The More You Give Does Not Mean The More You Get

The surprising truth about being selfless givers

My mother always told me to work hard for my clients and give them all I’ve got. The first years of my graphic design freelance career were exciting. “The more you give, the more you’ll get,” she said. “Just listen to what your clients say. That’s the only way you can earn your own income and ‘make it’ in life.” I gave them as much value as I could. In fact, did it too well, too often and too long that I neglected my own business.

For so long, I thought if I were to spend more time helping my clients build their assets, it means I’m giving more, and in turn the more I’ll get. This whole belief of karmic equity makes me feel bad for not going the extra mile to do what they told me to do.

My clients became my priority. They could feel the commitment I put in, hence in return, they referred me to more clients. Over the years my client base and income grew. My mother’s advice on karma seemed to hold true. Then one day, for some reason, my “automatic” referral machine stopped working.

Suddenly, I had no new clients. Existing clients didn’t have jobs on hand, eventually, we lost contact. I had no incoming cash flow, no assets and no community to fall back on. Worst of all, I’m not that talented as a designer. I’m just really skilled at taking orders and using Adobe software to deliver value to clients, that’s all.

Damn! The good guys always lose.

In Adam Grant’s book, Give and Take, his research shows that the least successful workers are indeed givers. These givers are those who become “pushovers and doormats”. In my case, because I took the advice of “giving more” so literally, I placed all my priority on my clients and did not set aside time and energy for myself to learn other essential business skills such as marketing, sales and writing to grow my business.

It’s not that my mother was wrong or I shouldn’t be a giver. Just that for many years, I have been confused about being helpful with putting myself last to put clients first. In the past, my mindset of helping people was viewed as a zero summed game. Just like in a competition, if I give you my time, I will have none. Being kind and generous to others stopped me from giving enough to myself. Over the years, I became resentful towards anyone who asked for favours that led me to lose touch with my past network.

Research published in The Academy of Management Annals shows that this is a case of giving in rather than giving: “People behaving prosocially not because of the benefit of saying “yes”, but rather because they feel they cannot say “no”. Hence people like me started to avoid others so as not to feel obliged to help.

If that’s the case, do you stand a higher chance of success if you give more?

The good news is, the topmost successful workers are also givers. “Successful givers recognize that there’s a big difference between taking and receiving. Taking is using other people solely for one’s own gain. Receiving is accepting help from others while maintaining a willingness to pay it back and forward. Givers who excel are willing to ask for help when they need it. They simply have a different way of pursuing their goals.

Here’s a great visual by Lemonade that clearly illustrates Adam Grant’s research:

 givers takers and matchers by adam grant

Givers, takers and matchers chart by Lemonade based on Adam Grant’s research

Unlike selfless givers, successful givers or “otherish” as termed by Grant, don’t get pushed over because they assert their own boundaries and needs. They genuinely want the best for the other person and have their best interest at heart. The big difference is, they don’t drop what is important in their lives so that they can give more to others. While they give what they can, they do not give anything to others at the expense of themselves.

Givers who excel are willing to ask for help when they need it. They simply have a different way of pursuing their goals. — Adam Grant

With no client referrals, I had a rude awakening, telling me to do something that can be within my own control. I started to be more strategic in helping clients. If a client needs help with something that I can do in ten minutes, I made sure to time myself and not exceed the timeline. Once the time is up, I move on to the next priority and come back to the client request as per scheduled.

This comes with tons of discipline to do things well and quickly because shifting task in a short time is not as productive as sticking to one for a longer period of time. But the benefits outweigh the cons. Doing things for others is not a chore for me anymore. Also, I’m not expecting returns from them because I reward myself later by carving my own time to complete my own list of priorities. That brought me the satisfaction I need to work on the next task for others while that helps to keep us in touch.

Priority to sustain is still key here. If you are faced with a similar situation, find your best time to help others, then, set aside another bulk of time away from helping others do to things for yourself like your own side-projects, self-care, meditation, retreats, promoting your own business and resources.

In this way, you are not refusing or feeling obliged to help, and you are not rejecting help from others either. It doesn’t have to be a sacrifice on your part. Instead of giving like it’s a sprint, treat it as a marathon. Pace yourself along the way so that you can last the long game, until success.

Also seen on Medium.