What I Learned About Generosity From the Eight Foot Bride

I still remember the feeling I had watching Amanda Palmer’s mezmorizing TED talk, as she described the gentle, intimate moment of handing a flower to a stranger while dressed as a silent, 8-foot bride, busking in Harvard Square.

If that talk was the distilled essence of her experience of love, crowdfunding, trust and connection, her book, The Art of Asking, feels like an exposed, magically cluttered, painful but beautifully honest version of everything that led up to that 13-minute essence of the story.

While Amanda and I are, in the most obvious ways, very different people, I felt a profound sense of connection in her exploration of generosity. In fairness, Amanda’s life is an extreme sports version of trust, generosity and connection, one that makes me wonder if I’m still wading in the shallow end, but the essence of the exploration is the same.

This essence is conveyed beautifully in a passage Amanda quotes from the Velveteen Rabbit:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

So much of what we are all searching for is real-ness, a sense of seeing and being seen by others. We become real through others, though being willing to break ourselves open and be seen in all of our humanity.

True generosity, then, is not about helping someone else. It is about seeing someone, about meeting them eye to eye, about letting them see us too, and maybe, as Amanda does, handing them a flower. This is why true generosity makes us feel so exposed and vulnerable: because in that act of generosity, we are our most unadorned and our most human.

If we are going to be in the changing the world business – I don’t care if it’s as a fundraiser, a rock star, a philanthropist, or an eight-foot bride – the first prerequisite is our willingness to show up, as Amanda does, with our whole humanity. Social change work begins with a decision to really see the world, and to do this properly we must be willing to be fully present, to connect, to see today’s limitations and tomorrow’s possibilities and, finally and most importantly, to embrace the emotional labor of trying to make a change happen.

The Art of Asking is a portrait of an artist with a deep commitment to showing up as her true self, and her fierce determination to stay open to making real connections – often with total strangers.

The moment she, you or I stand with this kind of real-ness, this kind of grounded passion, this kind of openness, people have no choice but to connect with us in a different way. Not all of them. Not even most of them (that’s where the hurt comes in).  But some of them will see us, just as we truly see them, and in that moment, we both will be transformed.

“When you connect with them,” Amanda Palmer says, “people want to help you.”


The pavement on the cross-streets between 9th and 7th avenues between 14th and 23rd streets have been stripped for the past month. The first step here is milling, which takes off the top layer of asphalt in preparation for repaving, and, maybe because the city is in the midst of filling nearly 300,000 potholes, these streets have remained exposed and bumpy for weeks.

Here’s what it’s looked like.


In these few weeks, we’ve gotten to see what lies underneath: layers of patching, the old covering of potholes, extra asphalt around manholes. Sometimes even the cobblestone, which must be nearly 100 years old, is exposed, making me wonder if any more paving lies between that and the sewer system.

It’s a hodgepodge that’s been built up, layer by layer, over decades, one that we rarely see.

It is easy to be fooled by the thin veneer, the smooth top layer that is so easy to glide across. This layer fools us into thinking that it came into being fully formed. But of course everything builds on what came before it, on what lies below.

In seeing all this I’m reminded of the grimy past of New York City, of a time of dirt and struggle and disease, a time when this neighborhood was the home to slaughterhouses and slop in the streets, not fashion boutiques and 16 Handles.  Today’s glossy world sits adopt that messy history, one we are quick to forget at our peril.

I can’t help wondering how it’s come to pass that today’s reality feels so normal.  How, in a world where glamor and wealth and radical inequality has become the norm, we manage see only that top layer while ignoring the deeper moral questions that lie beneath: When did we go from building a system that rewards winners to one where the winners, quite literally, take all? And why does it seem so easy to drown out the quiet sound of people throwing up their hands and turning their backs on a system that doesn’t work for them?

Some of this stems, I think, from being fooled by that thin veneer, one that shields us from the fact that our success is not just the product of our own efforts. We literally stand upon decades, even centuries, of groundwork that came before us – times of toil and trouble and near misses that somehow all added up to this life, here and now. The foundation of our comfort, our accomplishment, and our success is our dumb luck of being born into lives in which deploying effort, brains and resources yields results.  That’s a winning lottery ticket held by precious few.

Sure, we deserve credit for our own effort, guts, and ingenuity.  But let’s not forget that we are nothing more than the top layer.

