After combing through decades of research on success, Wharton psychologist Adam Grant came to a startling conclusion: The most successful people were givers, but so were the least successful.
Givers, as he lays out in his best-selling “Give and Take,” are people who frequently try to help other people. Other people may be takers, who focus on getting what they can from other people, or matchers, who seek an equal exchange of value.
Givers can be the most successful because they find their work meaningful, earn a good reputation, and build strong relationships, all of which pay unforeseen dividends over time. Plus, they’re constantly learning — helping people gives a new perspective.
But that altruism can be a problem.
“The givers who fail say yes too often,” Grant tells Business Insider, “and they burn themselves out or they run out of time and energy to get their work done.”
The successful ones, he says, are more selective about they ways the help people, looking for those who will pay the good deed back and pay it forward. They’re also more judicious about taking on projects that fit their expertise and energize them, all while protecting the time they need to get things done.
The difference between a giver who rises up and one who burns out, Grant says, is discernment.
“You could almost say that whether you’re a giver or taker is about your motives and values,” he says. “Whether you succeed as a giver depends on whether you can develop what psychologists call situational judgment effectiveness.”
Situational judgment effectiveness is a talent for making the right decision based on complex changing variables, which is something that comes up a lot in a career. For instance, you may have to decide whether to take that meeting, how to approach working with a new boss, or whether volunteering on the side is a good call.
Now that Grant is a best-selling author, he has to be more discerning than ever in his giving. Thankfully, he says, he’s got his wife’s help.
“For years she has been saying, ‘Why are you helping that person? You only hear from them when they want something from you,'” he says. “I would just say, ‘Oh, it’s only going to take me five minutes and it will benefit them a lot more than it costs me. I’m sure that I’d be helpful to other people and paying forward somehow.’ Now I’ve got to figure out if this person is asking for something that will also benefit other people — if they’re the kind of person who’s willing to pay forward. Or if, in some way, they’re going to make me regret it.”
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