The Three Forms of Selfishness

In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant provides abundant research to support his thesis that givers are more successful than takers. He qualifies that these givers are “strategic givers.” While people who are selfish don’t get far, he also points out that people who are selfless get run over. People who are otherish, on the other hand, tend to be happier and more successful.

Otherish giving is not a zero-sum proposition.  It’s strategic in that everyone gains in meaningful ways over a reasonable time horizon.

My own informal research on the subject tends to support Grant’s theory. Shortly after college, I conducted an experiment in which I intentionally submitted to the preferences of everyone around me, as long as it didn’t violate my safety or integrity. For several weeks, I deferred to cars on the road, volunteered for dish duty and gave other people the bigger half of the cookie. I did what others didn’t want to do.

Ironically, submitting to others brought a joy much deeper than getting my own way.

My mind migrates away from abundance mentality toward scarcity mentality, though, as I get busier and more people and things lay claim to my time and resources. And this makes me selfish.

Grabbing money

To resist the magnetic pull inward, it helps me to categorize the three types of selfishness.  The first two types are counter-productive and the third is necessary.

  1. Perspective.  How often does your ego let you concede? I want to have a well-formed opinion, but I also need to remember that the most savvy and endearing people I’ve known are usually the first to defer to the opinions of others.Human relations expert Dale Carnegie wrote, “The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.” For the next week, make these your most common responses: You’re probably right. Let’s go with your way. I see your point. Count the cost of being right. Don’t be a perspective narcissist.
  2. Preference.  Ayn Rand and Albert Camus tell us that it’s our desires that make us powerful and happy. Camus once said, “To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.” But as the minister said to my wife and me as we stood on the altar at our wedding, the most destructive thought in human relationships is this: “What about me?”Human relationships depend on sacrifice and submission. That’s why I prefer Daniel Goleman’s perspective to Rand’s or Camus’: “When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts…But when we focus on others, our world expands…and we increase our capacity for connection.” When you let go of what you want, your hands are free to connect and care for others.
  3. Protection.  The trick to asserting yourself is to discern what you really need, whether it’s respect, integrity, values, safety, health, freedom or maybe even others. An otherish giver is strategic about giving in a way that makes room for self while being unselfish. It’s important that we differentiate ourselves and our needs rather than becoming enmeshed or enabled in our relationships. Setting emotional, physical and activity boundaries is critical if you want to have the sustainable capacity to give. Wise givers know when to say no.

Are you ready for more success and happiness? Then you need to be okay with being uncomfortable. How will you submit and sacrifice this week?



You may also like


  • Pat Griffin
    May 20, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    It takes a powerful thought leader to articulate the potential damage one can do by adopting Ayn Rand’s philosophy without questioning its consequences. You have done that with grace. Thank you for providing us with clarity of the power of an abundance mentality.

    • Matt Norman
      May 22, 2015 at 1:17 pm

      Thank you for affirming the message and the way we get there.

  • Stacey Steen
    May 21, 2015 at 3:42 am

    Thank you Matt, this is my favorite business book. I recommended this book this morning at a networking event called PONG. We were sharing business development books at the end of our meeting. I witnessed a golden personality. A woman (in front of 30+ people) said, “I have read “Give and Take” and Jess you are what Adam Grant would call a giver”. It is heartwarming to watch a leader, push another one ahead. I will get pure joy sharing your post. Thank you for the wisdom!

    • Matt Norman
      May 22, 2015 at 1:18 pm

      Thank you for your comments, Stacey! I was eager to hear your thoughts since you gave me the book Give and Take. Stacey, you are what Adam Grant would call a giver!

      • Stacey Steen
        May 25, 2015 at 7:37 pm

        “Our work-a-day lives are filled with opportunities to bless others. The power of a single glance or an encouraging smile must never be underestimated.”-G. Richard Rieger Thank you for the golden compliment Matt! Glad you liked Adam Grant’s book as much as I do.