No Soup for You

I was having a light-hearted disagreement with a colleague about the loyalty card programs of the lunch places across the street from Acumen – the cards where you get 10 punches / stamps and get a free lunch. Some of them, like Chelsea Thai, allow you to combine different cards, so if you don’t always have your card with you, you can still get a stamp and combine cards. Others, like Hale & Hearty Soup, have a strict policy: no combining of cards.

The disagreement was whether there’s a meaningful difference between the two.

I discovered the intricacies of the Hale & Hearty stamp card policy a few years back when I showed up with two soup cards, one with 6 stamps and one with 4. Those two cards represented a good deal of concerted soup-eating effort on my part. Proudly, at the front of the line, I presented my two cards only to be told that the policy was “No combining cards.”

No (free) soup for me.

To be clear, I could get a free soup when I presented ONE business-card-sized piece of card stock with 10 little ink stamps on it, but not two separate cards adding up to 10.

From that moment, I stopped collecting Hale & Hearty Soup stamps.

Now, one could easily (and convincingly) argue that it’s not too much to ask that I keep track of that one card. That’s probably true. But I wonder about the culture of an organization that enforces that kind of rule, one where employees cannot make a call to say “yes” to a customer who is showing up and vouching for their own loyalty to your store.

Dov Seidman, author of How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything…in Business (and in Life), conducted a survey of 5,000 managers and executives in the US, to understand their values and behaviors. From that survey, he grouped companies into three categories:

Companies in the first group, called “blind obedience,” rely on coercion, formal authority, policing, and top-down command-and-control leadership. The second group, “informed acquiescence” organizations, have clear-cut rules and policies, well-established procedures, and performance-based rewards and punishments — the standards of high-quality 20th-century management. The third group, organizations with “self-governance,” are the most farsighted organizations, best positioned to thrive in an interdependent world. People at all levels of the company are trusted to act on their own initiative and to collaboratively innovate; a shared purpose and common values guide employee and company behavior.

I’d pretty much forgotten about my Hale & Hearty frustrations until last month when, on my way to India, I had a short, groggy layover in London’s Heathrow airport. I found my way to a Pret a Manger, my new favorite London destination, and began searching in vain, amongst the throng of coffee-starved travelers, for oatmeal (“porridge”). I waved and gesticulated a few times to the cashier, asking her where to find it, and she kept on pointing me to the same spot. Then, finally, she stepped out from behind the register, looked for herself, and realized that they were fresh out of porridge.

Immediately upon returning to the counter, she not only apologized to me, she offered me a latte on the house! Her decision was so quick and made with so little hesitation that I couldn’t help but wonder if she was bending the rules or whether, even in such a big chain the front-line employee is given the freedom to delight a customer.

It turns out that this is how Pret works, that their philosophy is all about team and front-line employees and about delighting their customers. Which would be quaint if Pret were a mom n’ pop shop, but in fact it is majority-owned by a private equity firm, it has more than 350 stores, nearly $1 billion in revenues, and it’s growing like gangbusters.

Maybe, just maybe, the follow-all-the-rules-or-you’ll-get-fired approach to management is starting to show its colors as the un-enlightened, underperforming approach it seems to be.   Because while there’s no doubt that most people would rather work somewhere where their job is to make other people happy, we’re starting to see more and more (and more) examples of how the by-the-numbers approaches are revealed for what they truly are: races to the bottom.

Why I (like everyone) gave to ALS while on vacation

A friend and colleague asked me.

It was personal and I didn’t want to let him down.

It was (a little bit of) a challenge to how macho and bold I could be.

It was public.

Turning something like this down, given who I am and my values, would be just a little bit shameful.

Everyone was doing it.

It was fun.

I could talk to my kids about it and get them involved in it.

It was easy and quick to do.

I could share it with friends in a way that felt totally positive – without putting them out. In fact, many friends said “Thank you! I was hoping to be challenged.”

It incorporated video, and allowed me, in 30 seconds, to create a video I was happy to post and that I knew would be entertaining (no edits, no storyboards, no nothing).

Did I mention how fun it was?

That’s a pretty good list to choose from for how you fundraise. I’m positive you won’t hit all of these, but if you’re hitting none of them then you’re pushing a rope uphill.

