Generosity and empathy

David Brooks wrote a powerful column on Friday, a mini-diatribe against empathy.  Apparently, empathy education is all the rage, the premise being that exposure to others’ difficult situations will lead to more right and moral action.

The catch, says Brooks, is that it doesn’t actually work.  Empathy alone does not get people to engage in moral action when there’s a cost to taking that action.  Worse, empathy alone may give one the sense that one is attuned to problems without having to do the hard work of acting to make a difference.

Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments.

Tough words indeed.

While empathy alone is, apparently, flaccid in its ability to illicit action, a burst of good feeling does produce changes:

In one experiment in the 1970s, researchers planted a dime in a phone booth. Eighty-seven percent of the people who found the dime offered to help a person who dropped some papers nearby, compared with only 4 percent who didn’t find a dime.

Brooks implies that this is a short-term effect, and what drives sustained action isn’t feeling alone but some code (moral, ethical, religious, military) on the part of the actor.

So here’s the generosity reflection: I’d argue that being wildly, inappropriately generous has two potential effects, if you’re open to them.  The first is short-term, a kind of giddy euphoria that washes over you when you’re generous.  That may lead directly to more right action.  And the second (drip, drip, drip, over time) is an integration into one’s “code” (whatever it is, and wherever it comes from) of generosity as a core operating principle, an integral part of how we describe ourselves to ourselves.

Plus, I like the fact that it’s about action.  We talk so much about what we need to do, and talk is inevitably cheap.  The only way I’ve found to really change my behaviors is by actually changing my behaviors.

Small talk

Americans are famous for wanting to just “get down to business” in meetings.  Maybe a few minutes of chit-chat about the Yankees game or the weather, but otherwise, let’s get to the important stuff.

The misconception is that the meeting is just that – a meeting.  What if the person you’re meeting might be an incredible individual who maybe, just maybe, is going to become an important part of your life (starting today!).

Reflecting on yesterday’s post about generosity, we know that generous action increases when we expect to have repeated interactions.  The expectation of repeated contact makes it more likely that our kindness will be reciprocated, and makes it more likely that it will be witnessed by others, so the rational / optimal thing to do is to help others.*

So the question becomes: if the person you’re meeting just might be amazing, how do you act?  You’d want to make it more likely that you’ll see that person again in the future, of course.  And, going in, you don’t know who is and isn’t amazing, but I’d bet that there’s a lot more amazingness out there than you think.

To get us yankees to make a shift, instead of shouting (ineffectually) about how we should all “spend a little more time getting to know people,” let me instead propose that we reframe each meeting as one moment, the first moment, in a much longer-term relationship.  And that relationship is just latent potential until you activate it with real human connection at the outset.

Oh, and how IS the weather?

 

 

*(let’s park the question of the motivation behind generosity for a minute…that’s a post for another day)

 

Generosity economy

In the ultimate world-colliding evening, last night I attended the graduation for the Class of 2011 Acumen Fund Fellows.  These 10 Fellows, selected from 700 applicants from more than 60 countries, are a humbling and inspiring assembly of talent, commitment, grit, drive, and empathy, and they spend a year working with Acumen Fund investees in India, Pakistan and East Africa as a training ground for lives in social change.

Chris Anderson, curator of the TED conference and all-around deep thinker and mind-bender, gave the Fellows graduation speech, and he led it off saying, “Thanks to a nice talk featured on the TED.com website last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about generosity and the role it plays in our lives.”  I couldn’t feel more humbled, or more honored, that Chris took the time to reflect on generosity – he’s the one who helped us all understand that taking the most incredible, insightful, and (at the time) exclusive content in the world and giving it away for free was the right business strategy and the right thing for the world.  He’s the ultimate generosity inspiration.

Chris started off talking about the evolutionary and biological bases for generosity, and all the research that has been done on the value of reciprocity, especially amongst pairings of individuals and groups that have reason to believe that they will have multiple encounters over time.  But he went further and shared research from experiments in which one subject was given $100 and had the option to give away any amount of that money, with the knowledge that the amount given away would triple.  Many subjects gave away all $100, and, even better, many recipients then gave back $150 to their donor.

