Over the last few days I’ve talked to several friends and colleagues about this blog. Their responses have been mixed. Two stand out in particular. The first one gently razzed me about about “wanting to change the world,” then questioned why anyone would give up their own interests over the course of a career in order to prioritize someone else’s interests. The other asked how a business could ever operate if it wasn’t motivated by profit.
They were both awesome questions.
I’m about 2/3 of the way through a book called Give and Take, by Adam Grant. (No, I haven’t finished Walden yet; I’ve been itching to read Give and Take since I bought it and Thoreau spent too much time goofing off in the woods so I’ll finish Walden later this week).
Adam is a Wharton professor of management and a really great writer. I wish I knew him well enough to legitimately call him by his first name. His book focuses on the differences between givers, takers, and matchers—three different personalities defined by their approach to interactions with other people—and what sets the successful givers apart from takers and matchers. Roughly speaking, takers are most interested in what any given situation can do for them. Matchers will scratch your back as long as you scratch theirs. And givers (Surprise!) tend to be generous in giving time and means to those around them. He demonstrates that time and time again, the successful givers outperform takers and matchers in just about every industry.
Adam explains that unsuccessful givers are selfless, meaning that they engage in “a form of pathological altruism . . . an unhealthy focus on others to the detriment of [their] own needs.” Successful givers, on the other hand demonstrate otherish behavior: they genuinely care about benefiting others but they have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests. Their success comes strongest when they’re able to harness both their ambition and their interest in others together.
The combination of these two elements is essential. Adam spends an entire chapter of his book explaining how people who are able to combine intense personal ambition with other-oriented behavior succeed against some of the most difficult challenges facing our culture today (volunteer teaching at one of the top-ten most dangerous schools in America, for example).
This otherish orientation is probably the defining aspect of the changes I’m advocating for here. In fact, now that I’ve learned about “otherishness,” I think it’s a better description of what I’m trying to accomplish than “altruism.” Altruism in a business context suggests too much of that unhealthy focus on others that leaves us unable to provide for our own needs. Being otherish is why we can shift our focus away from maximizing profit; succeeding in business supplies the necessary hit for the self-interested part of us, and enabling others to fully participate in that success incorporates the benefits of giving that Adam thoughtfully lays out in the rest of his book.
If Adam’s right about being otherish, changing the world is just a few steps further down the road.