altruistic and unable to say “no”—these turn out to be the least successful in business and professional life; and, on the other hand, “self-interested givers” who give generously of their time and energies but are able to detect and say “no” to takers and who judicially channel their energies into those who are willing to return a favor, even if in the distant future. Grant distinguishes these types of givers as “selfless” and “otherish”:

Selfless giving, in the absence of self-preservation instincts, easily becomes overwhelming. Being otherish means being willing to give more than you receive, but still keeping your own interests in sight, using them as a guide for choosing when, where, how, and to whom you give.

Grant’s message is obviously appealing: good guys can be winners, not chumps! If you think of yourself as a giver, reading his book can be an appealing exercise in self-congratulation.

While Grant focuses his arguments on business and professional life and not on philanthropy (indeed, he claims “givers and takers aren’t distinguished by how much they give to charity”), his argument is relevant to what makes for the success of the organizations and associations that make up civil society. Certainly organizations of civic life require time, energy, enthusiasm, and connections to be successful—just as do business organizations.

Reading Grant’s description of self-interested givers, and thinking of the connection to civil society, it seemed to me that the best exemplar of self-interested givers must be Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was a self-interested man who became one of the most influential figures of his day—a Founding Father, governor of Pennsylvania, and ambassador to France—as well as extremely wealthy. And, at the same time, he was extraordinarily generous with his time and talents, contributing to the establishment of Philadelphia’s first library and fire departments, the University of Pennsylvania and the American Philosophical Society, the advancement of natural science as well as the careers of fellow scientists, among many other contributions to American society, especially in Pennsylvania.

Franklin’s Autobiography is not merely an account of Franklin’s life but a guide to the type of person the new American nation needs to succeed—and that sort of person is exactly the sort of self-interested giver described by Grant. One could read the Autobiography and draw many of the same lessons of behavior Grant presents in his Give and Take.

Grant himself, in spite of his announced focus on business and professional life, describes self-interested givers contributing to what are best described as civic associations: computer app designer Adam Rifkin, for example, is one of Grant’s most frequent examples of “a bona fide giver,” and Grant chronicles Rikfin’s cofounding of 106 Miles, a engineers’ networking group, which is not so different in spirit from the American Philosophical Society and other local groups that Benjamin Franklin organized. And, Grant reports on a study of Caring Canadian Award Winners that found that award-winners scored high on measures both of other-orientation and self-interest.

Grant’s book is really a study of what Tocqueville called “self-interest, rightly understood”—a quality that it important well beyond business and the professions and is essential to the richness of American civic life.

1 thought on “Givers, takers, and civil society?”

  1. Amy Kass says:

    Very nice review. The example of Franklin, as well as the reference to Tocqueville, seem right on target. Yet another example of how good old thinkers can illuminate enduring problems.

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