It Doesn’t Hurt to Be a Nice Guy

Serial entrepreneur Danny Shader pitched a business idea to investor David Hornik. Hornik loved it and quickly offered Shader a term sheet showing his keenness to invest. Logic dictated that he make a lucrative offer with a short deadline so that Shader accepted fast.

But David Hornik did the opposite. He set no deadline, and encouraged Shader to pitch to other investors. Hornik sent Shader a list of forty powerful references who could attest for his caliber as an investor, hoping that would sign with him. A week later, Shader called and said, “I’m signing with another investor.” Hornik was devastated.

We shudder at the thought of being a nice guy. Being taken for granted, being burdened with others’ work, being friend-zoned, and losing out on opportunities which others grab. Who wants punishment for being good in today’s evil world? That’s it! No more Mr. Nice Guy!

Wikipedia describes a nice guy as a teenage or adult who is perceived as gentle, compassionate, sensitive and vulnerable. He puts others’ needs before his own, avoids confrontation and generally acts nicely. But we often consider him to be an unassertive person who does not express his true feelings (this applies to all genders). As a result, he ends up feeling used and disrespected. “Ruthless tactics succeed more than kindness,” said baseball manager Leo Dorucher. No wonder nice guys finish last.

But have we been looking at this type through the wrong lens? Maybe we have, according to Wharton School professor Adam Grant. In his book Give and Take, he shows nice people (women and men) in different light. He observes that, in the long run, nice guys finish ahead of everyone else.

Are we missing a trick here?

Grant categorizes humans into three personas: takers, matchers and givers. Takers only care about how much they extract from others. Matchers help people but expect something in return when they are in need. Givers are a rare breed who tilt the scales of reciprocity, giving more than they get. As you would expect, nice guys like David Hornik fall in the last category. Are they fools?

Here’s how the Shader-Hornik story turned out. Despite signing with a bright and talented investor, Shader felt like he was missing out on working with Hornik, and wanted to engage with him. So he and his lead investor took a risk: they diluted their personal stake in the company and invited Hornik to invest. Hornik accepted and began attending board meetings. He impressed everyone with his ability to push them and consider new directions. The team witnessed his remarkable intelligence which is often shadowed by his friendly personality. It has helped them scale exponentially. Hornik, in turn, has added Shader to his list of references, which is probably more valuable than the deal itself.

Most icons of humanity – Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Michael Jackson, for instance – were givers. They could easily be termed ‘nice guys’. But below that affable demeanor lay phenomenal intelligence and grit.

The fact that you have read thus far shows that you like helping people. That’s good. Being a nice person (a giver, as Grant puts it) is not as bad as you think. Far from it. In sales, the average giver earns 30 percent more annual revenue than takers. Even though matchers and takers make up over 70 percent of the world’s sales force, half of the top sellers are givers. Surprising? Not really.

Yes, all nice guys place the need of others over their own. Those who help everyone often burn out. And people who watch them write theses on how nice guys finish last.

But the ones who finish first in the long run strike a balance. They care about benefiting others, but also have ambitious (moral) goals for advancing their own interests. They experience the wonderful feeling of satisfaction often. Add to that the number of positive relations they build, and they are grateful for the lives that they lead.

step out of your comfort zone

It’s not difficult to become like them. You can retain your helpful nature without feeling like a doormat. Just embrace these nine techniques:

1. Help Without Expecting

The first suggestion is undoubtedly the toughest. As humans, we expect reciprocation upon helping someone. But successful people don’t harbor expectations when they help others. They realize that this help will pay off in the long run. How? Through the theory of weak ties. This theory states that the more weak ties we have – relations with people who are not part of our close circles – the more connected we are to the world. And the more likely we are to receive important information about ideas and opportunities. Don’t believe me?

A study conducted in 1973 on how people found jobs revealed that most people found useful information from acquaintances rather than close friends. This is because people in our circles (family, friends etc.) have access to the same information and news as we do, and share similar opinions. The power of weak ties enhances our perspectives and gives us access to information which we otherwise wouldn’t get. When you help someone outside your inner circles, you forge weak ties. Almost always, the person helped wants to return the favor by either helping you in, or referring you to someone who can. So help people without expecting and watch yourself develop faster than those around you. This also improves your happiness quotient.

