My generosity experiment from last December began on the NYC subway. A homeless man asked passengers for money, I thought about giving, but then I rationalized and stalled just long enough to let myself off the hook. When I walked out of the train I knew I had done the wrong thing.
People who run ultramarathons –100 mile runs – say that in order to finish, they have to decide and commit before the race how they’re going to react to duress. If they don’t have a plan, they will make decisions in the moment, based on fear or pain, that will keep them from finishing. There’s power in the decision you make beforehand to act a certain way in a situation you’ve deemed important (and stressful).
Last week I was on that same NYC subway train when another homeless man asked the riders for money. He had, he said, just been let out of the hospital – he had discharge papers and unfilled prescriptions in his hand – and was asking for money to fill the prescriptions. His swollen legs were enough to show his diabetes. I stood up between stations and – impulsively, but armed with my prior decision – gave him $20. A few others in the car then stood up and gave him a few dollars each.
Reading about giving $20 to a guy on the subway doesn’t seem like much. Handing someone a $20 bill in that situation – where social norms say that you maybe give a dollar – felt like a big deal.
How do I go about changing what I do – which, over time, leads to the evolution who I am? What works for me is making a decision to make a change and then starting to act differently – sometimes in small, safer ways before making the big leap.
$20 is very little money, but it’s way outside the norm for that particular situation. So I got an incredible deal. I got to experience the feeling of being absurdly generous when compared to what the world expected of me (and I expected of myself) at that exact moment.
It felt great. It was exhilarating. And once I had given away the $20, it was no longer mine. And that was just fine.
Lots of people have told me over the last two months that they thought a lot about the generosity experiment. For those of you who liked the idea, even if (maybe especially if) you don’t have a lot of money to give away, why not invest $20 to see how it feels?
Why not give a $20 tip on your next cup of coffee, or to a person who asks for money on the street, or to the person you buy the paper from or the full service gas station attendant or to a street vendor where you love to buy lunch?
Why not give $20, once, in a situation where it’s an unexpected thing to do? Why not break the norm and see what happens and see how it feels?
I promise, you’re the one getting the great deal.
(comments welcome on how it felt)
P.S. If you do any sort of fundraising, you really shouldn’t take a pass on this. I promise it’s a worthwhile investment in you and your ability to do what you do better.