Landing an internship, earning that A or securing a spot in a competitive academic program undoubtedly requires hard work and ambition. But, in some cases, it also entails outdoing your classmates. Your A in accounting may lower the GPA of the student sitting next to you. Given that only 30 percent of students can receive A or A- grades in business core classes and that competitive firms have limited positions for graduates, does generosity have a place in Georgetown’s competitive academic environment?
The oft-repeated truism, “nice people finish last,” suggests that it does not. Some students in the McDonough School of Business choose not to study with their classmates because other students’ success can negatively impact their own grades. Helping a classmate study for an exam or giving him notes may mean less time to study for oneself, or even receiving a lower grade because the tutoring boosted the other student’s performance.
Such is the problem that some “givers” face in the workplace, according to an analysis of several studies by University of Pennsylvania Wharton School professor Adam Grant. Grant claims that givers, people who offer help to others without seeking anything in return, are more likely than others to be in the bottom 25 percent of their field. These givers sacrifice their commitment to their own tasks to help peers.
But nice people need not always finish last. According to Grant, there also exists a certain type of giver who is more likely than their other generous peers to be in the top 25 percent of their field. The disparity between the people in this group and their low-ranking counterparts stems from the ways they help others and the social networks their generosity builds.
For example, when you share your notes with a classmate or explain a homework problem to him, you establish the opportunity to ask similar favors of him later in the semester. Such generosity requires little effort, yet can pay dividends when you are looking for someone to study with during midterms or need to choose partners for a group project. Even teaching material to a classmate does not have to be one-sided — tutoring someone else can effectively solidify the information in your own mind.
If the person you are helping fails to reciprocate, or your generosity prevents you from improving on your own performance, you can disengage without having invested significant time or effort into the relationship. Being nice does not have to mean being exploited. Generosity can in fact be beneficial in the long run, as long as the giver benefits as much as, if not more than, the person he helps.
And “takers” may not always finish first — at least not in the long term. Grant explains that people who take advantage of others’ generosity are successful in the short term, but their behavior eventually damages their reputations. As such, although it may not be beneficial to help a classmate complete an assignment if their superior performance could negatively affect your grade, it pays to be friendly and avoid taking advantage of him. It may be necessary to work with him in the future and by being nice you establish yourself as a desirable partner, with whom high-performing students may want to collaborate.
Though dedication to one’s personal performance likely has a greater impact on success than does helping others, a few mutually beneficial relationships formed through generosity may prove valuable when you need notes for a class you missed or information about a recruiting event you could not attend.
Being nice, yet prudent, need not result in failure, just as successfully navigating the MSB curve or entering the job market does not require pursuing personal success at the expense of others. Generosity and personal success are not contradictory. Even in Georgetown’s competitive academic environment, nice people do not always finish last.
Vera Mastrorilli is a junior in the College. TESTING TRUISMS appears online and in print every other week.