Give and Take

The name Adam Grant came to my attention multiple times within a short timeframe just before Christmas. I was astonished and partially ashamed that I was not aware of his work before that. Just to think how many good readings I have missed and the thoughts those articles would have provoked! On the plus side, it is not too late. After reading some articles he coauthored and published in Harvard Business Review, I ordered his book Give and Take. To confess, I have a very soft spot for academic writers, particularly when they also have lots of real-world experience of refining and furthering their views. Adam Grant easily fits into that category for me.

This is a book about: understanding the behaviours of givers, matchers and takers; how do people in each category achieve their success and how do they compare with each other; why do some givers end up achieving the least, whereas other givers are top achievers; are people fixed to each category and do they adapt their behaviour; what influences people’s giving/taking attitude; how can we identify people in these categories; how can one give without reducing his/her own chance of success? If these questions sound interesting to you, I highly recommend reading the book.

Due to the lack of knowledge of the big names in American sports, the names quoted in some chapters in this book did not mean much to me. But the essence of the stories was clearly presented and supports the arguments well. I particularly like the writing style of the book. The great story-telling that draws your attention and tempts you to read further and further and, at the same time, the stories lead you to contemplate many questions: what would you have done if you were one of the characters in that specific circumstance; how would one’s approach impact others; would you be concerned about being taken advantage or would you continue giving despite suspecting the person you are dealing with is a taker; would it be wiser to handle givers, takers and matchers you meet in life differently and how?

Adam shared his insights about identifying clues to who is a taker, matcher or giver. While reading the book, I found myself subconsciously map people I encounter into those categories. I started paying more attention to how many I/my versus we/our are used, how big the portrait of a leader included in an article, how people attribute credits and share responsibilities, and so on. Not to say these are the exclusive and exact metric you should use to calculate one’s giving/matching/taking score though. Just this evening while reading an article in this month’s Harvard Business Review, I see clear signs of egoism and possibly some indication of a taker.

Reading the book made me more aware of the differences between being agreeable and being outwardly disagreeable but inwardly prone to giving. One key takeaway of the book is to learn ways to give without burnout or adapting from a purely selfless to a more intelligent giver. It makes sense if you think mathematically: the integral of the amount of giving over a long time period could easily be larger than that of a short one (a couple of years in the teaching examples discussed in the book). In analogy to studies on how to maintain high productivity: our brains like to exercise different regions or think about different topics at reasonable intervals rather than focusing on one topic for a lengthy period. Giving wisely is to re-energize oneself by giving in multiple formats with appropriate dose and identifying the source that drives us to give.

The book also leads me to think: would people tend to work and socialise more with the ones falling into the same category as themselves? It does not make sense for takers to match with takers though, which seems to spiral downwards and destroy the harmony and productivity among relations. To what extent, would takers adjust their mentality and behaviour while surrounded by givers/matchers? It seems to me that we adapt ourselves constantly with small adjustments frequently within a set of beliefs that we hold, and less frequently denounce what we used to believe and form new opinions based on new experience or learnings. Some examples in the book lead me to think that takers can behave like givers in certain circumstances, for instance within a group of people sharing the same optimal distinctiveness. The explanation of optimal distinctiveness reads beautifully and sensibly to me.

One aspect that was alluded to with respect to groups but worthy of further studies is how people may be givers in some situations and takers in others when their underlying culture may push them that way. For example, a culture that is very family focused might lead to widespread giverness within the family, while many people will be takers or matchers outside of the family. Presumably in either situation there would be the three types of people, or a continuum of the three, yet a person might fit differently on the continuum in the distinct culturally defined areas of interaction.

Another major reason I enjoy reading this book: it contains many brilliantly succinct summaries of other scientists and writers’ work, seamlessly integrated within the text. To quote Adam Grant’s passage on “optimal distinctiveness” from an influential theory developed by Marilynn Brewer:

On the one hand, we want to fit in: we strive for connection, cohesiveness, community, belonging, inclusion, and affiliation with others. On the other hand, we want to stand out: we search for uniqueness, differentiation, and individuality. As we navigate the social world, these two motives are often in conflict. The more strongly we affiliate with a group, the greater our risk of losing our sense of uniqueness. The more we work to distinguish ourselves from others, the greater our risk of losing our sense of belonging. How do we resolve this conflict? The solution is to be the same and different at the same time. Brewer calls it the principle of optimal distinctiveness: we look for ways to fit in and stand out. A popular way to achieve optimal distinctiveness is to join a unique group. Being part of a group with shared interests, identities, goals, values, skills, characteristics, or experiences gives us a sense of connection and belonging. At the same time, being part of a group that is clearly distinct from other groups gives us a sense of uniqueness. Studies show that people identify more strongly with individuals and groups that share unique similarities. The more rare a group, value, interest, skill, or experience is, the more likely is to facilitate a bond. And research indicates that people are happier in groups that provide optimal distinctiveness, giving a sense of both inclusion and uniqueness. These are the groups in which we take the most pride, and feel the most cohesive and valued.

There are many passages that I’d love to quote and share with you my thoughts at another time.