Adam Grant on Charlie Rose

Adam Grant was on Charlie Rose recently talking about his new social science idea book, “Give and Take”; the takeaway, so to speak, is give and you shall receive. Win-win.

As he presented on Charlie Rose, Grant reminded me of a local critic’s remark about the performer Michael Feinstein, “you shouldn’t sing and smile at the same time”. But, smiles or no, Grant is upbeat and it is pleasant to listen to such people, if sometimes slightly mind-numbing. Grant is, after all, affirming the received notions of decent behavior, which are as usual, more violated than adhered to. But can it hurt to affirm virtue again?

Grant’s advising giving (helpfulness really) rather than taking, flies in the face of capitalism’s / politics’ winning (getting rich, victory in elections) at any cost – it has a social utility. You approve of Grant’s social science idea, because, why not? Grant does affirm that his acceptance by the business community is predicated on his ideas earning more money for the company store. And Grant accepts those standards…hmmm.

Too often though, niceness is something worn on the sleeve, an extension of ego, and generates cynicism when it is announced – often self-righteously. Remember Larry David’s character on his cable show outraged that Ted Danson ran around telling everyone that he had contributed to the building of a hospital wing anonymously, while Larry gave anonymously as well, but told no one?

If Gordon Gecko was a villain for saying, “greed is good,” Adam Grant must be the guru of what used to be called niceness; lately, like “liberal”, the word “nice” has become vitiated with…other things, most painfully instantiated by condescending media / journalist types, who want us to know they are nice but don’t much care if they are objective – they are above all that.

These days niceness more often than not refers to giving special favor and understanding to one group perceived as a victim group and pretty much ignoring other groups that might be the direct bill payers; and the niceness does not extend to an expectation of the recipients – no generosity is expected of them. So you have bigots who deplore bigotry. And nice folk who denigrate with virulence, and what they feel is impunity, because they are nice.

The best thing about Grant’s emphasis on helpfulness is that it breaks the paradigm of the status obsessed hierarchy, where those who have received conventional status markers disdain anyone they determine as being on a lower rung – status for such people is seen as a value marker for another human being; Grant’s ideas firmly reject those who are only interested in colleagues they feel are equal in rank. Grant says: help everyone and stop sniffing for social position before you extend your generosity.

I remember reading about a small town in France which saved more Jews during WWII than any other, in that anti-Semitic country. It was because the religious leader in the town led the group to their courage, at existential risk of the whole town’s lives, to do the right thing. They themselves were immigrants, from, I believe, Belgium; they had known great suffering and discrimination. They learned from their experience. It is the character of those who lead groups which finally most influences the behaviour of their fellows.