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What We Give Defines Us by Anne Tillery


"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." – Winston Churchill

In the early years as a partner in our now 25-year-old consulting firm working on social and environmental impact, I remember feeling the pressure of bringing in new clients and projects. When was it the right time to hire a new staff person? Could my partner and I guarantee enough work to keep that person on, once a big project wrapped up? There seemed never to be just the right amount of work, always too much and scrambling, or not quite enough and reaching hard for the next project. It created stress along with an underlying sense of dread.

In that strained and contracted place, my competitive side came out. I pushed myself and our team hard, at times going after work I was not terribly excited about actually doing. I wanted to win for the revenue and to give myself and the team a sense of security. And, as unflattering as it is to admit, I didn’t want to lose to another firm. I wanted to come out on top.

Now, decades later and with years of personal practice, I’ve come to realize that being relentlessly competitive is the surest way to lose. Not just to lose in business, but to lose oneself. In his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, Adam Grant, the youngest tenured professor in the history of the Wharton School, argues that our success is predicated on how we approach our interactions with others, whether professional or personal.

Grant defines three types of people by how they interact: takers, matchers and givers. A taker is someone who focuses on what they can get in each interaction, they kiss up to people above them, often dismissing those they regard as lower in the pecking order. They suffer from "responsibility bias," the tendency to over exaggerate their own contributions. Their world largely revolves around themselves and what they can get from it. They win, the other person loses. Their favorite word is "me."

Matchers are all about quid pro quo. If you give me something, I will give you back something of equal value, not more, not less. Like takers, matchers focus on who can help them in the near-term, giving them what they want. If a matcher does you a favor, you are pretty much guaranteed it comes with strings attached. Life is a transaction, one with exact change.

Givers are different, and relatively rare. They focus on what those around them need rather than their own self-interest. They share their time and talents, give away knowledge, and open their networks to help others. Grant describes their code of honor as show up, work hard, be kind and take the high road. It is what in the practice of Conscious Transformation we call selfless service. Their favorite word is "us."

While takers often win the short game, with matchers on their heels, they often stumble. It’s the givers who win the long game, leading some of the most successful organizations in the world. But why? It is because they create something crucial: opportunity for others and psychological safety for those around them. In organizations, this translates into cultures where people contribute and innovate, creating successes far greater than what can be accomplished by a single person or a few people.

Givers understand that we are all interdependent, they work with that reality rather than against it. They may not see the immediate return of taking time out of a busy day to grant someone an informational interview, but they trust that by helping that person the greater whole is served, the giver benefiting along with others.

In my own life, after exhausting myself "taking" and feeling a gnawing sense of lack despite the external appearance of abundance, I reversed my approach. I shifted to radical giving. When a prospective client asked for help, I offered to do so pro bono. That often led to paying work down the road. When someone wanted a favor, I just did it and found the gratitude that flowed back fulfilling in a way that taking never was. Now, each day, I follow the practice of asking what I am in service to that is greater than myself. I invite you to do the same, to know through experience, as Lao Tzu did, that the heart that gives, gathers.

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Anne Tillery has devoted her career to giving voice to good causes, helping individuals and organizations maximize their contribution to the common good. As managing partner of Pyramid Communications, a Seattle-based consulting firm, Anne works with conservation, health and wellness, education, human service, philanthropic, spiritual, Native American and arts and culture organizations.


  • Wonderful article Anne, especially for us business owners. Really hits home. I am sharing it with others in my business. Thank you.

  • Lovely, Anne, just like You. Every word of your article resonated with me and brought me to tears. Thankyou for sharing the truth so authentically and eloquently. I’m passing it on this instant!

  • So beautifully said Anne, Thank you so much for this article, it is authentic and powerful and offers an amazing space to transform both personal and professional fulfillment.

    • This is such a beautiful article and a great reminder to all of us regarding what is important. I will forward it to many others in the business world as a reminder.

  • Anne, I was so moved by your writing. You reaffirmed my commitment to this work in Conscious Transformation and to selfless giving. It fills my heart to know you.

  • Thanks, all, for the kind comments, and for sharing the article with others. If you’re inclined to go deeper, I highly recommend Adam Grant’s book.

  • Thank you very much! I found many answers for me and my children, when I teach them to give more. Interdependancy! Great!

  • That’s what life is. Giving always returns to us expotentially. Taking always diminishes us in the long haul. It works the same whether in our business life or our personal life.

  • Your words really spoke to me Anne. Thank you for expressing them and I will pass them along. Interdependency just makes sense. Giving without expectation is very nurturing to one’s soul. I am so grateful to the entire CT community for supporting me on my own journey, which in turns helps me be more of service to others.

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