Do Nice Guys Finish First?

July 19, 2013

Nice guys finish last - or do they? Adam Grant says that giving is the key to success.

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In 2011, Fortune Magazine made a list of the best "networkers" in the world of business. Surprisingly, the person who topped the list was not an industry giant like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, but a man named Adam Rifkin, a start-up CEO in Silicon Valley with a low profile and a small ego. 

The secret behind Rifkin's success? He's a giver, says Adam Grant, one of the youngest tenured professors ever at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book Give and Take. In his book, Grant advances a radical new theory about success: that nice guys--people who share credit rather than take it, and often do favors for others without expecting anything in return--actually do get ahead.

You might not be as charitable as Mohandas Gandhi - pictured here making homespun cloth in the 1920s - and that's okay, says Grant. Sometimes the favors that make the biggest difference only take five minutes.
Photo Credit: / Wikimedia Commons
The towers of the Enron complex in Houston. Enron, an energy corporation which collapsed after a corruption scandal in 2001, was headed by a man named Ken Lay, who Grant names as a classic example of a "taker," not a "giver."
Photo Credit: Alex / Wikimedia Commons
Compare these two board reports: at left is Jon Huntsman Sr., a famously charitable CEO, and at right is Ken Lay of Enron. Guess which one is the taker!
Photo Credit: Give and Take by Adam Grant / Viking

The Five Minute Favor

Here's one example of how giving helped Rifkin succeed. When the Internet was first gaining traction in the 1990s, Rifkin helped create some punk rock fan pages for a college student he didn't know but who contacted him for help. A few years later, when Adam Rifkin moved to Silicon Valley, he contacted the former college student and asked if they could meet. That college student, as it turned out, had just sold a company called Excite for $6.7 billion and was able to set Rifkin up with all sorts of connections, including a venture capitalist who funded his start-up. 

Helping that young college student didn't cost Rifkin much in terms of money or time - a practice Rifkin refers to as a "five minute favor" -- and Grant says that's okay. "If you want to be a helpful, giving person, you don't have to be Mother Theresa or Gandhi. All you have to do is look for ways of adding a lot of value to other people's lives that cost you only a little," Grant says. For Rifkin, that included connecting people, finding mentors for others, and sharing articles and knowledge. Over time, these little favors added up in a big way.

The Flip Side: Kissing Up, Kicking Down

Of course, for every giver like Rifkin, there are also takers -- or worse, "fakers." Grant told us the story of another entrepreneur whose early life sounded like it was on a charitable track. Humble beginnings, putting himself through college, military and public service: this guy had all the trappings of a bona fide giver. So who was he? Here's a surprise: it was Ken Lay, the CEO who led to Enron to its downfall in a massive corruption scandal in 2001. Grant explains that, in this case, Lay was a faker - or a person who disguised himself as a giver to impress his superiors, but who was actually just "kissing up and kicking down" to advance his own career.  

How can you tell if someone is a giver or a taker? Fortunately, there are some tell-tale signs. One 1996 study found that CEOs who were more narcissistic and selfish included larger photos of themselves in their board reports. Grant dug up an old report from Enron and compared it to one from a company led by Jon Huntsman, Sr., a famously charitable CEO. Check out the difference for yourself.


Want to hear more about givers and takers? Tune in to our full interview with Grant to find out more about how giving can help you get ahead. And discover what happened when Grant took a room full of ultra-competitive students at Wharton and challenged them to be more like Rifkin.

Givers and Takers Quiz - The Answers
  1. Thomas Edison - Totally a taker. Though Edison was a genius, he viciously tried to sabotage fellow inventors like Nikola Tesla, even going so far as to publicly electrocute animals to make Tesla's inventions look dangerous.
  2. Marcus Aurelius - Giver. This philosopher and emperor once said: "Some people, when they do someone a favor, are always looking for a chance to call it in....But others don't do that. They're like a vine that produces grapes without asking for anything in return...We should be like that." To be fair, Aurelius looks especially giving when compared to a lot of other Roman emperors. 
  3. Richard Branson - Giver. Branson is a major philanthropist, founded a council called "The Elders" to fight conflict and promote peace, and, as Grant notes, was giving even long before he became rich and famous.
  4. George Meyer - The fact that Meyer is hidden in the back of this photo is pretty indicative of his status: he's a giver. Meyer went uncredited on many classic Simpsons episodes. As one coworker described him: "George has the best reputation of anyone I know."
  5. Ken Lay - If you took a peek at the source of this photo, or, shall we say, mugshot - the US Marshal Service - you could probably tell that this man is a taker, not a giver. Lay was indicted on many counts of fraud after the fall of his corporation, Enron. Enron's scandal cost 20,000 employees their jobs and, in many cases, their life savings. In fact, Grant classifies him as a "faker" - a taker masquerading as a giver. (See "Kissing Up, Kicking Down," above.)
  6. Jon Huntsman, Sr. - Definitely a giver. This philanthropist has given over $1.2 billion in charitable contributions. After the recession, instead of cutting back on his charitable donations, he actually took out a loan to pay for them. 
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