Generosity begets generosity.  Trust begets trust.

At the same time, it’s incredibly easy to break the cycle – all you need is one shirker and the whole things spirals into a “no trust” equilibrium.  But the cycle can be broken: someone can take a generosity risk and reset the system.

At any moment, we have the chance through our individual actions to transform others’ behaviors.

Going further still, Chris observed that the best way to create generous action is through transparency: tell people to behave however they want to behave, but add the caveat that how they acted will be publicly known, and people act much more generous.

Transparency transforms behaviors. 

Chris’ final observation is that we can be generous in infinite ways, not just in sharing our money but in sharing our thoughts, our ideas, our wisdom, and that today the friction around sharing what we have to give has reduced dramatically.

It’s easier than ever to give (= spread ideas)

And suddenly we arrive at the big conclusion (not Chris’ exact words)

Increased transparency (e.g. living in a Facebook world) + frictionless idea-sharing (e.g. living in a blogging, YouTube, TED world) = We are living in a generosity economy

Discuss.

Say it out loud

That thing you dream of doing someday?  That thing that you’re working on already, even if you’re just teething on the idea?   Tell somebody about it.

Tell somebody, even if in a whisper, about that future and what it will look like: how the world will look; the person you will be; the dream.

“Somebody” is a person you trust, a person who matters to you and who matters to the idea. ”Somebody” will be touched by the idea and the brighter future the idea will create.

Even if it’s just one person, the act of saying the idea out loud puts it out there, makes it just a bit more real.  The act of saying it out loud gives one person the chance to react to it, and when they don’t laugh out loud (because of course they won’t) you’ll believe just a bit more in something that seems impossible.  And that might just give you that additional ounce of courage you need at the exact moment you need it.

Say it out loud.

(email counts too if that’s easier for you).

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“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says ‘I’ll try again tomorrow.’”

Mary Anne Radmacher

The Buy Read Paradox

I’m intrigued by the disconnect between the prestige and legitimacy afforded by being a “published author” and all the friction inherent in trying to spread your ideas by writing a book.

Think about the dropoff from:

The number of people who hear about a book → The number that buy the book → The number that read the book they’ve bought → The number that spread the word about that book

If you aren’t a known name or you don’t have an existing tribe whose permission you’ve earned (often over a number of years), simply getting the word out about your book is a herculean task.  And so, most books sell only a few thousand copies.

Nevertheless, being a “published author” still carries a real caché.  Especially if you write nonfiction, “published author” is a chalice of purported legitimacy and expertise (e.g. it’s a lot easier for a journalist or a TV producer to justify interviewing a published author).  What that means in reality is that the book gives you permission to talk about the ideas in the book, not the other way around.  It’s a pretty roundabout, lumpy way to spread an idea.

Which gets me thinking:

  1. 25 years from now, will the notion of being a “published author” be anachronistic, and, if that happens, what will replace it?
  2. Or, will the notion live on, because as a society we will always need a way to separate out “legitimate” idea merchants from the chaff.

If anything, it seems like we are going to see a proliferation of pathways to legitimacy, which gives people who want to spread ideas (but who don’t have access to the gatekeepers) more options.  That seems like a good thing, as the volume of ideas that will spread will likely go up.

The open question is whether, overall, more of the best ideas will get out.  My bet is: Yes.

What do you think?

+ Audience

I started blogging three years ago.  This past Saturday, I was humbled (and thrilled!) to discover that my speech at NextGen:Charity was posted on the TED.com homepage – part of their “best of the web” series.  (93,000 views and counting…!)

This got me thinking about the series of events that led to this outcome.  There are certainly a lot of pieces, but since so much of the thinking and action behind that talk grew out of this blog, I boiled it down to the simple elements that keep me (or anyone) blogging for an extended period of time, namely:  Inspiration + Ideas + Motivation + Audience = A blog

More specifically:

Inspiration = the model of other people, whose actions and impact you’d like to emulate, doing great things with their blogs

Ideas = a flow of topics to write about that are interesting both to you and to your readers

Motivation = the drive to keep at it, day in and day out, even when the going gets tough

Audience = the knowledge that people are out there reading, and that you are being of service to them

I’m sure that there are more things at play, but in my experience these are the minimum necessary elements.  Which is to say, in a roundabout way, that this never would have happened without you.

