Is being generous a smart move? (Is being a tight-fisted (^$@#*#?)

Is this really a question?

Apparently so…

From the cover story in this weekend’s New York Times Magzine, (for you non-journos’s, a spot so visible and prestigious some writers would {and possibly have} kill for).

It profiles Wharton professor Adam Grant, 31, whose compulsive generosity seems a little…weird…to the writer, who is, (I met her, competing on the same story), ferociously ambitious and competitive:

Grant might not seem so different from any number of accessible and devoted professors on any number of campuses, and yet when you witness over time the sheer volume of Grant’s commitments, and the way in which he is able to follow through on all of them, you start to sense that something profoundly different is at work. Helpfulness is Grant’s credo. He is the colleague who is always nominating another for an award or taking the time to offer a thoughtful critique or writing a lengthy letter of recommendation for a student — something he does approximately 100 times a year. His largess extends to people he doesn’t even know. A student at Warwick Business School in England recently wrote to express his admiration and to ask Grant how he manages to publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Grant did not think, upon reading that e-mail, I cannot possibly answer in full every such query and still publish so often, and in such top-tier journals. Instead, Grant, who often returns home after a day of teaching to an in-box of 200 e-mails, responded, “I’m happy to set up a phone call if you want to discuss!”

Grant suggests we each fall into one of three categories: takers, matchers and givers.

Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf. Most people surveyed fall into the matcher category — but givers, Grant says, are overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success: they are the doormats who go nowhere or burn out, and they are the stars whose giving motivates them or distinguishes them as leaders…The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.

I find this question of professional generosity interesting — and always have. I’ve been a giver for decades.

Grants (Photo credit: Steve deBurque)

Oh, I’ve seen the looks of confusion or bemusement or pity when American colleagues — big-time takers, highly skilled matchers — see me giving away my time, expertise, contacts or skills.

The idea of actually helping a potential competitor best me, at anything, marks me, in zero-sum America, as slow-witted, a rube, someone who simply doesn’t know any better.

The default position, certainly in journalism in New York City, is to stab everyone in the eye who stands in your way and suck up really hard to anyone you think could possibly advance your career.

Trick is — which one is which?

The old farts who used to rule this town journalistically are all desperately trying to re-invent themselves at 55 or 63 or 47, while the 23-year-olds are running the ship. Even A. J. Jacobs, a 38-year-old best-selling author, only half-jokingly, describes himself as “doddering.”

So I make a point of being nice to some people half my age — these days, in my industry, they’re the ones with jobs and work to hand out!

I also give away my time far less often than I used to, I admit. I’ve watched some people I once helped skyrocket to positions of power and acclaim. And, yes, it pisses me off that they’ve never once thought to reciprocate or even drop a “Thanks!” email or note or call.

But that just tells me what sort of selfish ingrates people they are.

In my view, helping someone succeed (intelligently), doesn’t mean choosing a life of ramen and homelessness. It means we both get to celebrate success, maybe not at the same time.

It does mean having the self-confidence you, too, will succeed. So, for me, being helpful is also a powerful measure of confidence in what I can do, and have done. And will still do.

I’ll still extend a helping hand whenever and wherever it feels right.

Because — it feels right. Helping others, judiciously, is the right thing to do.

Do you help others professionally?

Which one of the three are you?

31 thoughts on “Is being generous a smart move? (Is being a tight-fisted (^$@#*#?)

  1. Absolutely. I am as generous with my colleagues professionally as I can afford to be. Giving, like Grant has found, gives back. And I work in a field where, from what I can see, isolation is the most significant factor in burn-out. If nothing else, I need my colleagues to be willing at the very least to listen to me so that after a long day I can feel human again.

  2. I am definitely not a taker, nor a matcher, so I guess that makes me a giver and I do give when asked and sometimes without being asked but I guard my time rather tightly as I feel I would burn out rather quickly if I didn’t.

    1. It’s a fine line, for sure. I look back at some of the people I’ve helped and realize that was a waste of my time and kindness…now I am more selective.

      As long as I see a balance, I am OK with it.

  3. I think it’s important to be generous in one’s professional world and this applies to doing things you don’t have to, like giving away time and expertise with no expectation of return, and helping younger or newer folks understand the lay of the land. One has to be careful, though, because to give presupposes that others need what it is you want to give. Often that’s the case but not always. Unwelcome help can be vaguely insulting – I really try to avoid that. But where it appears that help is welcome, I’m ready to lend a hand. It’s always turned out well all around.

    1. It can be frustrating to give to younger folk if they expect it as their due — instead of realizing you’re offering something of value and you could just as well read or go to a movie or walk the dog. I lose patience when people have no ability to say thank you.

      You do make a great point — what they need might not be what we have to give!

  4. I’m a giver but not a fool. I’ll gladly mentor friends and colleagues but I draw the line at doing their work for them. I also find it interesting that on those rare occasions when I ask for help, I am often turned down by those same people. Never ask a favor from a taker, I guess.

    1. So true!

      I’ve been burned a few times so am now much more selective. I got an email last week from someone I know peripherally through my work (he is in the Mideast and we have never met) BUT his email (asking me for a valuable contact) offered to make introductions to two of his…which of course worked out well for both of us. In my world, like many people’s, it can take me years to establish valuable client relationships and I don’t just hand them out to anyone. I really appreciated his understanding that mutual generosity is the ideal.

