Book review: Give and Take, by Adam Grant

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 4:03pm

Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success

by Adam Grant


Success coach Adam Grant has a stunning string of accomplishments behind him. The youngest tenured and highest-rated professor at elite business school Wharton, Grant consults for the likes of Google, the United Nations and the US military, previously a record-setting advertising director, junior Olympic springboard diver, and professional magician - to list just some of his achievements and skip mentioning all the awards.

Grant's bold new guide to self-betterment essentially splits people into two kinds. "I call them takers and givers. Takers have a distinctive signature: they like to get more than they give. They tilt reciprocity in their own favour, putting their own interests ahead of others' needs," he writes.

In contrast, givers help others generously, to their personal gain, it seems. "Although we often stereotype givers as chumps and doormats, they turn out to be surprisingly successful."

Better yet, he says, the success spreads and cascades. The resulting ripple effect fuels the fortunes of others in the giver's orbit, according to Grant.

Great givers he cites include internet entrepreneur Adam Rifkin, Australian financial adviser Peter Audet, venture capitalist David Hornik, accounting guru C.J. Skender and the enduringly inspirational United States president Abraham Lincoln. "It is noteworthy that Lincoln is seen as one of the least self-centred, egotistical, boastful presidents ever," Grant writes. Presidential ratings score Lincoln in the top three - with George Washington and Millard Fillmore - in acting in the best interests of others and giving them credit, he writes.

Give and Take features glowing praise from the likes of scientist Dan Pink and representatives for Google, Nike, and Nasa. Predictably, the blurb likens Grant to a trendy pop culture titan who also endorses him: Malcolm Gladwell.

More serious than Gladwell, Grant makes the implicitly socialist, even Christian case that if you maltreat others you will make enemies who thwart your progress. So, as in a good marriage, you should give back without worrying what you get in return - forget keeping score and you will benefit more, according to Grant.

His argument that nice guys - or "gritty givers" who look after themselves - finish first is grounded in ample research. One impromptu study he cites - about takers who burn bridges by constantly asking favours and rarely reciprocating - shows that they flop. They end up with rock-bottom status. What goes around comes around, Grant says.

His karmic view may strike some readers as too rosy - we have all met thriving shysters, who look unlikely to lose credibility. Another grumble with Grant is that he gets mired in debating the question of whether true selflessness exists. Also, he sprinkles his text with so many footnotes that they could form a separate book.

The fanatically organised accountancy expert Skender gets the treatment in particular depth. "He is religious about being the first to arrive in his parking garage at work, usually before five am, yet he is known for staying past midnight at review sessions to help students prepare for exams," the footnote running to 268 words mentions.

Skender seems a hard act to follow. So does Grant, who according to Bloomberg, gives his cellphone number to each of his students and maintains a strict 24-hour reply rule, answering e-mails from students within a day. Trying to emulate Skender and Grant sounds like a recipe for burnout.

Still, Give and Take is deftly paced and engaging. Plus, it has the gumption to question the worth of get-ahead killer-instinct classics such as Robert Greene's The 48 Laws of Power and Sun Tzu's Art of War.

The tough tactics that such core texts champion are apparently self-defeating. Provocative.