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How to Give to Get a Flourishing Life With Others

04/09/2013 12:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2013

If you've felt betrayed by someone who often asks for favors, yet rarely reciprocates, you are not alone. Startlingly, to me anyway, is that natural givers appear at both extremes of the productivity spectrum. Givers are very successful, sought-after and happy -- or the opposite. Good intentions, generous giving and even smarts aren't the keys to thriving in work and in life, Adam M. Grant discovered after conducting extensive research for his new book, Give and Take.

This talented, widely-liked and introverted social scientist divides the world into givers, takers and matchers:

  • The majority of us are givers, according to Grant, yet "are overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success."
  • "Takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf.
  • Matchers expect some kind of quid pro quo, "with a master chit list in mind."

What makes some givers successful and sought-after is that they have both a deep, evident caring for others, yet they also attend to their own self-interest. They are not "doormats." Grant cites three relevant behaviors for being productive, happy givers:

  • Be judicious about giving to takers
  • Give in ways that reinforce and support your most vital relationships. (You can't serve everyone extremely well and care for yourself)
  • Consolidate your giving into chunks of time with an individual or group so your support has a more substantial, meaningful impact

From my experience other factors also vital to generate achievement and well-being for those you serve and for yourself:

1. Recognize the Need to Feel Needed and Connected

In art as in life it is often a matter of where you draw the line, the saying goes, and to succeed at work you need to draw a line to create healthy boundaries. Sacrificing your precious time with closest friends, colleagues and family members because you are devoting it to too many others may not be judicious choice for the self-care that Grant advocates.

As Susan Dominus observed in her New York Times article, Grant has a traditional marriage where "his wife "who has a degree in psychiatric nursing, does not work outside the home, devoting her time to the care time of their two young daughters and their home" and "works at least one full day on the weekend, as well as six evenings a week, often well past 11." As an alternative model of healthy giving that reflects Grant's definition of also taking care of oneself and "chunking" the helpful time with others, serial investor, Brad Feld has often written about how he gives and sets boundaries, becoming a role model in productivity. Feld helps many in the locally-based TechStars start-up communities, the start-ups in which he and his business partners invest, and boards on which he sits. He also scales his knowledge in his blog and co-authored books, and by providing open "office hours" to help most anyone.

In his self-caring approach to giving, he resolutely and publically sets aside specific vacation and other times with his wife, and for visiting with his parents, and closest friends -- and for reading and running. A core theme running through Brad's approach is connective, collective giving. That often means apt teams help others. This models behavior for those who receive to emulate, spurring them to enjoy the camaraderie of collectively giving, using their complementary talents with and for others an each other.

2. Help Others to Become More Helpful
We can feel that heady, immediate hedonic high each time we help someone who seeks our advice or an introduction, yet there may be surer ways to both support others and ourselves while also spurring them to emulate the giving behavior they receive. Those who continue to keeping getting the help they ask for, without any explicit expectation of reciprocity, may become habituated to asking for help; and thus inadvertently be turned into takers.

3. Give for the Greater Good of Our Group
Whenever a team or organizational culture explicitly recognizes and rewards individual giving to the group, individuals become more frequent, adept givers and deepen their sense of belonging:

Gore and Saddleback Church are frequently cited as examples of the connective, giving power of small, close-knit, inter-connected groups within a larger organization.

The specific rules of engagement of how Quantified Self members share self-monitoring experiments in their Meet-ups has enabled that self-organized group to scale global participation and innovation so rapidly and well that several universities and companies have sought them out as research partners.

Mutual support communities thrive when they are centered around a strongly-felt, shared interest. Consider the giving behaviors, for example, in 12-step programs or groups for cancer survivors or avid cyclists. The popularity of these groups and the loyalty members feel to each other and their group, illustrate how we will generously give apt advice and help, not seeking a quid pro quo, when the shared mission, giving and camaraderie is evident.

Other kinds of groups with explicit norms and rules to reinforce mutuality of benefits tend to spur greater sharing. They include MasterMind groups of peers or those led by an expert such as Vistage.

"Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves." - Horace Mann

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