To Succeed, Should You Step Over Others or Help Them?

In 2013, at the end of my second job, I wrote that I didn’t believe you need to step over others to succeed. I supported that argument with a personal example, thinking that it must have persuaded millions to stop believing the statement, “nice guys finish last.”

The other millions of people around me though have challenged this philosophy. They believed that you cannot climb the success ladder without hurting others, intentionally. Sometimes, I struggled to hold on to this belief because the nicest people have objected it and explained that I was wrong. I also witnessed a colleague of mine changing her belief on being nice to people to that being nice gets you no where. I have tried to talk them out of having this outlook but I usually end up failing. So, I did what I did best, nothing.

Since writing that post, four years had passed and somehow I came across a book that agreed with my argument! What up haters! In Adam Grant’s book, Give and Take, (published in 2014, and where was I in 2014, not reading his book?!), he argued that to sustain long-term success, we should help people, not take advantage of them.  Findings in his book were such a pleasure to read that I’d like to supplement what I wrote in 2013, that on the path to success, helping others is the key, not taking.

In Grant’s book, he classified people at the workplace into three categories: Givers, Takers and Matchers.

Givers help people without the expectation that the help will be returned.
Takers take, and take more than they give back.
Matchers take equally and give back equally.

Grant didn’t argue that people only fit into one category, instead that people can be a mixture of all three and they have one category that they most identify with.

He discovered that at the bottom of the success ladder (least successful), most of the people were Givers. At the top (most successful), people were also Givers. He further divided Givers into 2 categories: SELFLESS Givers and OTHERISH Givers to explain how some Givers end up at the bottom and other Givers end up at the top.

SELFLESS Givers help anyone so they are not selective; thus, Takers are also among the people they help. Since Takers maximize their benefit, while giving back as little as possible, SELFLESS Givers become easily burnt out, and end up not having enough time to complete their own tasks. Eventually, they fall behind and become a significant portion of the least successful people. Grant argued that OTHERISH Givers will screen people who may be Takers and selectively choose whom they help. Therefore, the top of the success ladder also contained Givers – OTHERISH Givers.

Takers often succeed rapidly, perhaps this is why the saying “nice guys finish last” has its eternal strength. However, when they fall, they remain fallen. This is because “Research shows that people tend to envy successful takers and look for ways to knock them down a notch. In contrast, when givers win, people are rooting for them and supporting them, rather than gunning for them.”

Karma, my friend.

Adam warned that it may be difficult to spot Takers, early on. He said, “Although takers tend to be dominant and controlling with subordinates, they’re surprisingly submissive and deferential toward superiors. When takers deal with powerful people, they become convincing fakers.” In the book, he quoted Samuel Johnson on how to spot a Taker: “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”

So look around you. Who at your workplace, or in your life, help people who will do them absolutely no good? Who will only help people who can do them good?

I have been lucky and blessed with people who have helped me without expecting a penny in exchange. People who knew nothing about me but were willing to help me with whatever it was I needed help with. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am right now – at the pizzeria having a kale salad.

Below are examples of people who have done that. The list is not to be exhaustive nor meant for them to read because they are no longer alive. The list is to encourage you to help others (selectively).

Ok no, they are still alive. The truth is that I have lost contact with them,  although writing this post prompted me to re-connect with them.

  • When I was in college and was looking for an internship at a law firm, my friend put me in contact with his friend who was working at one. She reviewed my resume, corrected it and gave me feedback. She then asked HER MANAGER to review it for me and gave me her input.
    My Result: I got a summer internship at Latham and Watkins which later sealed the deal for my first job at Covington & Burling because the hiring manager was pleased with my experience at Latham.
    Where She Is Now: She is practicing law at Sullivan & Cromwell. Did she get there by helping others or by stepping over other people? You decide.
  • When I decided that law school was not for me, and that journalism school was, a Manager at Covington & Burling, who had no stake whatsoever in whatever the hell I would pursue, connected me to a former employee who graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism. That former employee met with me during her lunch break and I picked her brains.
    My Result: I was rejected from Columbia School of Journalism. Hey, I don’t get everything I want in life!
    Where She Is Now: Taking over the world, one article at a time at the Wall Street Journal
  • After being rejected from the Columbia School of Journalism, I started Plan B, which was to work in journalism instead of study it. I reached out to alumni from my college. They have never met me, never heard of me, again had no stake whatsoever and could care less about my career but they responded because they wanted to help. One alumnus went out of his way to connect me to a news anchor who was working at PIX11 in New York City. She met me in person, at her job, and gave me advice on what I should be doing to work in journalism.
    My Result: a secret
    Where She is Now: a co-anchor at MSNBC

The list goes on. My point is, if you believe the path to success is to be a Taker and step over others, please don’t.  And if you are predominantly a Taker, I ask that you to cut back on taking advantages of other people and to help others. The world is a small place; people will talk about you; you will develop a poor reputation. Just remember that those you have intentionally stepped on to get to where you are today, will be gunning for your down fall.

You can learn more about Adam Grant’s book at his website Give and Take.
He also gave a TED talk on why helping others drive our success.

Perhaps Grant’s findings and my personal philosophy are myths and will never debunk the saying “nice guys finish last.” You decide.

Give and Take


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