Saturday, 22 February 2014

Grant Vs Rand: An Objective Trial was Roark a "Giver"

Anyone following my Tweets or Blog will have noticed that I've been reading a book that has had a big impact on me - "Give and Take" by Adam Grant. 

I have no doubt that many of the ideas from this book will stay with me for a long time... Even if the book does get consigned to the bookshelf and not picked up for way longer than it should. Or worse, is loaned out to a "taker" never to be returned.

Balancing the Books
When I read the first few pages of Give and Take I wondered;

"How am I going to internalise Grants research and findings with Ayn Rands Objectivism?"

I'm not too sure how many people reading this will be aware of either Grant or Rand's work, so will try to summerise things as best I can. Wikipedia states that part of Objectivisims' philosophy is;

"That the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness (rational self-interest), that the only social system consistent with this morality is one that displays full respect for individual rights embodied in laissez-faire capitalism, and that the role of art in human life is to transform humans' metaphysical ideas by selective reproduction of reality into a physical form—a work of art—that one can comprehend and to which one can respond emotionally"

While I am a fan of Rands' books I won't pretend for a moment that I fully understand a lot of the subtext (And that's after reading the Fountainhead 4 times!). In fact, I barely understand the paragraph above... and the bits I do understand, when put across in this way i.e. "rational self interest and laissez faire capitalism" I would tend not to agree with.

However I do like her books and, when these same points are expanded upon and explained through the experiences of her heroes (or should that be anti-heroes?), I do agree with the ideas. Something that helped me understand Rand's work and her perspective more was to read Anthem, We the Living, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in chronological order. 

The Takers & Fakers
Reading four of Rands books in succession may have helped me to understand Objectivism a little better, but it did nothing to improve my outlook on politicians, inept authority figures, bureaucrats or ineffective "jobsworths." 

A central theme of both Grants and Rands books warns us to be wary of people who take but give little in return. One of Grants early case studies looks at the rise of Enron and the CEO's relationship with George Bush, and how they did favours for one another.

I had little time for the bankers or politicians before reading either Grants' or Rands' books, but could only explain my reasons for this in general terms. Today I can articulate the reasons a little better as I can see how the culture is formed at these organisations, and how toxic their cultures are, as well as the far reaching implications that their actions have. 

A comment that resonates with me regarding politicians is from The Fountainhead;

"A man cannot rob, exploit or rule - alone. Robbery, exploitation and ruling presuppose victims. They imply dependence. Rulers... create nothing. They exist entirely through the persons of others. Their goal is in their subjects in the activity of enslaving. They are as dependent as the beggar and the bandit" 

Disagree with this statement? Please see the political argument* at the end of the post

Grant Vs Rand - An Objective Trial 
So there is commonality in that both warn against takers, but did Grants ideas about "giving" unsurp or replace my interest in Rands philosophy that revolves around self interest? The short answer is: No, it didn't. 

My faviourite character of Rands' is the hero in The Fountainhead, a young architect called Howard Roark. We meet Roark as he is being expelled from college on graduation day for committing architectural heresy by not conforming. He is being questioned by the dean and is expelled for something that roughly translates as "But that's not the way we do things around here"

In Give and Take, Grant highlights that there is a difference between people who demonstrates "giver" tendencies and agreeableness. He points out that agreeable people can be takers, just as easily as people with "disagreeable personalities" or gruff exteriors can be extremely generous. 

Roark is someone who most certainly would fall into the disagreeable category. 

We are introduced to Peter Keating at the same time we meet Roark. Keating is a classmate who is a rising star in architecture and has agreeableness in bucket loads! His charisma and charm can only be matched by his need for acceptance, recognition, greed and ambition. But this poster boy most definitely belongs in the taker camp.

But what of the disagreeable Roak? Is he a taker or a giver? Stuborn? Absolutely. His ability to compromise? Non-existent, Never! Emotionally intelligent? Hardly! Caters to his customers tastes and ideas? He'd be an account managers' and PR agency's worst nightmare!    

Roark is uncompromising with his principles, ideas and is generally disagreeable in many ways... But its his uncompromising nature that becomes his redeeming feature because we find, eventually, that his uncompromising nature in a result of integrity (and the ability of critical thinking).

"A house can have integrity, just like a person; and just as seldom... Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it's made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose"

The Verdict
I think most of Rand's heroes end up on trial or under intense scrutiny by the establishment at some point so Roark would not find it unsurprising to find himself in the dock in my humble post.

Having finished Give and Take I have to weigh up the big ideas from these authors... Is Roark a giver, taker or matcher? Are these ideas so conflicting that I need to discard one of them? 

