The Generosity Myth
“If you can't be generous when you have nothing, you'll not be generous when you have everything.”
The moment these words shot out from the stage, I knew I'd always remember them. Charlie ‘Tremendous' Jones was firing off gems that night back in the late '80's.
They were delivered during my embarrassing dalliance with an MLM company (an Aussie rip-off of Amway called Omegatrend) – and although I failed to make any money (like 99% of us) – I did benefit from the extraordinary insights offered by people like Jones and dozens more like him.
I want to share a couple of things with you about this because they're especially relevant at the time of writing – my 49th Christmas.
Real Generosity Looks Different
First, it's this woefully misguided idea, perpetuated by big companies with big marketing budgets, that generosity has a price.
More than that; it's a doctrine that says you cannot truly love or appreciate someone unless you buy them something. Like ‘happiness', we're sold the lie that the only path to these things is through our wallets.
Most of us know (intellectually at least) that it's bullsh*t. Yet we do it anyway. The credit card cops a beating and we spend, spend, spend.
But how many of the gifts you've received over the years do you remember? Aside from the gorgeously tacky father's day stall gifts from my kids (safely stored away) – I can't remember any.
What I do remember are the experiences I've had with my family and friends.
I remember the help I received from my brother-in-law renovating houses; the myriad times my dad stepped up to help plant and improve our new home; the time my mentors have given freely of their wisdom and experience, and those moments of introspection with close allies over whiskey and cigars.
Most fondly, I remember the years my dad invested making me the man I am today – with an appreciation for nature, for hard work, integrity and service. The times spent around campfires, climbing mountains, tinkering in the back shed and fossicking for gold – along with dozens of other life-shaping experiences all conspired to make me the person I am today. And all of them were acts of generosity from someone who cared more about the recipient that anyone's perception of the gesture.
These acts were generous because they demanded deliberate effort and presence on the part of the giver. This kind of generosity is layered in emotion and nuance – none of which you'll find in your seventh pair of Nikes or the latest version of a shiny trinket: three of which you've owned before.
Guilt and Reciprocity
A man with $1,000 in his wallet who tosses $10 into a homeless person's hat isn't necessarily generous. A man who commits to providing ongoing support for causes he cares about is.
And so it stands – in my mind, at least – that generosity has little to do with money, and everything to do with intention.
What outcomes do you seek from your generosity?
- To be thanked?
- To even the score?
- To reciprocate out of guilt or obligation?
- To be loved, revered or envied?
- Do you even care if the recipient knows from whence the gift came?
Of course, most acts of generosity can't be dispensed anonymously – especially those that require your time and effort. But those that only involve money certainly can, and I'm a fan of anonymity, here.
Helping someone who's in genuine need, then burdening them with the expectation of reciprocity or guilt is selfish. (Again, just my opinion.)
Reciprocity and guilt are the foundation stones upon which today's version of Christmas is built. In other words, Lorraine gave me a $200 gift last year, so I better make sure I at least match that in return this year.
I have three simple rules around giving that work for me:
- I don't want anything from anyone – I really don't. And I don't expect anything, either. Besides, if I really want a bottle of wine or a fancy pair of runners, I'll go buy them myself. I've told my kids for years that the only thing I want for my birthday or father's day is a card with a few words that come from the heart. That's worth a lot more to me than a bottle of Drambuie.
- If I want to help someone or express gratitude in some way, I don't wait for society to tell me when I should do it. I'll do it there and then. Perhaps I'll take them out for lunch. Maybe I'll give them a book or some money, or help them with a problem. I don't wait for their birthday or Christmas.
- When someone with a genuine need reaches out for help, I'll help, whether I can afford it or not. There have been times when I've had nothing – no money, no assets and no evidence that things would improve anytime soon. But when a kids' charity, a school, my mum; even my ex-wife have needed help, I've done my best to deliver. If I can't be generous when I have nothing, I'll not be generous when I have everything.
Learning to be Deliberate
It astounds me that millions still surrender their rational faculties just so they can ascribe to a bunch of expectations dreamed up by religions and big corporations.
Well-meaning but thoughtless individuals give into this nonsense every year. They plunge deep into debt for it. Some kill themselves over it. And if they don't, they worry about it; argue over it and they weaken the human connections that generosity is supposed to foster.
It's as senseless and pointless as that other human weakness, comparing ourselves to others.
I'm not immune to all this, but I'm getting there. I write about a lot of things as I discover them myself. This, though, has irked me for decades; it's just taken me a long time to convert my beliefs into consistent action, that's all.
I believe generosity should be spontaneous, deliberate and most of all, anchored in an outcome that has the recipient at its centre. Anything less is just showboating.If you can't be generous when you have nothing, you'll not be generous when you have everything. Click To Tweet
Also published on Medium.