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Nice guys often finish last but some win the marathon

AN ancient Chinese saying goes: One is happiest in doing good (wei shan zui le). Another ancient Chinese saying counters: Do-gooders are often doormats (ren shan bei ren qi), just as gentle horses are often ridden (ma shan bei ren qi).

Chinese history books and novels never lack examples of both, but rarely have our historians or novelists attempted an empirical study of the consequences of doing good. Most of us learn to do good or not to do good mainly from a myriad of moral tales, which are hardly conclusive.

The same can be said about most foreign literature on human nature, from Shakespeare to Montaigne to Mark Twain - they are long on moral aphorism but naturally short on empirical analysis that requires statistically significant surveys.

Adam Grant's new book, "Give and Take," stands out as a solid attempt at a nuanced analysis of the dangers and rewards of doing good based on his own and predecessors' comprehensive surveys across companies, industries and even countries.

Grant is the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School of Business. He holds a PhD in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan and a bachelor's degree from Harvard. BusinessWeek magazine honors him as one of the world's top 40 business professors under 40.

"Every time we interact with another person at work, we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return?" says the author. "As an organizational psychologist and Wharton professor, I've dedicated more than 10 years of my professional life to studying these choices at organizations ranging from Google to the US Air Force, and it turns out that they have staggering consequences for success."

Takers, matchers, givers

His surveys also cover thousands of interviews from medical school students in Belgium to engineers in California and salespeople in North Carolina, to name a few. He also draws on what he calls a series of "ground-breaking studies" by social scientists over the past three decades on the consequences of doing good, or giving instead of taking.

For the sake of analysis, the author divides people into takers, givers and matchers.

"Takers have a distinctive signature: they like to get more than they give. They tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others' needs," the author explains. "Takers believe that the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place."

In contrast, givers prefer to give more than they get. Says the author: "Whereas takers tend to be self-focused, evaluating what other people can offer them, givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them."

But, everywhere, "few of us act purely like givers or takers, adopting a third style instead," says the author. "We become matchers, striving to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting."

"Across occupations, it appears that givers are just too caring, too trusting and too willing to sacrifice their own interests for the benefit of others," the author points out. "There's evidence that compared with takers, on average, givers earn 14 percent less money, have twice the risk of becoming victims of crimes, and are judged as 22 percent less powerful and dominant."

This empirical finding would seem to be critical of givers. So, why should we be givers? And, if givers are less successful than takers, who's at the top - takers or matchers?

Grant has a surprise answer: "When I took another look at the data, I discovered a surprising pattern: It's the givers again ... The worst and the best performers are givers; takers and matchers are more likely to land in the middle."

Chumps or champs?

Aside from collecting statistically significant data, the author has interviewed people from all walks of life, including consultants, lawyers, writers, doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, accountants, salespeople, teachers, financial advisers and sports executives. "These givers reverse the popular plan of succeeding first and giving back later, raising the possibility that those who give first are often the best positioned for success later," he writes.

But why do some givers end up as chumps and others end up as champs? The question defies easy answers. Sometimes people become pushovers and doormats just because they are too nice to others and put aside their own goals and ambitions. Sometimes it's just a matter of time: you lose in a 100-yard dash, but win in a marathon.

The author supplies many examples - one about a certain hick who went by the name Sampson impresses me most.

Sampson spent his early years working on a farm. Then, when he turned 23, he made his first run for a seat in the state legislature in Illinois. He lost.

After losing the race, Sampson took out a small loan to start a small shop with a friend. The business failed, and his partner died. He took on all the debt, which was 15 times his annual income. He eventually paid back every cent.

At 25, he made a second run for the state legislature and succeeded.

At 45, he made a bid for the US Senate.

At one time, he got 38 percent of the votes, one rival named Joel Matteson got 44 percent and another rival named Lyman Trumbull got 9 percent.

"Most people in Sampson's shoes would have lobbied Trumbull's followers to jump ship. After all, with just 9 percent support, Trumbull was a long shot," Grant writes. "But Sampson's primary concern wasn't getting elected."

It was the greater good of the nation. "For several years, Sampson had campaigned passionately for a major shift in social and economic policy (towards fairness and abolishion slavery)," Grant says. "He believed it was vital to the nation's future, and in this, he and Trumbull were united. So instead of trying to convert Trumbull's loyal followers, Sampson decided to fall on his own sword."

He asked all his supporters to vote for Trumbull, and Trumbull triumphed.

Abraham Lincoln

Sampson's real name was Abraham Lincoln. Along with George Washington and Millard Fillmore, Lincoln is rated by many American historians as the top three US presidents in terms of giving credit to others and acting in the best interests of others.

Says Grant: "In the words of a military general who worked with Lincoln, 'he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other'."

Lincoln's concern for the greater good was also manifest when he became president in 1860. He invited the three candidates whom he defeated for the Republican nomination to become his secretary of state, secretary of the treasury, and attorney general.

How would Lincoln done if he were a taker or a matcher?

"In Lincoln's position, a taker might have preferred to protect his ego and power by inviting 'yes men' to join him," observes the author. "A matcher might have offered appointments to allies who had supported him. Yet Lincoln invited his bitter competitors instead."

Lincoln's story illustrates one of Grant's most important messages:

"Let me be clear that givers, takers and matchers all can - and do - achieve success. But there's something distinctive that happens when givers succeed: it spreads and cascades. When takers win, there's usually someone else who loses."


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