Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Pay It Forward: Why Generosity Is The Key To Success

Personal connections are the currency of the working world. Like or not, who we know, who we owe, and who owes us determines our future as much as talent.

When it comes to when and how we help others, most of us fit into one of three categories:

  • Givers, who help others unconditionally, demanding nothing in return.
  • Matchers, who usually only help those who have helped them.
  • Takers, those who demand help but never offer.

Penn professor Adam Grant is a Giver. He’s also the youngest tenured professor at Wharton and is the author of the best-selling Give and Take. Grant believes that the success of our careers is due to our generosity with our time and knowledge. Givers, he says, are usually either at the top or bottom of their field, with Matchers and Takers sprinkled in between.

After publicly proclaiming to the world that he answers any and all favor requests in the New York Times, Grant is the best test case for his own theory. However, Grant manages it all well thanks to being ruthless with his time. I asked him how he handles the deluge and if he has any advice for those of us who feel too squeezed to be good “Givers.”

In the book, you write that Givers are either at the very top of their field or at the bottom. How do you make sure your giving helps, not hurts, your career?

Your effectiveness with giving depends largely on your time management skills. The main thing is to block out time for individual work and then time to be helpful. I have a particular day where I don’t answer any phone calls or emails. That day I’m writing, reading, or pushing forward one of my individual responsibilities. Then there are days where I block out time just to be helpful. It’s more efficient, less distracting, and lets me maintain a balance.

I try to focus on five-minute favors as micro-loans of my time. When something comes in, I ask myself if I’m in the position to help uniquely or can I pass them along to someone who might be more helpful. Sometimes, I farm the requests out to people that are in a better place to help.

I imagine people constantly want to pay you back.

Well, especially with the Matchers, but most people feel pressed to pay you back. I try not to ask them to pay it back, I try to ask them to pay it forward. Usually in the case of helping me help others. It’s really great to have a network of people willing to give back to be helpful.

“I try to focus on five-minute favors as micro-loans of my time.”

It’s like you’re making a loan and getting interest. But even if they “pay” it elsewhere that’s emotionally fulfilling for you.

It is. The other aspect is that, when you encourage enough people to pay it forward, especially in certain networks [or workplaces], the norm spreads a little bit and more people get the help they need. If everyone is a taker, you have widespread paranoia, and you don’t get a lot of help or problem-solving. If everyone is a matcher, you can only go to the people that have helped in the past. If everyone is a giver you can go the person who is the best expert or most qualified to help. That helps everybody. That’s the benefit. You can create a more efficient exchange of ideas and resources.

Blocking out days to give sounds good, but what if my job is more regimented?

There are Fortune 500 companies where a group of engineers would have “quiet time.” Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. they’d have a no-interruption rule. You can negotiate those kinds of policies or practices.

Some people put up out-of-office replies that say, “I’m working on a really important project for the next four hours. If you really need me, please call me.” Do that and you’ll get emails back saying, “Oh we resolved this, don’t worry about it.” Or “I saw you were out of office, I really respect the fact that you prioritize important work. This is something I can follow up next week on.” It’s a good way to get people to respect your boundaries and it means that when you do make time for them, they appreciate it more.

Wharton Professor Adam Grant

Wharton Professor Adam Grant

You advocate being ruthless with your time. How have you seen that play out?

Whenever someone asks me for a meeting the first thing I ask back is, “What the agenda for this meeting and what contributions can be expected from me?” It’s amazing. Half the time they can’t answer. I have it as an auto-script at this point that I just paste in. What’s fascinating is that I often hear back, “Oh, I just really thought you wanted to be there.” And I say, “I appreciate you being polite, but if it’s no difference to you, I prefer not to be included.”

Related to that is to say, “I’ve been completely deluged with requests for meetings and if I took them all I’d get nothing done. What I’d appreciate is if you could write a couple of sentences about the contribution you’re looking for. I’ll do my best to provide it directly or connect you with someone who can.”

I imagine doing this with meetings may seem combative, but people respect you more.

It’s an open question. I hope so. I’m sure some people say, “This guy espouses Giver principles and doesn’t live by them.” My response there is, “I never said I should help all the people, all the time, with all the requests.” My priority is family first, students second, colleagues third. Everybody else comes fourth. If I can’t fulfill my commitment to those first three groups, that meeting is not something I’m going to be making time for.

You’ve seen thousands of students over the course of your career. You’ve also consulted with the world’s best executives. What are the skills that you feel people in college aren’t getting that they need in the “real world”?

I had an office hours conversation with a student who had just joined her 17th club. There’s no way you can meaningfully participate in seventeen clubs. This is the “fear of missing out” concept. It’s perverse, but the more you fear missing out, the more you actually miss out. Then you are peripherally participating in a bunch of things and have no meaningful engagement in anything.

“The more you fear missing out, the more you actually miss out.”