And the really tricky bits that I can’t stop thinking about are:

I did give to ALS, but most people won’t. That’s totally fine as long as what you create is huge.

The specifics of the organization I was giving to, and the cause, didn’t matter. This would have worked for any cause.

I talked to my kids about ice water not about ALS.

Pretty quickly my head starts to swirl about ends and means, whether (some? all?) philanthropy should be fun and what is lost when it is fun (and what doesn’t happen when it’s not).

When giving is more like eating dessert than it’s like eating your vegetables, is that a problem? Certainly not, today, for the folks suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

(and for those keeping track, the ALS Association has now raised nearly $100 million from 3 million donors…versus about $23 million last year).

What if he’s conning me?

“What if this story this guy is telling me isn’t true? What if he, 70 years old, scraggly hair, sitting in a wheelchair, knee brace on his left leg, with a couple of bags and a book on his lap, didn’t really lose his place in Hurricane Sandy? What if that’s not what pushed him over the edge and shoved him back into a life of homeless shelters and benefits checks that don’t go far enough?”

Sure, that goes through my head.

But as I stand there listening I cannot help but stand face-to-face with my own good fortune, all the challenges I don’t face every day, all the barriers that aren’t in my way.

So, instead, I endeavor to think, “maybe this is a chance to help. Maybe a little bit will make a difference. Maybe experiencing the indignity of asking for money on the subway is something that this articulate guy shouldn’t have to go through.”

Maybe the chance to help even a little is a chance worth taking.

Happy Generosity Day 2014

Today marks the fourth year of Generosity Day. I’ve heard from people as far away as Dubai and as close as a local preschool in New York City about their plans for Generosity Day this year. It makes me proud, and it humbles me.

This year, my celebration of Generosity Day is a quiet one. I decided this year that I wanted to focus my energies on the practice of generosity, rather than on further spreading the word about Generosity Day. So the Generosity Day team is not doing a big online media push or reaching out to the press. This feels right this time around. Generosity Day has always been organic and has always lived in the hearts of those who choose to celebrate it. Evolution is part of what makes this a real, living and breathing thing.

For all of you who are celebrating Generosity Day today, I encourage you to take a moment to remember that you are part of a global community that cares about the practice of generosity. This is a community that knows that we can choose to become the people we aspire to be, a community that understands that through practice we grow and evolve, a community that lives everywhere and is owned by no one.

I wish you a day of discovery and of joy. I thank you for the gifts you give to others, the gifts you give to this community, and the gifts you give to yourself.

Giving Tuesday 2013

Ten days ago I had the chance to meet with Henry Timms, the Interim Director of the 92nd Street Y.  Henry posed a question that I’ve been turning over ever since: “if you had to build a community organization (like the Y) in the 21st Century, what would it look like?”

This question is hard because it gets to the core of what we mean by “community.”  In the next century, will our community remain those who are physically nearby?   Meaning, despite all of our online connectivity, will we remain fundamentally and predominantly rooted in the places we send our kids to school, the common spaces we use, the places we shop, and the chance encounters we have that cause us to stop, pick our heads up from our smartphones and our calendars, and have a good 10 minute chat?

Or will borderless communities of common (weird) interests become what define us?  Will our identities, our values, what we care about, and ultimately our sense of community increasingly transcend location?

Or is it both?

And if you ran an organization like the Y, how would you have these two streams interact?

Henry did something surprising and beautiful to start to answer this question.  Of course the core work of the 92nd Street Y is the outstanding arts programming, teaching, preschool, sports and community events.  But why couldn’t the Y, as a community organization, help build a virtual community of shared values, and give space to expression of those values in the real world?

It could, of course.

So Henry, along with a small group of troublemakers (most notably the UN Foundation), created #givingtuesday, a day devoted to generosity of all stripes.  Giving Tuesday serves as the other bookend to Thanksgiving, so that we can start our long weekend with a day of giving thanks, run around like maniacs to shop for bargains on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and then return to the roots of giving and generosity on Giving Tuesday.  What a great idea.

