Home > rant > Giving isn’t the secret

Giving isn’t the secret

April 1, 2013

I don’t know if you read this article (h/t Radhika Sainath) on a hyperactive professor and Organizational Psychology researcher, Adam Grant, who always helps people when they ask and has a theory about giving. He claims that generous giving is the answer to getting ahead and feeling and being successful.

Well, as a “strategic giver” myself, let me tell you that giving isn’t the way to get ahead. Not as expressed by Grant, anyway*.

If you look carefully at the story, it reveals a bunch of things. Here are a few of them:

  1. Grant has a stay-at-home wife who deals with the kids all the time. Even so, she doesn’t seem all that psyched about how much time he devotes to helping other people (“Sometimes I tell him, ‘Adam — just say no,’ ”).
  2. He works all the time and misses sleep to get stuff done.
  3. He engages in high-profile strategic helping – he helps colleagues and students.
  4. Moreover, he does it in exaggerated and dramatic ways, leading to people talking about him and thanking him profusely, generally giving him attention.
  5. Considering that his area of research is how to get people to work hard and be more efficient through helping each other, this attention directly in line with his goal of gaining status.
  6. Just to be clear, he isn’t researching how to get other people to have high status like him, but rather how to get people to work harder in boring-ass jobs.

Put it all together, and you’ve got this disconnect between the way he applies “helping” to himself and to the subjects in his research.

He researches people in call centers, for example, and figures out how to get them to really believe in their work by seeing someone who benefitted from the associated scholarship program. But working harder doesn’t get them more status, it just makes them tired. The other examples in the article are similar. Actually some of them get grosser. Here’s a tasty excerpt from the article:

Jerry Davis, a management professor who taught Grant at the University of Michigan and is generally a fan of [Adam Grant]’s work, couldn’t help making a pointed critique about its inherent limits when they were on a panel together: “So you think those workers at the Apple factory in China would stop committing suicide if only we showed them someone who was incredibly happy with their iPhone?”

So what does he means by “giving” when he’s considering other people? Working really hard in a dead-end job? Kinda reminds me of this review of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” book, written by ex-Facebook disgruntled speech writer Kate Losse. Here’s my favorite line from that bitter essay:

For Sandberg, pregnancy must be converted into a corporate opportunity: a moment to convince a woman to commit further to her job. Human life as a competitor to work is the threat here, and it must be captured for corporate use, much in the way that Facebook treats users’ personal activities as a series of opportunities to fill out the Facebook-owned social graph.

In other words, Grant, like Sandberg, is selling us a message of working really hard with the underlying promise that it will make us successful, especially if we do it because we just love working really hard.


First, it really matters what you work on and who you are helping. If you are not a strategic helper, you end up wasting your time for no good reason. How many times have we seen people who end up doing their job plus someone else’s job, without any thanks or extra money?

If you work really hard on a project which nobody cares about, nobody appreciates it. True.

And if you aren’t a political animal, able to smell out the projects and people that are worth working on extra hard and helping, then you’re pretty much out of luck.

But let’s take one step back from the terrible advice being given by Grant and Sandberg. What are their actual goals? Is it possible that they really think just by working extra hard at whatever shit corporate job we have will leave us  successful and fulfilled? Are they that blind to other people’s options? Do they really know nobody in their private lives who found fulfillment by quitting their dead-end corporate job and became a poor but happy poet?

Here’s what Kate Losse says, and I think she hit the nail on the head:

Sandberg is betting that for some women, as for herself, the pursuit of corporate power is desirable, and that many women will ramp up their labor ever further in hopes that one day they, too, will be “in.” And whether or not those women make it, the companies they work for will profit by their unceasing labor.

Similarly, Grant’s personal academic success comes from getting people to work harder. His incentive is to get you to work harder, not be fulfilled. Just to be clear.

* I actually do think giving is a wonderful thing, but certainly not exclusively at work, and it’s not a secret.

Categories: rant
  1. April 1, 2013 at 7:54 am

    Looks like this jerk is plagiarizing PAY IT FORWARD….something of a true story in Las Vegas where the poor dumb little kid hopes to hook up his recovering drunk mom with a sober burned faced teacher as Bon Jovi is the teen star’s drunk brutal dad….. Haley Joel Osment tries to sober up a heroin (Mel Gibson’s own Jesu Nasoret) addict in his garage & Helen (As Good As It Gets) Hunt takes a shotgun to godsmack upon discovery….The film doses us on bad journalism, generous trial lawyers who give away a Jaguar, ghetto talk & Angie Dickenson who won’t give up her Thunderbird cheap booze. I don’t see much difference from PAY IT FORWARD and this so called professor promoting capitalism by denying a big raise in the minimum wage, I smell Jeebush Jeeeehobah Ghost Holes on this college campus. @LarryAccomplish @AtheistVet 843-926-1750


  2. April 1, 2013 at 8:14 am

    Great response. I found this article disturbing and Grant a strange example of a problem. His brand of self-realisation (what type of “self” is being realised, here?!) is actually a strain of nihilism-at-work, really – and that is why you came up against the lack of “fulfillment”; all that “activity” – and the “disimulated” selfishness – really masks an underlying existential problem, the problem that is at the base of all the unsettling activity you take issue with, but that is so hard to really pull out and show.


