Most of life isn’t zero-sum

If politics can be fertile ground for givers, it’s possible that givers can succeed in any job. Whether giving is effective, though, depends on the particular kind of exchange in which it’s employed. This is one important feature of giving to keep in mind as we move through the ideas in this book: on any particular morning, giving may well be incompatible with success. In purely zero-sum situations and win-lose interactions, giving rarely pays off. This is a lesson that Abraham Lincoln learned each time he chose to give to others at his own expense. “If I have one vice,” Lincoln said, “and I can call it nothing else – it is to be able to say no!”

But most of life isn’t zero-sum, and on balance, people who choose giving as their primary reciprocity style end up reaping rewards. For Lincoln, like David Hornik, seemingly self-sacrificing decisions ultimately worked to his advantage. When we initially concluded that Lincoln and Hornik lost, we hadn’t stretched the time horizons out far enough. It takes time for givers to build goodwill and trust, but eventually, they establish reputations and relationships that enhance their success. In fact, you’ll see that in sales and medical school, the giver advantage grows over time. In the long run, giving can be every bit as powerful as it is dangerous. As Chip Conley, the entrepreneur who founded Joie de Vivre Hotels, explains, “Being a giver is not good for a 100-yard dash, but it’s valuable in a marathon.”

In Lincoln’s era, the marathon took a long time to run. Without telephones, the Internet, and high-speed transportation, building relationships and reputations was a slow process. “In the old world, you could send a letter, and no one knew,” Conley says. Conley believes that in today’s connected world, where relationships and reputations are more visible, givers can accelerate their pace. “You no longer have to choose,” says Bobbi Silten, the former president of Dockers, who now runs global social and environmental responsibility for Gap Inc. “You ben be a giver and be successful.”

From “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success” by Adam Grant