Another thing that comes up is teaching students how to fail. Undergrads especially have this idea that they have to excel at everything they do. They say, “I need this pristine track record where everything I have ever tried has succeeded.” Obviously, that closes off learning opportunities. And that makes them less successful in the long run because they never discover their weaknesses. They never experiment with anything that’s not comfortable and it makes them less well-rounded and prepared for a complicated world.

There’s evidence that recruiters discriminate against 4.0’s. They’d much rather have a 3.8 who had a life. There’s a stigma that you’re a loser or perfectionist if you got perfect grades. That coping with failure is a lost art.

How about you?

How has giving helped (or hurt) your career?

More insights on: Interviews

Sean Blanda

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Sean is the Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.
load comments (27)
  • Kuratur

    The generosity movement is one of the things that gives me hope for humanity :-)

  • jeffkaiserman

    This strikes me as correct on multiple levels. First, I really appreciate the need to prioritize – even when you are “giving”. I think this goes not only for giving of your talents, as in this article, but in all the things you can give. Second, I like the idea of giving as your key to success especially when it’s done with no expectation of payback.

  • Aaron Morton

    good article, although I don’t think it is entirely the case and from my experience and experience of various consultants and people working within organisations I have spoken to there are cases of Machiavellian tendencies in top performers and considering research has come forward where a large percentage of CEO’s show sociopath traits, the notion of ‘givers’ whilst plausible is not the norm.

    The Confidence Lounge

  • Oliver

    Thank you for this article. It expresses positive thinking.
    At some points it may be a bit too positive – but perhaps this is the right way to think positive.

    Kind regards

  • premiumwd

    great article, definitely wise critiques on perceived flaws and perceptions.

  • Chris Beaton

    This is great stuff!

  • Thomas

    Honestly, this is feel good bunk.

    I’d love for this to be true, but in my experience, giving doesn’t get you anything unless you’re explicitly requiring that they give something in return. I’m
    generally lucky if I even get a thank you.

    If you give too easily, even if it’s just a series of 5 minute favors that don’t cut
    into things you really need to do, people don’t value favors that are
    percieved as not costing you anything.

    At this point, I get little or no help from any of my friends. That’s assuming they
    stick around at all. Sure, they’re there when they need something, but
    emotional gratification from helping people out, does not put food on
    the table or ensure that one has a network. None of these people that
    I’ve helped out can be bothered to pick up the phone and rarely do they
    respond when I do.

    It would be nice to live in a world where generosity paid off, but we don’t. Machiavellianism still pays far better, and you’re lucky to get any acknowledgement in most cases. Let alone a real reward or back scratching out of the deal.

    • SMC

      “It would be nice to live in a world where generosity paid off, but we don’t.”

      I do.

      It sounds like you require something in return. That’s not generosity, it’s quid pro quo.

    • Mark Frisk

      With that attitude, it’s no wonder you’re not getting any “payoff.”

      • Frank

        The article claims that generosity gets people ahead. I used to be generous and it got me absolutely nothing. In fact it got me further behind because not demanding favors in return meant that I went unappreciated.

        If attitude has something to do with it, then you can’t claim that generosity is what’s doing it.

        Like I said, it’s feel good bunk. Just take a look at who the typical executives are and how they got their if you don’t believe me.

        It’s astonishing to me how people for whom this works are so quick to blame those of us for whom it doesn’t work. Because obviously it’s my fault because there’s some sort of guarantee that giving other people things without asking for anything results in something other than being taken advantage of.

      • Mark Frisk

        No one’s “blaming” you for anything. I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but your statement that “I used to be generous and it got me absolutely nothing” rather betrays the fact that you were expecting something in return.

        True generosity is selfless. When you do something for someone and expect something in return, even if unstated, you’re not being generous, you’re being transactional.

        At any rate, good luck to you…

      • Frank

        You are blaming me though. The article claims the being generous is a key to success and I’m pointing out here that it depends heavily on the other people being willing to reciprocate rather than using the help as a boost to their own career.

        In my experience, there is no guarantee that being generous with people will lead to greater success. And that there is a guarantee that you’ll wind up with less time and energy for puruits that are more likely to help me out personally.

        If they’re still going to screw me over or use what I’ve helped them out with to get ahead of me, I’m better off just taking pride in doing my own work better and not having to worry about whether or not I get ahead by helping others.

      • Mark Frisk

        You need to look up what “blaming” means. I am most definitely not blaming you. I AM pointing out that you don’t know what generosity means, either. The fact that you talk about guarantees and worrying about whether or not you get ahead by helping others is more than enough evidence of this.

