Got to give to live well?

I’m intrigued by research of what drives success, happiness, productivity and overall well-being. Conventional wisdom usually turns out to be wrong in these areas (money can’t buy happiness may be often said but is little believed). Knowing what really drives positive outcomes often becomes an exercise in intuitive contrarianism. Any counter-intuitive man-bites-dog eureka claim in this area about happiness or success has to be met by heaving a heavy brick of skepticism at it to see if it shatters.

Along these lines, check out this article from Brain Pickings on Givers, Takers and the Science of Success. It is based on work by Adam Grant into how different types of people (givers, takers, and matchers) succeed in life.

  • Givers: those who help others without hope of personal reward
  • Takers: those who act from a zero-sum worldview
  • Matchers: those who give or take depending on whether the costs and benefits match up or not.

This is a new take for me. The conventional wisdom says the dog-eat-dog types would succeed because they are ruthless and they take without hesitation. Grant goes to pretty far lengths to show how givers come out both on top and on the bottom. And why some givers win out, while others sink, he attributes to whether they are other-directed (martyrs) or self-directed (not sacrificing their own interests). In case you couldn’t figure it out, martyrs finish last, but those who seek mutual gain beat everyone else. And they’re loved for it.

Grant has a bias: he’s a round-the-clock giver. It seems almost to the detriment of the rest of his life, including probably his family since he works at least one weekend day and every single night. He may be wired that way, (some profiles of him suggest that he is compelled to never say no) but it also may not be recommended or healthy.

However, Grant may really be on to something. Too often we’re told over and over that the ruthless bastards always come out on top. But we all know awesome people who rise to the top by being nice and helpful friends. People adore them and long to work with them.

It would be interesting if he or someone else controlled for hours worked. It could be that the nice guys and the jerks who come out on top are just those who racked up more work hours. Giving or taking may not matter much in the end, other than scoring or losing ‘nice’ points.

Note that even though I’m saying it is probably more about hours worked, I’m not happy about saying it. I’ve come to think that putting too many hours in, burning the candle at both ends, may produce a short-term boost in proficiency but causes long-term damage. Whatever the taker sacrifices usually comes back to bite them, whether it is sleep, marriage, family, friends, perspective, judgement, health, etc. Down the road, workaholics get bogged down with the wreckage and baggage.

Given the same hours worked, does giving pay off better than taking or matching? I think Grant and I would agree that giving would. It opens more doors and the emotional payoffs in scoring those ‘nice’ points have to beat the disadvantages of being a taker. But it would be nice to see a study of that question.

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