04/05/2013 03:18 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2013

Adam Grant's Give and Take and the Importance of Paragraph 39

Spouses and families contribute to an individual's professional success, no doubt. But how should they be acknowledged? The question often emerges from the historical sources of my research; official narratives of the past seldom praise women's contributions. The issue also arises in the acknowledgements of historical studies. Most historians save their personal thanks for the last paragraph ("Last but certainly not least..."), which, no matter how sincere, seems woefully inadequate. The question will always bedevil authors. We write the history, yet most of the work that makes it possible--the tiring, incessant, and rewarding labor of raising kids or managing a home--receives a few lines of recognition at best.

I sensed this dilemma recently between the lines of a New York Times Magazine profile of Adam Grant, a professor of management at the Wharton School and author of the forthcoming Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. The NYT piece follows Grant, a brilliant organizational psychologist, and describes how he puts into practice his own theories of giving. Grant argues that people can be organized into one of three categories: givers, matchers, and takers. Make yourself more available and helpful to givers and matchers, Grant asserts, and you will thrive in unexpected ways. You will succeed.

Susan Dominus, the author of the profile, rightly questions the reasons for Grant's relentless giving. It would appear that he is packaging charity into micro-loans, of sorts, each with an anticipated return-on-investment. Even if we accept the idea of a Maussian gift (no gift is truly free), it is hard to compare Grant's motivation for giving with, for example, the recent 60 Minutes story on immigrants from Sudan. These "Lost Boys," after 9/11, managed to donate $400 to unknown victims of the terrorist attack. "So what we did, we just collect some money," said one of the interviewees. "Two dollars, five dollars. We have nothing! And we give about $400! And that is amazing! A community with nothing. People just came from Africa."

What warmth. And no expected ROI.

Dominus does not explore in detail Grant's problematic notion of helping, giving, and charity. Her profile of Grant leaves many questions unanswered.

What concerns me most, as a historian, is less Grant's analysis of giving than the profile's uncritical acceptance of an arcane definition of "success." The reporter chose to include Grant's personal life in the story, but why does Grant's wife, Allison, not appear until paragraph 39? There lies the connection between helping and success. We learn that 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 [...]." Like Grant's book, the profile on him does not investigate how Allison's profession at home contributes to her husband's achievements at work. Allison's first quote expresses support while revealing a little frustration: "Sometimes I tell him, 'Adam -- just say no. But he can't say no. That's what he is. That's his way.'"

What is missing here? As any partner in a "very traditional" marriage will tell you, and especially those with kids (I fit both of these categories), time management is a zero-sum game. "There are only twenty-four hours in a day" is a cliché that is painfully true. What are the choices that Grant must make to spend many of his waking hours trying to help (and please) others? We learn he works six days a week, often until 11 p.m., and that he "has dinner most nights at home and takes his daughter to a preschool activity on many afternoons." Most...many. What do these terms mean quantifiably? How does he balance his time at home with a philosophy of endlessly helping others? I ask in earnest. An hour-by-hour break-down of his time management would reveal much of how Grant and his family define success. (Perhaps Grant himself has already done this!)

As he says in the article, "The way I see it, I have several different roles. [...] I'd be concerned if any of those roles took more of my time than my family." Family certainly plays an important part of Grant's life. So why does the reporter exclude any discussion of the difficult choices that he--and his wife--make for their family and his career? By omitting this important discussion, Grant's impressive achievements define success for the reader, leaving unexplored in any substantial way the tremendous effort of the family to the father's professional ambitions.

I raise these questions not only because they challenge me and my own family, but because I see the "traditional" model of defining success replicated in the historical sources of my research. The work and achievements of men constitute the official record. An investor in Sonora in 1906, a missionary in Chihuahua in 1886, a trader in Colorado in 1846: these men comprise standard historical narratives. Dig into their personal letters, though, and their successes rely on familial bonds. The missionary, for example, considered his wife's work at the home and with resident women "as the spiritual center of this mission." The missionary would later inscribe his memoirs to his wife, "a dear companion in the home, an unfailing inspirer of faith and courage, and a trusted counsellor in Christian service which she has shared to the full."

If Grant values his role in his family more than any other, and if his wife's home-work contributes in equal part to the family's accomplishments, why, then, does the NYT reporter stick to a definition of success more dated than the nineteenth-century sources I encounter?

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