Trading is the Secret To Getting Ahead

by | May 24, 2013 | Psychology & Living

The best way for human beings to survive and flourish is not to be givers or takers but traders.

The New York Times recently attempted to tantalize readers with a headline: “Is Giving The Secret of Getting Ahead?”. The article featured Adam Grant, the youngest ever tenured professor at the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania and his research about service to others as a source of motivation. In his new book, Give and Take, Grant divides people into three types: givers, takers, and matchers. According to the NYT article: “Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf.” Grant claims that most people are matchers, but givers are the greatest achievers—because a sense of service to others is the greatest source of motivation, he says, and givers are more productive than others.

Grant bases his argument on his own experience and research. His motto is helpfulness, and he (almost) never says no to students, colleagues, or others requesting help, yet apparently he is extremely productive. His studies show that people work harder and .more productively when motivated by helping others than by personal gain.

In today’s culture dominated by altruism, the morality of self-sacrifice and self-denial, Professor Grant’s personal beliefs and research findings are hardly surprising. However, the argument that giving—a sense of service to others—is the secret to achievement and flourishing, is contradictory to the requirements of human nature. Our survival and happiness requires that we gain values—not that we give them up. Extreme giving, done consistently, will not lead to “getting ahead” as the NYT article suggests, but to a loss of values, and ultimately, to death.

Similarly, “taking,” or exploitation of others for one’s own alleged benefit, does not lead to achievement of values in the long term. Robbing values from others through deception and fraud will make them victims and unable to produce more values for you to steal. Stolen values are not true values; true values such as material wealth, a promotion, and friendship must be earned.

The best way for human beings to survive and flourish is not to be givers or takers but traders. Closest to trading is “matching”—Grant’s idea of keeping a mental chit sheet and calculating costs and benefits to ensure one gets equal value back. But trading value for value for mutual benefit does not mean keeping score of exchanged favors, like the wife who counts the number of the baby’s diaper changes between herself and her husband, insisting on equality.

Trading entails a vast range of values, and while self-interest is always the underlying principle, the value you gain may not be equivalent, such as a back-rub for a back-rub. For example, you will open a door for a stranger, not because you expect him to do the same for you, but because you value civility and benevolence. You will help your child with homework, not because you expect him to help you in return, but because you love him and want him to learn and thrive, which gives you joy. You encourage your struggling friend to achieve his goals, not because you calculate that he will do the same for you, but because he his achievement inspires you. You give a scholarship to a bright student, not because you expect him to pay you back in kind, but because his success will help create more values in the world (from which you will benefit). You give credit to your colleagues, not because you want to serve them, but because it is in your self-interest to deal with others fairly; the achievement of your values often depends on them.

Trade involves both material and spiritual values. When done by mutual consent for mutual benefit, it is in our self-interest. It enriches our lives both materially, because we gain values that we are not able to produce ourselves—and psychologically, because it allows us to specialize on work we are good at and enjoy. Psychological dividends also come from trading such spiritual values as friendship, admiration, and love. We thrive, not by giving or taking, but trading.

Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book. Visit her website at

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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