Against the Notion of Takers

In fact, most people give to others on Christmas merely because they expect to receive gifts themselves!—

 I protest. I dispute the notion that we as a society are a tsunami of greedy grabbers. At this time of year, it is customary to focus a lot around giving and it is also customary to characterize all of us as taking. But are we really all Takers?

–Danny Thomas

Givers, Takers, and Matchers
Adam Grant, a Wharton professor, did a study published back in 2013 about Givers, Takers and Matchers in industry. He found an interesting phenomenon – Givers were on the bottom of the success ladder across most disciplines. Givers were “over-represented at the bottom” because they were more focused on other people and risked getting exploited. However, Givers were also over-represented at the top. The most successful leaders were the ones who were focused on helping other people up the ladder and on building a strong team to support their structure and cement their legacy.

Takers and Matchers tended to be equally represented in the middle. Takers were defined as those who go into interactions trying to get as much as possible for themselves. Matchers were those who try to maintain a balance between what they give out and what they get.  Across the spectrum, he found that about 60% of the population could be defined as Matchers, with the remainder equally split (20/20) between Takers and Givers.

Not all leaders are Givers, mind you. He gave two infamous examples – Frank Lloyd Wright and Jonas Salk. Wright, an unparalleled genius of innovation in architecture, was jealous of his students and draftsmen. He created a policy where none were allowed to accept independent commissions and all work produced by his workers had to be signed by him. This limited his ability to pass on his legacy.  Jonas Salk also tended to take all the credit for work produced in his lab and it caused his team to splinter and fracture. After discovering of the polio vaccine, he never had a finding as influential again.

But while there are cases of great innovators and leaders who were Takers, there were more leaders who supported their teams. Despite the notion often portrayed as part of our culture that you need to step on other people to get ahead, the vast majority of people either build a balance of rapport with equal exchange or are more Givers than Takers.

The True Meaning of Christmas
It might not feel like that when we’re making our Christmas Shopping list. There are two reasons for this. First, we live in a consumer based capitalist culture. Our communication vehicles – our television and our social media – is linked to venues which sell advertising space. Thus, our way of getting information is inextricably linked with a compulsion to buy; that’s how it works. We are educated to believe that purchasing is an integral way of existing. At Christmas, we are educated to believe that the purpose of the holiday season is to buy things – call them gifts as they might – including cars, vacations, diamonds, and all sorts of expenses that would not normally fall in the province of gifts for the average person.  (Show of hands – how many of you have bought or received a car as a Christmas gift?)

Retailers earn a very high share or their annual income during the holiday season – between 60% and 90% — depending on what the data source or which retailer.  This season is the critical source of sustenance that allows them to flourish all year long. I can’t blame them for advertising or attempting to compel to buy. The problem is that the size of the shopping empires and the sheer level of information now thrown at us has become so overwhelming that it feels like an assault.  Commercials start earlier – the mail is now filled with catalogs – decorations and music trumpet the season at us as we step in every door.  It feels like the Retail world is a world full of Takers – taking our money.   Try to remember, though, that you like buying swimsuits in March and patio furniture in June and a flashlight whenever you might need it.  It’s their business model. It’s also the business model of people who need to earn a little extra money to Give gifts. Use that mantra when you step inside the door and “Silent Night” blares over the cracked loud speaker while some mechanical elf is Ho-Ho-Hoing with great gusto. It’s only a business model… it’s only a business model.

The second piece of the puzzle is the way the holiday season works for children vs. adults. The December holiday goes back to the Roman times – that Northern European hemisphere notion of having a winter feast in the midst of the dark and cold to stave off hunger and depression. That was a feast designed by adults. They’d shared what they had to remind each other they were not alone and their friends and community were there for support.  They danced in the darkest hours to show they weren’t afraid. That’s the original meaning of the end of year winter feast.  The Catholic church appropriated December 25th, the Saturnalia, so that they could merge the story of the birth of Jesus with a widely celebrated existing holiday. I hope that does not sound provocative or negative to anyone. It is natural to take the good feelings of people celebrating each other and marry it to the good feeling of celebrating a spiritual wonder.

All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.


But we are now a culture that celebrates children as well, and children are Takers – when they are children. We teach them to be Givers, but it takes a while. Meanwhile, we enjoy as adults giving gifts to children who enjoy them. That simple concept, added to the retail business model, multiplied by the 7 billion people in the world, taken to the nth power in social media, means that Giving Presents to children has come to dominate our Christmas culture.

Not only is there an industry built around giving gifts to children, but there are sub-industries built around how much is appropriate to spend, which gifts are “the best” or “the hottest,” and further how to lower your children’s expectations because they are bombarded by so many of the other types of messages. Here’s what we probably know as personal family axioms about giving to children, despite whatever expert or retail-driven advice we have received.

  1. Children will be excited and disappointed with whatever they get. We train them to anticipate so when the anticipation time is over, they don’t know what to do, no matter whether it’s one present or a huge pile. Don’t despair when they say, “Is that all?”
  2. They appreciate a box as much as whatever is in it, at least up to a certain age. For anyone under 5 or 6 years old, make sure you wrap whatever it is in a huge box .
  3. They love you whatever you get them. They don’t love you more if they get something more expensive. They really don’t.
  4. What they love most is you spending time with them.


It’s the Thought that Counts is not intended as sarcasm. Don’t make it so.

So where does that leave us? We can feel caught between the press of retailers to compel us to buy the “perfect thing” and the shame from some faith institutions that we should not be spoiling our children or buying anything at all.  We are a culture that likes to make children happy. That can’t be a bad thing.

We also are a nation and a culture of Givers (and Matchers) who can feel frustrated as we deploy our giving.  Our leaders are more often Givers – a professor said so! (Current president elect not included. No further comment.) And we are not ourselves, as a whole, focused on what we’re going to get. Some people probably are.  Your brother-in-law is family, whattyagonnado? Not most of us.  If every single person was a Giver all the time, that would get tiresome. Ever see your mother and your aunt argue over who will pay the check at lunch? Oi!

As I think about all the people I know, I can’t think of a single adult who is focused more on what they think they will get versus stumped by how to show their love for other people by giving them something. I don’t think that I’m unique in this regard. So, as you’re driving around cursing the lack of parking spaces or the shelf empty of the Thing you finally figured out would solve your giving dilemma for person X, at least pat yourself on the back for the effort. As you elbow through the crowds, remember that everyone else is mostly in the same boat.

And one more thing. Don’t ever go to Toys R Us on Christmas Eve. Unless you enjoy camaraderie.  You can always just draw a spaceship on an empty box.



Today’s post is brought to you by the DailyPost word: Protest.




0 Replies to “Against the Notion of Takers”

Leave a Reply