Thank you for reading, for commenting, for cross-posting, for emailing me with great feedback and ideas and suggestions.  Thank you for pushing me every day, especially on the days when it’s hard.  Thank you for making this blog part of your day.

Synchronized parking

Walking down West 15th street at 8:50am the other day, I watched a big NYC street sweeping truck rumble down one side of the street.  That side of the street was clear of cars because of New York’s alternate-side parking regulations: it’s illegal to park on the north side of 15th street from 8:30 to 10:00am on Mondays and Thursdays.

So far, nothing remarkable going on here.

Then, within seconds of the street sweeper passing by, three cars, as if on cue from some invisible maestro, swung simultaneously to the other side of the street, with the grace and unison of synchronized swimmers.  I’d never seen cars do ballet before.

The sign said no parking until 10am, but at 8:51, they’d moved to the other side of the street.  Were they all ready to wait another 69 minutes, or do they know that once the street sweeper passes by, they’re not getting a ticket?

The exact point is that I don’t know the answer here but they do.  Why?  Because they’re the real insiders, who care the most (about that parking spot), who know how the rules are played, who understand all the constraints and limitations and where rules can be bent.

There are a lot of rules that are in place for good reasons (we need clean streets), lots of norms that tell us what we can and cannot do that are a great guide for our actions.  And there are those that aren’t.

Figuring out which is which takes time.

This is why there are no shortcuts, why mastery takes 10,000 hours, why people who seem to bend the world to their will soon discover, once they’ve done it once, that they can do it again and again.

(It’s also why caring the most matters.  Whether those folks in the three cars waited there for 5 minutes or 69 minutes, they got those parking spots for free for the next three days.)

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For those who liked yesterday’s post about Kevin Kelly, his essay from the book is available on Kevin’s blog.

The Six Stages of Kevin Kelly

Last week I encouraged readers to buy the End Malaria book.  When 62 great thinkers line up behind a cause and offer to share their ideas with you for free, PLUS you get to make a donation to end malaria…to me that’s a no-brainer.

(one important clarifying point in answer to a question that came from a reader: the book itself is not about malaria, it a series of short essays on living a productive life.)

First, a reflection on my experience buying the book.  To my surprise, it did actually feel, when I curled up with my Kindle, that I’d gotten the book for free and had also made a donation to Malaria No More.  It didn’t feel at all like I’d paid $20 for a book (I hadn’t).  Interesting to think about that buyer experience in terms of participating in something as opposed to just consuming it.

Second, I have both the Kindle edition and the physical copy, and for the first time in a while I think the print is better just because it is so beautiful.  It will make a great gift.

Third, Tom asked for reflections from the book itself, so here goes:

Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine, wrote an essay in the book called What You Don’t Have to Do, which really has amplified my thinking on the same topic.  Here are the stages of professional life, according to Kevin:

Stage 1: Don’t Screw Up.   “When you start your first job, all your attention is focused on not screwing up.”

Stage 2: Learn New Things. “At this stage, working smart means doing more than is required.”

Stage 3: Exploration“Working smart here means trying as many roles as you can in order to discover what you are best at.”

Stage 4: Doing the Right Task. “It takes some experience to realize that a lot of work is better left undone.”

Stage 5: Doing things well and with love. “At this stage, you can begin to do only the jobs that you are good at doing and that need to be done.  And what a joy that is!”

Now here’s where things get interesting, because it doesn’t stop there.  The meat of Kevin’s essay is about getting past this stage, which is asking a lot.  Stage 5 sounds pretty great.  But, Kevin tells us, through real dedication, hard work, and honest reflection, we can go a step further and discover the things that ONLY we can do.  Counter-intuitively, this means taking all things that are worth doing and that you do really well (but that others can also do well) and letting go of them.

