It pays to be a giver

Adam Grant is the youngest tenured professor and the highest-rated teacher at Wharton—the business school at the University of Pennsylvania. His new book, Give and Take, proposes a new approach to success that, while focused on professionals, I think has a lot of relevance to high school students preparing for college.

Grant divides people into three styles: takers, givers, and matchers.

1. Takers like to get more than they give. They’re not necessarily bad people, but takers believe that the world is a competitive place and that in order to succeed, they need to look out for #1, self-promote, and always make sure they get credit for their efforts. A taker is willing to help someone, but only when the benefit to them outweighs the personal costs. Takers want to come out ahead in every transaction.

2. Givers are willing to give more than they get. They pay more attention to what other people need than what other people can offer them. They’re generous with their time, energy, skills and ideas and want to share them with people who can benefit the most. Givers don’t worry about getting credit or immediate personal gain.

3. Matchers are the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” group. They believe in fairness and will gladly give when they can get something of equal value in return.

So, who’s the most successful group?

In a wide range of important occupations from engineering to medicine, studies show that the givers are at the bottom of the success ladder. Givers make others better, but at the expense of their own success.

Now, the uplifting news. Guess who rises to the top of the success ladder?

Again, it’s the givers.

Givers sit at both ends of the spectrum (the takers and matchers land somewhere in the middle). It turns out that givers either end up as doormats who let people walk over them, or they are the models of success. The bulk of the book discusses the differences between the givers who get taken advantage of and those who rise to the top.

It turns out that the successful givers are just as ambitious as the takers and matchers; they just pursue their ambitions differently. They care a lot about others, but not at the expense of themselves. And they don’t just give to anyone. They’d much rather be generous with a fellow giver than with a taker. And while they don’t expect an immediate return for the generosity, they are conscious about giving in ways that strengthen their social ties and increase their influence.

The biggest takeaway—while all three groups can succeed, when a successful giver rises to the top, the success spreads to people around her. It cascades through her teammates, co-workers, and her organization. Successful givers make everyone else better while they excel individually.

Which group do you think a college wants more of on campus?

Many high school students approach their high school careers like takers or matchers. Their mantra is, “I’ll do it, if it will help me get into college.”

They take a hard class, but only if they get an extra grade point.

They do community service, but only to amass enough hours to seem impressive on their applications.

They visit teachers after class, but only to ask for extra credit to raise their grade.

They pitch in and help with the club fundraiser, but only if it comes with a leadership title.

When you approach high school like a taker or a matcher, your prospective colleges are left to wonder what kind of student and campus community member you’ll be once you’ve gotten your prize of admission. Ambitious, hard-working givers on the other hand are more likely to keep making a big impact in and out of the classroom once they get to college.

Take the harder class because it will make you smarter. Do community service because you care and it’s the right thing to do. Visit a teacher after class just to tell him how much you’re learning. Pitch in and help with the club fundraiser because you want your group to succeed.

Is it OK to be focused on getting accepted to the colleges you want to attend? Of course it is. Nobody is suggesting that you abandon your ambition. And you shouldn’t give to the point where your own grades, activities or happiness suffer.

But remember that like successful givers, colleges, especially the more selective ones, are more likely to be generous with a fellow giver who will bring that spirit to campus.