        As I said, I don’t want to beat a dead horse here. Good luck to you…

  • Alex

    the statements of this article are fake because a single person can be in a giver, a matcher and a taker depending on that person’s frame of mind which is also carried by the environment a bit and has a lot of influential factors. Psychology has this tendency lately of being a kind of substitute for religion (people need to believe in something – the point of reference for the emotional guidance system) in order to make people obedient (which is not necessarily a bad thing when you come to the conclusion that everything human kind achieved so far is the result of collaboration, not competition).
    In other words when you know what i said earlier you don’t really need people like Sean to tell you how to think and how to do this and that….
    cheers, Sean!

    • Alex

      Oh, sorry, i have made a mistake at the beginning at this paragraph… it’s “can be a giver” “instead of can be in a giver”

  • David McBurney

    I agree with Alex’s point below that it’s psychologically healthy to move beyond the Darwinistic emphasis of competition over collaboration.. however, moving beyond subjective opinions on the article and getting back to the question of ‘how has giving helped (or hurt) your career?’ – I’ve certainly found in my career that ‘giving to others’ – even if it’s just investing extra moments of time to ensure that day to day communications are clear, efficient and polite – almost always pays dividends.

  • Fay

    Generosity is a heart attitude. You can’t manufacture

    This is part of the principal of sowing and reaping.

    “Paying forward” everything you can and keep no
    records. Have no expectations.

    Another “key” is time and as everyone knows “time is currency”

    I say to my sage son of 15 years: What is the same for
    Presidents, Popes, pupils, paupers and everyday people? Answer: 24 hours in the

    How you use them determines much.

    Know your heart…guard your time.

  • Yanka

    I have had experience in the past about helping others and not getting any appreciation, forget need to pay back. How do you deal with that?

  • Angelina Sereno

    I am a huge fan of helping others and believe it has been a huge key to my success. I do however believe in balance… It’s very important to fill your cup back up (give to yourself) in order to keep your energy high and your passion for giving strong. (a blog about travel, film, philanthropy and growth)

  • 5onicvision

    In terms of Kabbalah this only makes sense. We are one correct? By helping another we help ourselves by bringing more Light to our bodies and our Spiritual DNA. It only makes sense that as we are within so too will we be without. What we are really talking about is simple. Flow out and like the tides flow in. Everyone is God so why wouldn’t we share something of ourselves for what we share is really being shared with all.

    Suffice it to say that we have choices always. It is just much more joyful to choose to share but as has been put forward there must be balance. When all of the energy is flowed out and none coming in we are truly depleted. And that is not honoring ourselves and our own distinct mission. Our Soul Purpose if you will. Spirit curious?
    Check out what is available to you for not only your singular progression but as we are one for all~ http://www.modernmysteryschool

    Remember we grow based on choices we make. As long as we are making choices we are never static.And even if it appears the illusion is real we are always moving as is everything in this omniverse! Peace Light Love and Joy for all~
    BIll 5onic Guide MMS

  • ripleyselves

    Stumbled across this nonsense when researching why jeff bozos wants to own everything. Anyone taking this article, book, or this “professor” seriously must be under 30 years of age. Am I old & cynical? Most likely–but, before you judge, make sure you’ve read & discussed the various forms of human evolution RE: HISTORY. Then, come back and try to take this “professor” and his 4th grade sunday school lessons seriously. “An optimist is someone who believes this is the best of all possible worlds, a pessimist fears this might be true.” And so it goes…..

    • SMC

      I’m gonna get off your lawn now.

  • Margot Terc

    This makes sense to me. Especially when it’s stressed that if you are in no position to give or really help, you will not do it. I also like the idea about blocking out time to help.

    The thing is to respect your own time and be mindful of what you can and cannot handle. If you have extra energy to help someone out, that’s great. But if you don’t, don’t overextend yourself if will cause you anxiety or resentment.

  • Dan Linstroth

    When I started my first business, I called or email three new people per day who are experts in their field. I would thank them for their time, compliment one of their recent achievements and ask for one piece of advice they have for first-time entrepreneurs. I got some fantastic pieces of advice from some smart people who I never imagined would respond. It taught me a few things; never have unrealistic expectations of others who you don’t control, focus your time and attention and give more than you think you can give.

  • clover

    I love this, but would add to it that you can only be a successful giver if you come from a place of gratitude, remembering that others have given to you, too.

    I have my job, which I love, because a friend of a friend was generous with his time when I was trying to network my way to employment at the company I currently work for. When I’m fielding networking requests from friends of friends, I remind myself of this and strive to be generous and helpful. (The helpful part is really key, I think. I’ve learned to respectfully decline the unrealistic requests. My time is valuable enough that I’m not going to pointlessly give it away.)

    If you sincerely believe that you got where you are 100% on your own merits and without help from others, though, you’ll find it hard to practice generosity because you don’t recognize its role in your own life.

  • Shirley B Wynn

    I have visited for the fist time and of course, was very inspired by the nature of your discussion. I plan to follow your page to gain more interest, insight and supportive info from others and hope to be able to return the same.

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