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Give and Take and Why I’m Still Looking for a Role Model I Can Relate To

I am reading “Give and Take” by Adam Grant. Basically, Grant writes a treatise suggesting that people who are “givers” (the nice guys) may appear to end up last in the short run, but they end up winners in the long run. More promotions, more advancement, more opportunities, more friends, more money.

I highly anticipated reading this book after first learning about Grant from the New York Times write-up. I really wanted to like this book. I appreciated the numerous studies cited, but was disappointed by the superficial treatment of the givers. Specifically, I did not find what differentiates those who “give and (eventually) win” and those who “give and simply became exhausted”.


Grant’s selection of “takers who suffered crises of creativity”? Frank Lloyd Wright and Jonas Salk.

These were 2 examples early in the book about famous people who weren’t good collaborators and who took too much credit for the collaborative work of others.

I don’t know much about architecture but I’ve heard of Frank Lloyd Wright. The wikipedia entry about Jonas Salk says nothing of Salk’s “hogging the limelight” around polio vaccine work and I never came across a negative impression about Salk in my readings until now. Are these the best examples of what negative effects come if you act more like a “taker” or even a “matcher” versus a true “giver”?

I *REALLY* want to believe in what Grant is proposing.

But I’m having a hard time being convinced.

Surely there are some who didn’t make the bell curve of giving super-stardom: people who were generous and eschewed credit and still ended up in the bottom of the barrel. An early chapter in the book talks about those groups of engineers and professionals who were at the top and bottom of the ladders – and both groups ironically were givers. What made one group ascend to the top, and one group trapped at the bottom? Was it a matter of time – that givers become recognized but this recognition require longer time frames to manifest? Or was it something else? Addressing this first “elephant in the room” would make the book more balanced and persuasive. At least, it would not lead well-meaning but exhausted givers to wonder if their plight stems from them “not giving enough.”

I first read about Grant from this NYT piece and while intrigued enough to preorder his book, I can’t help but wonder if he can give as much as he does if he doesn’t have a spouse who basically handles the domestic affairs while Grant “gives of himself to his students and colleagues”. Because it reads like this guy is at the beck and call of everyone, in addition to (maybe?) his family:

Children. It must be said that in the middle of a national debate about flexible hours and telecommuting, there is precious little in Grant’s book about work and family balance. The division of labor in Grant’s own marriage is very traditional; his wife, who has a degree in psychiatric nursing, does not work outside the home, devoting her time to the care of their two young daughters and their home. Grant would be an extraordinary giver under any circumstances; but it can only help that he doesn’t have to worry about running to the grocery store or renewing the car registration.

“Sometimes I tell him, ‘Adam — just say no,’ ” his wife, Allison, told me, referring to the hundreds of requests he gets every day. “But he can’t say no. That’s what he is. That’s his way.”

Grant is devoted to his family — he has dinner most nights at home and takes his daughter to a preschool activity on many afternoons. But he also works at least one full day on the weekend, as well as six evenings a week, often well past 11. Once, when Grant was asked to give a talk on productivity, he confessed to a mentor that for all his research, he was still not sure what he did that was any different from anyone else. It wasn’t exactly a mystery, his mentor told him: He worked more. “I made a commitment to talk about that more,” Grant said. He did not mean to suggest that everyone should work on weekends; he wanted them to be aware that they were making a choice, maybe even one they felt good about.”

The book suggests that givers gain by expanding the pie, which made logical sense. However, we may expand the pie, but we can’t expand the unit time we have to sustain the increasing demands of a bigger pie. Expanding the pie does not necessarily mean all relationships demand the same effort at the same time, but still: increased influence increases demands over the same units of time. The book’s examples did not describe how givers who expanded the pie evolved to sustain their giving while balancing their personal commitments (to family, for example).

Several chapters in, and I still struggled with how the author proposes to balance “giving” across both personal and professional boundaries. I kept looking for an in-depth example of givers who exemplified such balanced giving across personal and professional circles. If some of the “role models” in the book exemplified this balance, it was not treated in depth… then the book ended. Even though I knew buying the book I shouldn’t find anything about family and domestic partnerships with children, surely these dynamic individuals have vibrant personal lives, and personal relationships that may rival the demands of their time and effort.

Yet personal relationship aspects of these profile were mentioned only in passing to illustrate the story, without delving into the effects of “expanding the pie type of giving” on their personal relationships. Maybe these don’t negatively affect personal and family relationships – maybe this positively affect family relationships – but whatever the effect, it was overlooked or deliberately omitted. I saw this omission as the second “elephant in the room” and the book’s Achilles’ heel. It leaves too many questions unanswered, questions that are important for people who may not always be in the position of “designated career spouse”.

As a woman and a parent who has “domestic policy/domestic affairs” as my major responsibility, I can’t help but wonder how feasible it would be for “me” (and those like me, whether male or female) to put these principles in action.

This is the problem with these “leaning in” type of articles and proposals.

Show me someone who can do this on top of balanced family responsibilities, give me a role model I can RELATE to!

Our culture and companies celebrate “visibility”. Not really “takers” per se, but visibility. People who appear like they’re movers and shakers and who can haul out lots of accomplishments and credits to their name. The NYT article comment section is most telling. There was one person who said she had given selflessly to students and colleagues but she saw who “got ahead”.

I wonder if there is a gender difference: whether women are expected to be givers so if they give, it doesn’t shake anybody’s world. Men on the other hand, are not expected traditionally to be givers, when they give, they get invited to speak at Google and write a book that gets written up on NYT to help preorders (it worked, I bought a copy, but I’ve read several chapters of this book and I’m still trying to figure out — what is that ‘balanced’ giving). What I mean by balanced giving is not “matching” (give to gain) but — give to others while also giving to people who need me the most (my family).

I think I’d have a more rewarding life and sleep best at night when I think I have my personal relationships intact and I have given when I can give and be honest when I can’t. I’d like to have a livelihood too, but I haven’t figured that part out in this Give and Take book.

This book read like a carefully curated collection of confirmation biases, superficially supporting the hypothesis that givers are the true movers and shakers at the workplace and beyond. For all my anticipation and aspiration for this book, I was left uninspired.
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A quick browsing of the comments that DON’T call into question the professor’s anxiety and desire for approval revealed this woman’s comment that I found pertinent:

Comment states: This is my husband. Very giving of his time to others, the office door always open, everyone who works for him adoring him. While I did not have the fortune of being a stay at home wife, and while my husband did do his fair share at home, our home life did and is still suffering. My number one complaint in our marriage and family life is that he is available and accessible to others but is not here at home to deal with some very important issues especially now that our last child is in his teens and needs lots of male guidance. The other thing is that his devotion to face time with people at his work takes time from his duties at his desk. Thus, he works Saturdays and Sundays in his office catching up on those duties. I, on the other hand, learned that if anything was going to be done at home, couldn’t meet with my students way past school hours nor go to my students’ sporting events or competitions as some of my male colleagues are able to do because they have a wife at home. My point is that giving is wonderful, but unless one is single or married to a supportive partner who enjoys the burden of being alone a lot with the home responsibilities, people near and dear to you are suffering because of your lack of giving them what they need- the time and attention you so generously give to strangers!

Updated: April 14, 2013 — 2:56 pm

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