Book reviews

Give and Take Book Review

Although 2013 is still young, I predict that Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, by Wharton professor Adam Grant, has a great chance of being the best book I’ve read all year, for three reasons: it’s inspirational, it’s instructional, and it’s solidly research-based.

The premise of the book is quite simple: the world comprises three types of people: givers, takers and matchers. Which type tends to be most successful? Although we’ve all been raised on the homily that it’s better to give than to receive, the bad news is that the left side of most bell curves is populated by givers, those who contribute more to others than they expect in return. Quite simply, they do less for themselves, people take advantage of them, and they are prone to burnout.

But the real surprise is that the right side of bell curves is also a givers’ neighborhood. Combining extensive research with inspiring examples, Grant shows us how and why successful givers do well for themselves at the same time that they contribute so much to others. Successful givers approach four principal aspects of relationships differently. The four aspects are networking, collaborating, developing talent and communicating.

Successful givers are excellent networkers, but so are a lot of takers and matchers. The difference is that successful givers proactively do things without expectation of return, creating goodwill and possibly setting an example that may be contagious. One of the excellent tips in this chapter is the suggestion to revive dormant connections. The benefit is that when most people tap into their network for help, their strong ties are trusting and disposed to help, but their weak ties have more diverse information. People you haven’t talked to in a long time combine the assets of strong ties and weak ties.

Givers are also excellent collaborators, quick to help others in a team environment and without spending too much time worrying about who gets credit. They tend to demonstrate what the National Outdoor Leadership School calls expedition behavior, putting the needs of the mission and the team ahead of your own. In the long run, this behavior increases their prestige and the willingness of others  to help them when they need it.

Givers are also excellent at spotting talent, because they’re not worried about creating rivals who may outshine them. Also, because they tend to assume competence and talent on the part of others, they may be generating self-fulfilling prophecies. I found this chapter to be rather long on anecdote and thin on evidence, but the next chapter made up for it.

For me the meatiest chapter covered the successful practices that givers follow in communicating with others, in presenting, selling, and negotiating. Successful givers ask more meaningful questions and have an effective mix of confidence and humility in their advocacy. They also tend to be good at perspective-taking, which is the cognitive equivalent of empathy: instead of feeling what the other person is feeling, they are adept at thinking what they’re thinking. In studies, people with high empathy do worse in creating value, because they are more apt to give the other person what they want. Those high in perspective taking are better at coming up with creative ideas to give both sides more of what they want.

The second section of the book is for those who are too giving, and tend to fall at the bottom of the success distribution because they get taken advantage of and exhaust their energies serving others rather than themselves. The key insight is that self-interest and other-interest are not opposite points on a single line; they are separate axes on a graph. Those who give too much have a high score for other-interest, and a low score for self-interest. Successful givers are at the top right of the graph, combining a high other-focus with high self-interest. As a result, they are in better control of their giving, seeing it as a positive choice rather than an obligation, and being more proactive in allocating their  giving time and energy.

If you get inspired by Grant’s book, what you’ll really want to know is how to become a more successful giver. The Catch-22 is that giving has to be sincere it it’s to work, and if you try to make it strategic it’s not sincere. I do think, however, that if you begin changing your behavior for strategic purposes, and start doing more for others, two positive things may happen. First, regardless of the motive, you’re contributing to the sum total of benefit and happiness. Even more important is that your attitude may begin to catch up with your actions. The mind does not like cognitive dissonance, so if we’re acting in a giving manner we will begin to see ourselves more as givers, leading to a virtuous circle. The book finishes with ten suggestions for becoming more of a giver—I’ll keep you posted on how it works.

The one weakness in the book is that in some of the chapters, as mentioned above, there was less evidence than it seemed on first reading. You get pulled in to the inspiring stories, but on closer reading you don’t find enough evidence to be able to make up your mind whether those examples are the rule or the exception.

Despite this, the message in Grant’s book is so powerful that I give it five stars. But it’s not a gift—it’s truly earned. The book itself is a gift to anyone who reads it, and to countless others who may be on the receiving end of their stepped-up giving.

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