My friend keeps a spreadsheet of all the presents she receives. Birthdays, holidays, weddings, everything. And then when the time comes to reciprocate, she makes sure to give a gift of equivalent value.
If you asked her, she’d say that she just wants things to be fair. But it seems as though she’s missed the whole point of giving gifts. And sucked all the fun out of it in the process.
She’s turned gift giving into consumerism. Perpetuated the feeling that we need to constantly reciprocate in kind. At this point, gifts become barter. Generosity becomes entitlement. And abundance becomes scarcity.
As Lewis Hyde wrote in his insightful book on generosity and the creative spirit,
“It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection.”
When we share a gift, we deepen our connection with the recipient. Once this becomes a pre-supposed barter, we lose that opportunity.
No one feels connected to the grocery store clerk who emotionlessly rings them out. We paid for our purchase. No real appreciation needed.
Or like families who exchange cash for Christmas. Who connects with someone who’s trading your $20 for their $20?
In this mentality, our main focus is on protecting our fair share of the pie. But we ultimately receive less. Because the pie never gets any bigger.
The good news is that most of us don’t apply this same tit for tat logic to gift-giving. The bad news? We do apply this mentality to our careers.
And it’s holding us back from achieving our true potential.
The Cost of Reciprocity
“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Most of us have jobs. We perform our job and we’re compensated for our efforts.
But it’s not that simple. And we shouldn’t want it to be.
If we accept that a day’s work equals a day’s wage, then what happens at the end of the day?
Do we completely detach ourselves from the product?
Is all of the passion, and energy, and care that we’ve invested that day to be fully compensated by a paycheck?
And do we really want to sell our time so cheaply? This gift of today, and all the wonderful opportunities we have to accomplish something meaningful with it, will never come again. Do we really want to trade that for a daily dollar and nothing more?
The alternative is to stop thinking that we’re fully paid for our work. Stop thinking that it’s an even trade.
If we reject the notion that a day’s wage is an even trade for a day’s work, it stops being work. It becomes something much more meaningful. In Hyde’s words,
“Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus–these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify…Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors.”
While we may be paid for our efforts, our true compensation is much greater. It’s the long-term investment that we put into our labor. As Winston Churchill wisely said,
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
When we contribute on a scale for which our daily wage isn’t our full compensation, we fill the difference with meaning and fulfillment.
Seth Godin captures this perfectly in Linchpin,
“When a day’s work does not equal a day’s pay, that means that at the end of the day, a bond is built. A gift is given and received, and people are drawn closer, not insulated from each other.”
We should look to deliver value that far exceeds our monetary compensation. People aren’t doing us a favor by employing our services. We’re doing them a favor by giving a high quality product at a discount.
In this way, we don’t let future reciprocity drive today’s efforts. We labor for the passion of our product. And we’re always delivering a gift. Simone de Beauvoir recognized the benefit of this behavior as she defines her true acts of generosity,
“That’s what I consider true generosity: You give your all, and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing.”
The Forward Benefits of Gifts
“Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In 1935, Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Holbrook, or Bill W. and Dr. Bob as they were known to members, started Alcoholics Anonymous on the foundation of a twelve-step program to recovery.
The other notable feature of AA is that it’s free. Which is critical to its effectiveness. Not because people wouldn’t pay to support – they do, the organization is largely funded through member donations – but because in the absence of a payment, all support is given as a gift. Which creates the gratitude and connection to fuel the organization’s momentum.
The recovered alcoholic is indebted to the group and the program. He cannot pay back the members who helped him, so he’s expected to repay his gift by helping future members. And with each gift, the movement grows.
It’s this desire to extend gifts forward that marks their true power. When people choose to pass a gift on instead of only reciprocating, there’s no limit to the compounding effect.
As Hyde defines this phenomenon,
“Passing the gift along is the act of gratitude that finishes the labor. The transformation is not accomplished until we have the power to give the gift on our own terms.”
This behavior isn’t unique to AA. Who hasn’t learned a new skill only to have the desire to turn around and teach the next willing student?
In the introduction to his book Principles, Ray Dalio explains that he’s passing along this knowledge because it’s helped him to such a great deal. He also lets us know he’s at the stage in his life where he’d rather help others to succeed than focus on his own success.
Is there any doubt that Dalio’s gesture is intended as a gift? One offered as the final step of gratitude for the benefits that he’s realized over his own life.
There’s little difference between Dalio’s behavior and that of the experienced craftsman who’s looking to turn around and teach the trade he’s mastered to the next apprentice.
Which is all consistent with the true benefit of gifts. Not restricting them to a two-way reciprocating relationship, but letting them grow in ever-expanding circles. And allowing their benefits to spread throughout the world. As Mike Maples Jr. suggests in Tribe of Mentors,
“Happiness is about understanding that the gift of life should be honored every day by offering your gifts to the world.”
Make Great Art
“Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me,” proclaimed D. H. Lawrence, giving us a vision of the often paranormal feeling by which creativity visits us.
Elizabeth Gilbert furthers this idea in her inspirational 2009 TED talk. She suggests that similar to the beliefs of ancient Greeks and Romans, we each have a daemon (if you’re Greek) or a genius (if you’re a Roman fan) that brings our creative work forward. Our creative product comes through us from a more mysterious inspiration, instead of originating and residing solely within the self.
The beauty of this vision not only explains the frustrating randomness of the creative process, but it also gives us a method to better handle the stress and anxiety that goes with our attempts to manage these elusive inspirations. In words far more eloquent than I could ever string together, Gilbert describes the heartbreak and struggle that comes with trying to recreate a former success,
“This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life. But maybe it doesn’t have to be quite so full of anguish if you never happened to believe, in the first place, that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you. But maybe if you just believed that they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life to be passed along when you’re finished, with somebody else. And, you know, if we think about it this way, it starts to change everything.”
Our talents become less of an inherited right that’s available for our personal benefit, but a gift that’s bestowed upon us for the purpose of contributing it to the greater community.
So while we’re not masters of the muse, we’re also not its puppets. As Elizabeth later expanded on this topic in a conversation with New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengraber,
“It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all it wants is to be treated with respect and dignity – and it will return ten thousand times over.”
Now I don’t know if this is true. It could be. Or maybe there’s a much more rational explanation out there.
But I do know that the creative process is mysterious. And it’s different for everyone. And most importantly, when we choose to see our talents as a gift, we focus on passing these gifts on.
Hoarding becomes giving. Reciprocity becomes abundance. And entitlement is replaced with generosity.
And through everything, I think this is the real key to creativity. And meaning. And fulfillment.
Recognizing that our talents and our abilities are not fully our own. Seeing that they’re not meant to be hoarded and reserved for our own selfish gain. But celebrated and appreciated as the gifts that they are.
And like any gift, passed on with gratitude. Ultimately given to the world as an act of labor and love.
Annie Dillard, one of the finest artists of recent times, credits our ability to create great art with this willingness to hold nothing back, and constantly push our gifts forward into the world through a sense of habitual generosity,
“One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The very impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful; it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
Echoing Dilliard’s views on creativity and art, Hyde concludes his prolific book with the thought that “unless the work is the realization of the artist’s gift and unless we, the audience, can feel the gift it carries, there is no art.”
So make art. Stop worrying about reciprocity and grabbing your fair share.
Recognize your gifts. And give them freely. And the rest of the world will thank you.