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. He is also a co-founder of Technically Philly and Philly Tech Week. Email him: or find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.
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