Not only do I think that I don't need to choose, I believe that Roark was the consummate giver. He is extremely supportive of his friends and at every point in Keating's career any time he asks Roark for assistance, Roark obliges - Even though he sees Keating for the "taker" and "faker" he is.

The similarities surprised me after reading both books, when writing this post I looked again at the synopsis of "Give and Take" to remind myself why I wondered this, and found the surprise lay in my assumptions. The synopsis reads;

"The best way to get to the top is to focus on bringing others with you... Give and Take will change our fundamental understanding of why we succeed, offering a new model for our relationships with colleagues, clients and competitors"

Then it dawned on me that I got this book because, after a few prolonged encounters with takers, I was starting to believe the adage that "nice guys finish last" and was contemplating leaving a sector that I love and where I have spent a year working on creating my dream job.

So a book on how to develop generous and "giver" attributes that would help with career progression and prevent being taken advantage of, had significant appeal. 

Grant's book is not advocating that people with generous natures willingly "give" so they can be taken advantage of. Quite the opposite... He provides strategies so that more people who act like Roark can use their natural attributes to identify and assert themselves with takers, so they can continue to give but without it being detrimental to, or hampering career progression as it can have a tendency to do (as it did for Roark's poor old boss, friend and mentor Henry Cameron).

So there is no shift in perspective, I have internalsed both books and come to the conclusion that while Roark can come across as stubborn, disagreeable, principled he is a "giver" who, just like Lincoln, faced a series of catastrophic setbacks but succeeds in the long run.

Meanwhile, just like Enron boss Ken Lay, Peter Keating's fortunes reverse as"takers" like him become undone when people see them for what they really are.

"While you gain in short term benefit by taking, in the long run you pay. Relationships get ruined and cause the demise of reputations"

But look at the damage that these takers cause between their meteoric rise and being found out. In Rand's other classic "Atlas Shrugged" on of the heroes/anti-heroes posses this question;

“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders - What would you tell him?"

I…don't know. What…could he do? What would you tell him?"

To shrug.” 

Atlas in the paragraph above is a metaphor for capitalists suffering as a result of regulation and bureaucracy. One of Grants suggestions for people with giver traits to prevent what he calls "The Doormat Effect" is to imagine that you are giving advice to others. 

So what if we were to change the context, Atlas here is a fellow "giver" whose experiences have led him to believe the "Nice guys finish last" and all the life was draining out of him as a result of takers? What advice would you give? If you can't beat 'em join them... become a taker too? 

That's one option. Another is to not change, keep giving but to develop ways to be more assertive with it, thereby avoiding being taken advantage of.

With more assertive givers we just might see the changes required in banking, politics and other areas where the takers do a lot of damage before being found out.

Learning from the Past...
Something that some of the givers go through in both books is a fair amount of hardship, Grant uses Lincoln as an example. I have always seen Lincoln as a role model because of his persistence in the face of adversity. The economic recession and actions of the takers is having a devastating effect on many. I wondered in a previous post if there are Lessons in Adversity & Teaching Resilience and highlight the impact that the Great Depression had on children who grew up during these adverse conditions.

I wonder if a positive outcome of this recession might see the next generation are less materialistic (pictures of millenials with everything they ownand more giving... a utopian dream or a potential reality? Only time will tell...

In the meantime I'll leave you with these links and you can decide for yourself if you think I'm a dreamer... But I'm not the only one;
You May Say I'm a Dreamer.. but I'm not the only One =) 

NB I never was any good at book reviews at school, so on one hand apologies if this post didn't make much sense (or less sense than my other posts?!); On the other hand if the post didn't make complete sense, I hope that it has at least "peeked your interest" and leads you to explore the work of both Grant and Rand... and if you do you can come to your own conclusions.

*Political Argument
With regard to my agreeing with Rands assertion that "politicians need victims" please allow me to play devils advocate for a moment... 
How many adults leave school with a reading age of 5 or the inability of critical thought? 
Do these factors then make certain newspapers their news source of choice?
Are such a newspapers capable of getting our politicians into No10? 
Do politicians get all cozy with the owner of these publications? 
If "yes" why would any politician from any party want to change any situation that delivers power in such a straightforward manner?

This might be especially true if you then consider the implications if politicians were committed to ensuring critical thought was a priority in our young people. After all people may start to wonder;

What is it exactly that politicians do? 

If "we're in this together" can you let us the last time a politician had to visit a food bank? 
If political action is indeed making "people's lives better," who for? Where do they live? 
Why does every encounter with the public need to be stage managed and filled with party political drones, stooges and yes men?
Who is John Galt?

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