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Lessons Learned from The Give & Take Relationship

by Ashley Cheung, VPG Principal & Founder

During my career as a litigation paralegal, I’ve helped many people climb the career ladder by guiding them through the corporate maze that can be overwhelming to take on. I had temporary clerks who became General Counsels of organizations, students who became award-winning attorneys, attorneys who became Heads of Operations, and attorneys who started their own successful start-up firms. Occasionally, I would get emails from them thanking me for my contribution to their career. For instance, I recently reacquainted myself with a policy analyst who consults on urban development policies, including COVID awareness on the West coast. He wrote a heartfelt email to let me know how much my no-nonsense and high standards made a difference in how he approached his career. He also adopted a similar approach with his mentees. I was very touched by such heartfelt words.

Give and Take

On the flip side, I witnessed how some people took advantage of me to climb the corporate ladder, using the “kissing up, kicking down” approach described in the book Give and Take by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and award-winning Wharton professor. In his book, he discusses how to spot “takers” and how “givers” who help others essentially are helping their own successes. Grant explained this in the context of organizational success. Givers are people who enjoy helping others, while takers are people who meticulously calculate what they will receive out of each relationship. It is important to note that people may have dominant traits but are not always 100% givers or takers.

Early on, I met many givers, mentors, and friends who created quite an idealistic world for me. I was trusting to the point of being gullible. I must say, I encountered more takers than givers in the last decade, significantly reducing my confidence in others. Though not as naïve as earlier in my life, I still chose to believe in others, even when I ended up getting hurt in the end. I was surprised by who became my true champions, allowing me to gain the freedom I have today. Over the course of two decades, I met many people who believed in me. Some were honest and said they supported me for self-serving reasons. I appreciated their candidness.

The saying: “It’s whom you know, not what you know,” is true. About ten years ago, I crossed paths with someone who was extremely complimentary of my skillsets. He often asked about my dreams and aspirations, and I didn’t seem to have time to think about them. We lived very similar lives, that is, from one deadline to another. One day, he told me he wanted to pursue a different opportunity in a corporate role. I wished him luck, as I would have with anyone. He asked if I would ever be interested in doing the same. I was honest with him and told him that I had never really thought about it. I would love to keep my options open, though, and we maintained our friendship. For years, we kept in contact, and the same questions were asked. When he learned my father passed, he sent me messages filled with kind and comforting words. For the first time, I realized I may need to think differently about my profession and my life in general. I could not help but wonder if he was just another taker.

My ideal world began to shift when my dad passed away in 2017; my outlook and priorities related to my career changed drastically. I had the responsibility of caring for my mom, who was reliant on my dad for years, and now me. How could I make this work in the demanding world of litigation? Was it feasible to balance the world between the two? Two more years went by, and I traveled with Mom on some of the most amazing trips, yet there was still a void in me. In 2019, I became so miserable that it was a struggle to go to work. I didn’t find work challenging anymore, and it became a drag. Few people noticed the change as I still did my job and gave it my best. My real friends indicated to me that they had not ever seen me happy. That was a rude awakening. I switched from survival mode to finding something that would make my life fulfilled.

I started exploring options and consulted with some friends including those who went corporate with the idea of me starting a consulting practice. Over lunch, one friend learned about my dream of being an independent paralegal consultant. I expected him to be critical and persuade me to change my mind. To my surprise, he supported me, no questions asked. I was puzzled but was sincerely grateful for his loyalty. During our chat, he told me that I had taught him many skills that were crucial to his success. He would be honored to have me on his team. That touched my heart so much, and I was determined to do everything possible to do a good job. At a time when I felt I had so little support, this kind gesture of support meant the world to me.

It’s been over four years since I created my start-up business. I enjoy working with this team and many others. I have learned many lessons, conquered some fears, and become more confident in this journey. I am still learning and challenging myself and others on my team. Without realizing it, the seeds I planted using goodwill and kindness eventually became steppingstones to building my business. I do not take kindness for granted, and if someone is good to me, I am accustomed to paying it back tenfold. That’s just who I am. The difference now is that I take mental notes about people’s words and actions and actions speak louder than words.

Micro-Learning Moment (MLM): Life is what we make it; when we pursue our dreams, we have greater chances to achieve happiness. I read Adam Grant’s Give and Take a few times and really enjoyed the fresh approach in his study of givers and takers in an organizational context. The premise of the book focuses on the behavior of givers and takers. Takers tend to focus on self-interest and are more likely than givers to have a finite and scarcity mindset. Givers are people who focus on themselves, along with the interests of others. They may be more likely to adopt a win-win outlook than takers. How do givers continue to give when there may be more takers in the world? I am not certain I found the answer to that question, but what appeases me is that giving and serving others and seeing their growth became the ultimate reward for me. The balance between giving and taking is the key, and when in doubt, I would rather give and learn lessons than not give and someone potentially not benefit from generous acts, especially in the challenging world we live in today.

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