  3. Paul Meyer
    April 1, 2013 at 9:50 am

    I remember how many times people advise about the importance of “finding one’s passion”. Now, while I think that’s obviously important (though if your passion is specific, it may never be realistic that you will get paid for doing it), I realize that advice might leave some people open for having their labor exploited. Also, to the degree I would advocate “giving”, I think of it as “giving back” (which can but probably will not mostly happen at work). Giving and passion and balance. Balance being where you organize your life to take care of yourself, your loved ones, attend to duties and as a citizen (of the community, the world) and, for some, pursue transcendental meaning possibly not part of those other “balance” things. So defined I think that trio inter-relate. (Phew, just thinking about it makes me want to lie down.)


  4. mathematrucker
    April 1, 2013 at 11:46 am

    Somewhere I heard about a hierarchy of giving in Jewish culture (maybe in a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode). If I remember right, at the top is anonymous giving, where the giver doesn’t know the identity of the recipient, and vice-versa.

    I tend to agree with this “random acts of kindness” philosophy, though on what grounds I’m not sure. It just makes sense to me.

    I suppose that not only the giver’s identity, but even the receiver’s awareness of the gift itself could be up for grabs. But surely at least the giver has to be aware of the gift; otherwise the action would no longer be defined as a gift.


  5. Jessica
    April 2, 2013 at 8:02 am

    I really should have some intelligent formulation for this, but all I can say is that if we had this guy in any decent encounter group and he called what he does “giving”, we would leave him shredded on the floor. The name for what he does is not “giving”. It is “taking”.
    And “leaning in” is neither feminist nor empowering. It is masochistic intensification of being exploited.
    Performing an exaggerated version of the most dessicated, degenerate form of masculinity AND doing it in a way that does not even provide extrinsic benefit to oneself or those who care about you and you care about but only benefits those who see you only as high-grade (maybe) fodder, that is not feminism. That is self-hatred in action.
    I guess that before the knowledge worker class can fulfill its rightful role as an agent for the prosperity and growth of humanity, it must first sink to the full depth of its current role as agent for our decaying elite in our current social misorganization.
    OK, I’ll go take a few deep breaths and do some yoga or something.


  6. ToNYC
    April 2, 2013 at 8:36 am

    If your self gets in front of the giving, your self gets behind the taking. The result is the gift itself, for any, by one.


  7. badatmathguy
    April 2, 2013 at 8:53 am

    I was taught that St. Nicholas became a saint not because he gave, but because he did so anonymously.


  8. April 2, 2013 at 8:57 am

    Refreshing deconstruction. There will be naysayers, because you’re attacking some sacred cows.


  9. stephen gardner
    April 2, 2013 at 9:54 am

    It’s harder to get knowledge workers to act like good little corporate serfs so you have to use sophisticated PR juggernauts like Sandberg’s book and associated marketing hoopla to influence them to “behave”. Otherwise, how will the executive class impoverish the next tier up on the chain of taking. The game ain’t over until the c-suite has it all.


  10. Frances Woolley
    April 2, 2013 at 10:01 am

    Great post, really enjoyed it. One small thing to add – men and women tend to get asked to help in different ways, and their assistance is perceived differently.

    I had a typical exchange a few months ago: “Will you sit on Committee X?” where Committee X involves reading large amounts of material. “No, I’m going to be in Africa.” “Oh, well, we were looking for a woman to sit on the committee, can you think of anyone else?”

    I was wanted on that committee to help someone else appear politically correct, not to help make important decisions. That’s a kind of helping I can say no to very easily.


  11. Noni Mausa
    April 2, 2013 at 10:54 am

    This sort of scamming has been going on for decades (remember “Who Moved My Cheese?” that grotesque motivational book and video?) but to be fair, humans and all creatures try their best to offload the effort of life onto others. Herbivores offload photosynthesis onto plants, carnivores onto herbivores, parasites onto hosts, and humans onto horses, dogs, cattle and other humans. After the 1800s, we have also been able to offload the effort of living onto long-dead plants in the form of petrochemicals, coal and other energy sources, and most recently onto robots and computers.

    I recommend a book about this latter offloading, “The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the new servitude” by Andrew Nikiforuk. http://www.amazon.ca/Energy-Slaves-The-Oil-Servitude/dp/1553659783

    I guess since all creatures offload, we cannot look to eliminating this disagreeable element of our lives, but we must learn how to limit our parasitism so as not to collapse the rest of the system.


  12. April 2, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    It’s exactly for these kinds of bullshit-spotting that I’m paying more attention to this blog.



  13. Savanarola
    April 3, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    As far as how his wife feels, I strongly recommend rereading “Rip Van Winkle.” I read it as an adult, married woman, and noticed some remarkable things I did not notice when reading it as a child. A person who values “helping” other people more than his own wife and kids is, to put it mildly, not exactly a hero to his nearest and dearest.

    The whole article bothered me, too.


  1. April 4, 2013 at 9:39 am
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