Deconstructing generosity

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Seth Godin writes a formidable post about generosity and what it looks like. I do enjoy his thinking because he really does it. Think, that is. As Heidegger said,

The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.

Reading Seth’s post reminded me of a time when a politician was generous to me. I had organised a campaign about getting a pedestrian crossing installed and I asked the man to say a few words at the campaign launch which was to take place on a Sunday morning in a public park. He said yes, and came along to the event. He gave his speech, said nice things and I was grateful, and then he surprised me. We

set off to walk around the park with our placards as planned, and he came with us. It was Sunday. He’d no doubt been working long hours on six days of that week already and I had expected him to say his speech and leave immediately once he’d fulfilled his agreement. Instead, he didn’t just turn up, he participated.

That to me was the essence of generosity. To Seth’s list of what makes generosity generosity, I add: something unexpected.

What do you say makes generosity generosity? Following is his post: Seth Godin on Deconstructing generosity.

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The connection economy is based on generosity. After all, why would someone want to connect to a selfish organization? But the critical need for generosity as an element of our new economy is easy to get lost because it leads to the question, “what is generosity?”

The obvious answer, I think, is the wrong one. Generosity is not merely giving a discount, or giving what you make away or creating a race to the bottom. It’s far more complex than that. Some thoughts:

It’s understandable that generosity creates trust, but also worth noting that trust is required to provide generosity. If a well-meaning person started leaving sandwiches all over the airport departures lounge, her goal probably wouldn’t be achieved, because we just don’t trust random unwrapped sandwiches left anonymously in public places.

That’s one reason why it seems so difficult to give ideas away online. We don’t know you, so we don’t trust you, perhaps not even enough to invest the time to find out what it is you’re trying to give us or how you’re working to help us. Earning this trust, in an effort to be generous, is time consuming and dissuades some from going down this path. Sometimes this effort leads marketers to spam, to take shortcuts, to lie, all in a self-justified but ultimately doomed and deluded effort to be generous.

Sacrifice is a crucial element in our perception of generosity. When someone takes the time to share a finite resource, one that they cannot hope to be repaid for, generosity happens. So favors can’t be generous, because favors imply a sort of gift economy of repayment being due.

Kindness also rides along with generosity. When someone is generous with us but does it begrudgingly, just this one time, don’t ask again, face scrunched with tension, then no, it doesn’t feel generous.

Danny Meyer has revolutionized restaurant culture around the world (starting with Union Square Cafe and then with many other eating places) by placing an emphasis on generosity. Not the (sometimes unwanted) generosity of huge portions, nor the discounting approach of charging ever less, but in the generosity we feel when we’re waited on by someone who treats us with genuine humanity, with kindness and with care.

A variation on kindness is design. It’s entirely possible to create buildings or signs or products that are brutally efficient, where no effort is put into grace or style or beauty. But when the creator of the thing also donates the extra time and care to make it magical, it feels generous, a generosity that scales to all who use it.

There is also the generosity that we feel when someone comes with right intent. People like Bernadette JiwaTina Roth Eisenberg and Mitch Joel have no ulterior motive in the work they share online. They share because they can, because turning on a light for themselves also turns on a light for others. This is not the trading-up version of selfish networking, it’s merely generous.

Vulnerability, as Brene Brown and others have written about, is a key element of what it is to be human, to make art and thus to be generous. The vulnerability of showing up and caring and connecting, even if this time, it might not resonate. And yes, vulnerability builds trust, all in an endless cycle.

And the killer of generosity is bitterness. You may have noticed while traveling on airlines like American that many of the employees you encounter act as though they’re trapped. Trapped by a race to the bottom in efficiency, trapped by a long history of bureaucracy that offers no control and no room for humanity. In those situations, it’s easy to give up, to shrug one’s shoulders and to soldier on, just doing your job. It’s not surprising, then, that any attempt at organizational kindness instead feels like a poorly constructed marketing come-on, not the human act of generosity we seek.

We long to connect, all of us. We long to be noticed, to be cared for, to matter. Generosity is the invisible salve on our wound of loneliness, one that benefits both sides, over and over again.

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Image: Zhang Xiao from the book, Shanxi; courtesy The Guardian

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