How to Read a Book Like Adam Grant’s “Give and Take”

April 19, 2013

By: Ryan W. Quinn

Originally posted on the LIFT Blog

Our friend and colleague, Adam Grant (whose work we have featured in this blog before), has a new book that is receiving wonderful media attention from outlets as diverse as the New York Times Magazine and the Diane Rehm Show. The title of his book is Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, and it has its own accompanying web pageblog, assessment tool, and opportunity to nominate and highlight givers you know and admire. The book is fun to read and well-grounded in research. As with anything I’ve known Adam to do, it is a high-quality product and worth the investment. Rather than review his book in the typical fashion, however, I would like to take a different approach. I would like to discuss how a person should read a book like this.


A Quick Overview

My discussion of how to read a book like Adam’s will make more sense if I give a quick overview of the book first. Adam’s rhetorical purpose in writing this book is to persuade us that giving may have as significant of an impact on our personal success as taking (or matching) does—if not more. Giving, taking, and matching are “reciprocity styles,” or ways of relating to other people. “Givers,” as Adam calls them, are people whose relating style is one of being more concerned with creating value for others than of claiming value for oneself. Takers, by contrast, seek to claim value from others, while matchers (which most of us tend to be), seek to achieve equal giving and taking. Everyone likely engages in some degree of giving, taking, and matching, but most of us have a dominant style.

Adam discusses, right at the beginning of the book, a number of studies from different fields of endeavor concluding that givers tend to perform worse than matchers and takers. Surprisingly, givers also tend to perform better than matchers and takers. They repeatedly achieve both the most success and the least success. The puzzle he seeks to unravel is “What makes the difference?”

In chapters two through five, Adam focuses on the long-term benefits that givers accrue relative to takers and matchers with regards to building networks, teamwork, recognizing potential, and interpersonal influence. In chapters six through eight Adam explains how to not end up on the low-performing side of being a giver, addressing issues such as how to avoid burnout, how to avoid becoming a doormat, and how to motivate giving in matchers and takers. The final chapter then summarizes the key arguments.

The Reaction

I found myself to be as fascinated by the reaction to it almost as much as I have been fascinated by the book itself. I listened to much of the Adam’s discussion with Diane Rehm and in addition to reading the New York Times Magazine article, I also read many of the comments people left below the article on the website. I was amazed at how much emotion went into so many people’s reactions. While there were many who loved the book, the article, or the radio discussion, there were also many who seemed deeply upset by the idea that givers could be successful. Some of these people expressed being taken advantage of for being givers. Some argued that this is just a man’s phenomenon—women are usually givers and no one thinks there is anything special when a woman is a giver. Others argued that this is just another psychologist getting excited about finding an exception to the assumptions of economics.

Adam anticipated and addressed most of these concerns in his book. While not all his answers will work all the time (really, are there any answers that work all the time?), his answers are well-reasoned and plausible. I thought he handled the issues well, and I am sure he would be the first to admit that there are exceptions.

Perhaps what struck me most about people’s reactions to Adam’s book is the tendency, which all humans have, to read a book (or really, to consume any media) from our own viewpoint, rejecting anything we do no not already believe, and as a result, learning very little from it. This is called the “confirming evidence bias,” a topic we have written about both in this blog and in our book.

My Own Learning

I am as susceptible to the confirming evidence bias as anyone. I find that it takes conscious effort to overcome it. So I tried to do so as I read Adam’s book. Those who read this blog know that I am not a big fan of labeling people’s traits with titles like “giver,” “taker,” or “matcher.” I could have easily let that turn me off from the start. But if I had, I would have missed out on great stories and insights. Instead, I tried to ask myself, as I read, about where I might be wrong–a fascinating exercise in and of itself.

One example of this occurred for me in the chapter on influence, where Adam describes some behavioral indicators of people’s tendencies to use dominating approaches to influence. I do not think of myself as a dominator. And yet, when I read Adam’s description, if I were honestly asking myself how I might be wrong, I could not help seeing in the list of indicators how I use dominating approaches to influence much more than I would care to admit. I must have at least some of those tendencies. This raised additional questions for me about who I want to be, and if that is different from who I currently am and behave as, how I might go about approaching those things differently.


As questions lead to more questions, the next benefit of a book like Adam’s is that it gives me ideas about what I can do about the things it makes me realize I want to to change. I’m glad this was my reaction; I think failing to learn from a book like this out of a quest for confirming evidence of our existing beliefs is an unfortunate loss.

Another unfortunate result, however, would be to swallow the book unquestioningly: “Being a giver is good, therefore I will not have succeeded until I am forever and always a giver.” Being a giver is good, but I do not think even Adam wants people to treat it as if this is the one and only solution to every problem. Rather, I think a second benefit of a book like this is that it is likely to generate ideas in readers of little things they can do differently.

When I recognized I had some tendencies to exert a dominating influence, my mind immediately went to my children. I am not a domineering father, but I have, from time to time, fallen prey to raising my voice, using consequences to drive behavior rather than taking the time to work through an issue, or otherwise taking to get what I want from them rather than giving to inspire them. As I continued to read, I thought of different ways I might be able to put aside what I am doing for a moment, to really focus my full interest on them and how I might be able to ask them questions or hesitate long enough to allow them to work through alternative options with me.

Some of the ideas that I read in the book will probably work. Some will not. Some ideas will not occur to me until I go back and skim through it again, reconsidering it from the new perspectives that I will have a week or a month or a year from now.

Any of these ideas can be help me claim some of the benefits Adam describes. The trick is to not assume that this book provides the “one right answer,” but rather to see it as a source of ideas that come to those who are genuinely open to the idea that they might be wrong and want to learn.

A Final Thought

The stories, research, and concepts are insightful enough that they can be the source of ongoing ideas and inspiration for anyone who returns to them again and again. But they are equally valuable for those whose time and interest prompts them to read the book a single time. Whether or not we allow Adam’s book to be a “giver” depends very much on how we receive.