      1. It’s always so nice when you are dealing with grownups, isn’t it?
        When I read the article yesterday, I thought maybe his actions were just over the top, but given that he is a teacher and that he teaches at a very competitive business school, it could be a good example.
        By the way, I just bought your book “Malled” and it looks to be a very good read. Having languished in the land of minimum wage during and after college, I’m very sensitive to this topic. When I travel, I may not tip the doorman, but I always leave money of the dresser for the housekeepers. They are the ones with the important and thankless jobs.

      2. I think his example is terrific. I just find it sort of pathetic that it’s seen to be SO revolutionary it deserves a cover story. It seems obvious to me that being helpful will produce some nice results in kind…it has for me, for decades.

        Thanks for buying Malled! That’s very cool. I, too, am very careful to always tip the chambermaids…that’s one tough (invisible) job, indeed. Good for you!

  5. I’m happy to admit I’m a giver. Not in expectation of any kudos from saying so but from the hopes of encouraging others do I admit this. I’m at an age now where I can say what I like and get away with much.
    Throughout my life I’ve noticed that takers rarely give as well. Those you’ve helped on their way up Caitlin are afraid to share or help in return in case it detracts from how they are perceived, as being weak or having got where they are with others help which of course they have.As a giver you must do so from a place of inner strength knowing that your kindness will rarely be acknowledged and that your only reward will be the knowledge that you have helped someone in life.

    1. Yes and no…I rarely give to people who are only takers. I saw a lot of that in my own family so am wary of it. It happened to me a few times about a decade ago but I’m now much more tuned into that behavior. I’m well known enough that people want things from me — but I want help as well.

  6. Perhaps the question is, which one would you want people to believe you are, or which do you want to be? I’d like to think I was a giver, but the reality is I m probably leaning towards matcher on the spectrum. Can you drift back back and forth? I like giving, but stop when it goes bad, maybe subcategories of hard-line, wanderer, and opportunist?


    1. I agree. I doubt any of us are 100% one thing. I think there *are* people who take and take…but at some point they likely lose people willing to keep handing them stuff. I do give but I don’t give blindly to anyone. I tend to be careful to check out who they are and who they know and what their character is professionally. But my first impulse is to be helpful — yesterday (god help me) I offered to blurb a book for someone, which committed me (HELP) to reading his 70,000 word manuscript. I admit — I will be asking him for a few editorial introductions.

  7. I’m a giver to those people who are also givers and try to avoid the takers of the world (or at least stay on their good side) as much as I possibly can. I probably won’t climb the career ladder as quickly as a taker but at least I can live with my decisions with a clear conscious.

    This is a very interesting story btw so thanks for sharing it.

  8. I’m a giver, especially in my personal life, I enjoy helping people, but over the last few years I’ve gotten a bit burned at my job trying to go above and beyond. I’ve had colleagues take credit for my work or dismiss my contributions outright, which has been hard because I’ve really tried to improve my area. And then there was that matter of having me take on more than twice my original workload, which required me to come early, stay late, and skip many a lunch to get my responsibilities done by the end of the day – which I felt was abusing my desire to help the department and be useful during a financially rough time. I’ve consciously started to try to be more of a matcher professionally.

    I’ve found that the student employees are more grateful for my help, whether it’s giving school advice, editing drafts of work projects, or even writing recommendations for them. It’s amazing how much a “thank you” makes going out of your way worth it – and how rare I’ve found it from my older coworkers! Though I suspect some cultural and gendered hierarchical issues at play there.

    1. Here’s my take on that…

      Giving — one-on-one — is what it’s about. It is a CHOICE we make and a wise one. But a job/manager(s) that TAKES and takes and takes is abusive — it is not our choice, it is financially abusive, it is demoralizing and a very different scenario. So I’ve always made a choice to make some good friends/professional allies in almost every place I’ve worked on staff and those relationships continue and help me (and them) thrive years later — whether a job contact, a letter of recommendation for a fellowship, whatever.

      I never, (wonder why I am freelance?), feel much loyalty to a job or employer, or to go “above and beyond” for them. I once did. No longer. I will do that for my clients and colleagues, at my choice, but not acceding to their escalating demands.

  9. You are right about being a giver! After you sent me that e-mail correcting the use of “presently” on my website, I went through and took it out of a couple of cover letters I was about to send in with the incorrect use. I read two books over break that used “presently” the right way about a dozen times, and it constantly reminded me how much embarrassment you saved me from! I was so taken aback that someone I didn’t know took the time to read over my website and give me advice on it.

    I have just returned from my break and am catching up on all of your posts – your blog is my favorite! Even though we are at two totally different places in life, it feels so relevant to me and much more prepared for the challenges ahead of me. Thank you again!

    1. Thanks!

      It just seems fairly obvious to me (?) that if I cam help someone, and it takes — 5 minutes? — why not? We all need people to help us, all throughout our lives. I still need help in all sorts of ways!

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  12. themodernidiot

    I believe I am best illustrated by the words of the great Bill Murray in What About Bob:
    “Gimme, gimme, I neeed, I neeed.”

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