As a magazine editor, that meant Kevin giving away all his story ideas to other writers, except the ones that no one would take on.  These felt like duds, but Kevin discovered that some of them would keep coming back to life AND that he couldn’t get others to write them.  So he hung on to them, and eventually he wrote them.  They became his best stories.

That’s the last stage, not just for Kevin but for all of us: finding those things to which you are uniquely suited, and doing only those things.

Think of the discipline that requires.  Think of the faith it takes to let go of all sorts of things you’re good at and that are worth doing – and the fear that if you do that, you’ll be left with nothing (which of course you won’t).  Think of the courage and conviction it takes to realize that when people are telling you something is a bad idea, they may just be indicating that this one, and only this one, is the one that YOU need to make happen.

Kevin’s essay is much better than this blog post, so I hope you have the chance to read it.

20 dollars, 61 authors, fight malaria

It couldn’t be simpler: today is End Malaria Day.  A million people a year still die from malaria.  Bednets keep out mosquitoes and save lives.  You can help.

So here’s the deal: for $20 (Kindle) or $25 (paperback) you can buy a copy of End Malaria.  $20 of the proceeds for every copy go to Malaria No More.  Full details on the End Malaria Day website.

This is worth doing because the cause is worthwhile, the organization is the real deal, and you can actually save lives with your $20.

If you need more motivation, you’ll be getting essays from the likes of Tom Peters, Dan Pink, Brene Brown, Gary Vaynerchuk, Seth Godin, Sir Ken Robinson…. (there’s 61 of them.)

This is the exact moment when you think “this is a good idea, I should probably do this” and then you don’t.  Go ahead and do it.  You’ll feel great about it, you’ll be part of something important, and you’ll get a great book in the process.

BUY THE BOOK.

Seriously, BUY THE BOOK.

Then post to Facebook and Twitter (for example: I just bought End Malaria to celebrate World Malaria Day: http://ow.ly/6nFUS).  Email this post to 10 people.  Tell a friend.

The generosity muscle

As we start to spread the word about Generosity Day 2012 (thanks to all who signed up to be part of the core group  – more coming soon!!), we’ve naturally gotten a lot of “why” questions – mostly from enthusiasts who want to be able to explain the day to others, and some from (friendly) skeptics.

If anything came from the heart for me, it is Generosity Day, so unpacking “why” has been an instructive exercise in reverse engineering of an intuitive decision.  Therefore, this (and subsequent) reflections aren’t answering the question “why did I do it in the first place?” (meaning: this was the plan all along), they’re answering, “what insights have I gained along the way?”

One of the core insights is that for many of us – especially those who are more cerebral (and in this I include a big swath of the “smart philanthropy” crowd, whether donors or social enterprise enthusiasts) – our thinking around smart social change is crowding out our natural instincts about how we want to be in the world.  Put another way, we are letting our thinking about what’s best get in the way of how we want to act.

Ironically, in our pursuit of better solutions, we continually reinforce our own practice of turning things down – things that don’t meet our “evolved” criteria of good social work.  The end result of this is atrophy of our generosity muscle, since anything that is underused withers away in time.

The intentional practice of generosity is a way to strengthen this muscle, to get us more comfortable using it, and to make using it a more regular part of our lives.

That’s very different from claiming that saying “yes” to everything is the best kind of philanthropy.  It isn’t.  But philanthropy that doesn’t incorporate generosity doesn’t make sense in my book.

If you’re the equivalent of muscle-bound when it comes to generosity – if it’s part of who you are and how you walk through the world every day – then you probably don’t need Generosity Day.  But I suspect many of us could use a generosity tune-up.  Indeed, my wager is that a large group of people taking the same leap of faith around generosity, pushing themselves to do something outside of their comfort zone, and then coming back together to share and reflect on that experience, will generate new insights for all of us.

For those in our core group (could be you!) who want to help spread the word about Generosity Day, we’re going to propose undertaking a one week generosity experiment, before October 31st, to see how it feels.

You could give it a go too.

Go ahead, flex the generosity muscle, reflect on the experience, see how it affects how you go through the world.