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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Do Good and Succeed

The organizational psychologist Adam Grant argues that the key
You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.
to his own success – and yours too – is tirelessly helping others.”  - Susan Dominus, “The Saintly Way to Succeed.” New York Times Magazine, Sunday, March 31, 2013.

Well, I have to write about this one, don’t I? I’ve known my share of saints, or pseudo-saints. People who engage in activity, sometimes frenetic, that I’m tempted to label pathological. Let’s be honest: I do label it pathological. In fact, if I were to have titled this article, I would have called it, “The potentially pathological origin of success.”

When I was in my 20s, I used to hang around with a guy who became capital-S successful. This guy claimed to feel only two emotions: happy; and uncomfortable. We can argue about whether “uncomfortable” is an emotion; but I did that and got nowhere, so let’s not bother. What I am getting at, Readers, is that I had an annoying tendency to pick at people’s motives for how they lived. My modus operandi was pinpointing the thing they didn’t want to think about or feel and proving that that motivated them to work too hard or shut down emotion or whatever thing I considered a fault. A pathology.

My idea, I guess, was that once we all faced the things we were avoiding, we would all – do what? Sit around together, I guess, being real. And unemployed. But it would be an authentic real unemployment. Not some pathetic attempt to cover up our inadequacies with public recognition or a paycheck to spend on clothes, movies, and other entertainment to mask our inner selves. Or with actual accomplishments. Heavens.

So. While I set about to prove that this guy needed to EXAMINE his feelings and UNDERSTAND his motivations, and generally face his demons, he set about – well, I can’t tell you exactly because that would be too revealing. Let’s just say that he set about implementing a vision he had for improving the world through access to knowledge, a vision that involved changing technology for us - with the intention of improving the world.  Meanwhile, I EXAMINED my feelings and UNDERSTOOD my motivations, and did – well, nothing extraordinary. Years later, he’s still working on his vision, much of it in place, trying, as he told me not so long ago, to make things a little better for people.

I’ve found that the really successful people I’ve met all have this kind of annoying claim that success really stems from helping improve the world in whatever way you can.

Adam Grant, the focus of this piece, lives by a philosophy of helping others whenever and however he can, and he usually can. He’s a professor of organizational psychology at Wharton who studies happiness and success at work, among other things. Many other things. So many other things. This guy, in fact, is so busy with helpful acts that most people would collapse under the weight of them all. Aside from being the youngest tenured prof at Wharton, he’s Google’s go-to guy, just for starters, and he helps everyone and anyone else who asks.

Another annoying point most capital-S successful people make is that by focusing on doing good work, pettier concerns (like success?) fade in importance. Ironically, as you let go of seeking success, it comes to you, apparently. Like a cat. Along with happiness. Also like a cat. Adam Grant is further proof. Like on steroids.

According to Adam Grant, helping others increases productivity and creativity, keys to organizational success. Sometimes more than traditional reward systems, doing good motivates even people in tedious jobs like telemarketing. He did a study of how to increase hand-washing in hospital personnel and found that if there was a sign over the sink saying “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases”, people washed their hands longer than if the sign simply read “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases.” So apparently we have this propensity for altruism built into us.

(Although maybe the outcome reflects our ability to use denial to our benefit. When only thinking of themselves catching diseases, people don’t wash their hands carefully because they assume they aren’t susceptible. It won’t happen to me.)

Research shows that people feel better about themselves and their lives when they give to others. Altruism makes the altruist feel good. This is the kind of truth that gets existentialist teens and early 20-somethings worked up about living virtuously: If even giving gives the giver something, then how can one ever live unselfishly?

Writing from the ripe old age of no longer 20-something, I ask, who the hell cares? Or, more insightfully – or at least less succinctly – why is it bad to feel good about something as Good as doing good? 

Readers, I now see the nobility in pursuing external work, even if it might be rooted in avoiding existential anxiety or fear or depression. At least it’s positive. At least it’s other-centered. At least it does some good for others, and some good for ourselves.

Yet, have I changed? After all, what I found most interesting about this article about Adam Grant was that Susan Dominus worried that motivation question, too. While he avoided getting into why he is the way he is by saying he’d simply inherited the “fix-it gene,” Dominus warmed the cockles of my heart by pressing on. She was into the potential pathology, too. So Grant has a book out, Give & Take or something, and he defines three kinds of people, because all experts have to make categories and lists: givers, matchers, and takers. The givers, the tireless givers like Grant, he says, are usually powered by dual motives – the desire to please, and its corollary, the fear of disappointing others.

I also learned this excellent term, “compensatory conviction,” which refers to the common situation where anxiety about one thing (the thing that evokes that “uncomfortable” emotion) motivates the pursuit of another. In Grant’s case, his pursuit is doing good.  Of his underlying anxiety Dominus writes, “Mortality, he said, was the one subject that gave him something like panic attacks.” It had been that way since he was a kid, and he had “lost days at a time to his anxiety.”

Panic? Anxiety? Fear of death? Read on, Macduff!

His solution was to notice that idleness allowed his anxiety to poke through, and to therefore eliminate idleness from his life. Doing good keeps him busy and makes him feel good the way altruism makes anyone feel good; but it also keeps him from feeling - uncomfortable. But at least he knows what his fear is, and even if, like my capital-S successful friend, he chooses not to navel-gaze, he is aware of his compensatory conviction. He just doesn’t have that need to confront it, that apparently I do. Susan Dominus does, too, so I am not alone. Maybe it’s a writer-thing.

So I say, hang onto your defense mechanisms, be powered by your existential fears, if they help you do your good in the world, Adam Grant, and everyone else.

Now, I’m thinking of sending him my book proposal and asking for some input. What do you think? He can’t say no.

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