2. Change your Environment

Research shows that people who volunteer between two to five hours per week feel more energized. The number and quality of their weak ties also zooms. The more you work and help in the same environment, the more stressed you feel. So get out of your comfort zone and help people in different places. This not only lets you meet new people and generate fresh ideas, but also helps you develop self confidence. There is nothing better than knowing that the world is not as bad as you think, and that people appreciate what you do.

3. But be Careful

Adam Grant categorizes givers into selfless givers and otherish givers. The former offer their help to everyone who needs it and eventually burn out. The latter pay attention to who’s genuine and who’s not, because they know it’s not humanly possible to spend time with every person. When someone asks you for help, it’s important to surmise the same. Holding conversations with people provides good insights. Genuine people ask specific learning-related questions. The takers spend time blowing their own trumpets or wanting to know how they can progress quickly. Help the former, and steer clear of the latter.

4. Avoid Burning Out

If you use the above step optimally, you will recognize people who want your help for their selfish motives. Helping everyone will certainly burn you out and make you believe that nice guys indeed finish last. To avoid feeling like a doormat, take the toughest, yet most essential step – say no to takers. Assertively saying no ensures that you engage with people who need your help and keep the takers at bay.

5. Watch your Empathy

Empathy is a much-needed emotion in today’s times. But over empathizing and thinking too much of others’ emotions exposes us to the risk of over giving. Rather than focusing on what people feel, get into their heads and decode how they think. This allows you to see the world through their eyes and develop better strategies to engage with them. By shifting focus from people’s hearts to their heads, you reduce the damage that emotions can cause and protect yourself from being used.

6. Ask for Help

Most nice people believe that they become burdens on others if they ask for help. Hence they don’t, even when they are burning out. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it exposes you to alternate perspectives and ideas. It also lets you delegate what you are not good at to someone who is better. Even Steve Jobs knew that his visions could not become realities unless he took the help of A-list engineers and designers. So ask for help when you need it without being ashamed. After all, what are your connections for!

7. Don’t Take it to Heart

Not everyone you approach will help you. This is why point #1 is important. If you expect someone to help and they don’t, you feel vindictive. Then comes frustration, the desire to get even, and nasty social media status updates. Maybe the person is experiencing a tough situation and cannot tell you about it. Maybe the person is not equipped enough to help you. Or maybe the person is downright selfish. So instead of brooding over what happened, move on. If you are honest, others are waiting for you to ask for their help.

8. Embrace your Vulnerability

We look at vulnerability as another sign of weakness. But it’s not. Our vulnerabilities, like our strengths, make us unique. They define who we are. When you notice a vulnerability, have an academic discussion with yourself. Ask yourself whether it’s a chink in your armor, or it makes you, you. When you are comfortable in your own skin, two things happen: you develop self confidence, and people see and respect the real you. Brené Brown explains it wonderfully in the video.

9. Be Patient

Rome wan’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour, writes James Clear. The results of your effort will take time to bear fruit. It’s like a vessel of boiling milk. Nothing happens for a long time, but suddenly the milk boils so fast that it spills over in seconds. So be patient and keep your efforts steady. Watch people’s responses and modify your strategies accordingly. People won’t immediately rush forward to appreciate your goodness, but things will get better eventually. So whenever you feel overwhelmed by a wave of negativity, keep your hand on your heart and say, “Patience, dear friend.”


David Hornik is not just an investor. He also blogs to help entrepreneurs, and organizes a remarkable annual conference called The Lobby. Give and Take is filled with examples of people who are incredibly successful because of their ability to give more than they get, not in spite of it. It shows that goodness in this world exists because of the nice guys, who are rewarded handsomely in return. So if you like being a helpful person, don’t suppress it. Simply follow the techniques mentioned in this post and you can be happy for who you are.

How do you balance being a nice guy and not getting used? Do share in the comments. I would love to hear from you.


  1. Tushar March 28, 2016
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