As Henry and I began discussing Giving Tuesday it became clear that a lot could be gained by bringing together the collective energies of the Generosity Day and Giving Tuesday movements.  To kick that off, I’m excited to have the Generosity Day crew lend its collective energies to Giving Tuesday this year.  We’re joining the likes of Melinda Gates, Bill GatesMatthew Bishop, Adam Grant, the Case Foundation,  the UN Foundation and more than 6,000 other nonprofits that are committed to making Giving Tuesday a huge success.

If you’re excited to get involved in Giving Tuesday, the best thing you can do is to make today a day of giving and to spread the word to others.

And, if you’re game, join the likes of Sec of State John Kerry by taking an “unselfie” and posting it to your Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/tumblr/etc. feed.  Here’s mine.


To take it further still, become a Giving Tuesday social media ambassador and help spread the word!

Happy Giving Tuesday.

Aristotelian virtues

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending two days with Acumen’s class of 2014 Global Fellows.  These Fellows, a group of truly outstanding individuals from around the world who are committed to social change in the developing world, spend two months with Acumen training in New York before working for nine months with Acumen’s companies in India, Pakistan, East and West Africa.  While at their placements, they do things like run the sesame business for Gulu, a company serving more than 40,000 smallholder farmers in post-conflict Northern Uganda; or helping d.Light expand its solar lighting business in Nigeria.

One of the foundational elements of the Fellows’ training is the Good Society readings.  Based on the work of the Aspen Institute, the goal of these sessions is to give Acumen Fellows – who have committed to a life of social change work – the opportunity to take a step back and reflect on the moral and philosophical traditions that they are a part of.  Questions like: what is your view of human nature? How do you feel about tradeoffs between equality and efficiency?  How do we build a good and just society?

These are heavy readings, and the Fellows did amazing work grappling with the likes of Hobbes and Rousseau, and Plato.  They had heated discussions about the worldviews of Aung San Suu Kyi and Lee Kuan Yew, building upon a deep conversation of the impact and value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written just after World War II.  They dissected the masterful use of rhetoric and the display of moral imagination in Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, by far one the most inspiring pieces of writing I’ve ever studied.

Near the end of the two days, we took up a discussion on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a piece I had never read.  As I waded through the difficult, mostly obtuse 2,000-year-old writing, I came across a passage that summarizes more clearly than I could one of the main underpinnings of my worldview:

The virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well.  For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

–          Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Ch. 1

What Aristotle understood, two millennia, ago is that it is the actions we take that define and build our character, not the other way around.  This is the reason for a sustained practice of generosity, of humility, of audacity.  This is why being kind in small ways opens our hearts to others in big ways, why taking care to be our best selves in each interaction can transform us over a period of months and years.  It is why reflection around our core values combined with deliberate cultivation of behaviors and habits that we cherish can lead to profound change.

“We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”  Indeed we do, and it through deliberate practice that we become the people we aspire to be.  And while it may be the case that our greatest heroes were born different from the rest of us, it may also be that they started practicing just or brave or temperate acts early on, and stuck with it for a lifetime.

You can too.

It used to be

It used to be that you could go to a meeting, or a job interview, without having really prepared in advance: without looking up the details of who someone is, what they’ve done, and where they’ve worked; without checking out their organization, the role they play, and who they work with; without skimming their LinkedIn profile, reading a few of their blog posts, and watching a video of them speaking; without seeing who they’ve helped along the way, or checking out the interesting, generous things that they’re involved with in their free time.

Now, skipping those steps is not allowed.  Now, it’s a sign that you’re unprepared and care less.  Now it’s a missed opportunity to have a conversation that’s more relevant to both of you.

The other side of this coin, lest we forget, is that just like you’re using The Google to figure out who you’re meeting and what their story is, people are doing the same thing before meeting you.

It used to be that them discovering nothing about you other than the boxes you’ve checked was enough.  It used to be, but it isn’t any more.

How generosity touched you

Not long ago, a group of senior executives asked me to speak to them about generosity.  So I started the conversation by asking each of them to share what generosity meant to them.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but what I heard back were examples of niceties – I volunteered a bit here, I helped someone with something there.  It was probably my mistake to open a conversation with a new group and expect that folks would take the opportunity to be vulnerable.  I should have laid the groundwork first.  Nevertheless, it was telling.

At times I’ve been surprised with negative reactions to talk of generosity and Generosity Day.  That day – hearing example after example of nice, kind, but mostly peripheral acts of generosity from a group that I knew had much deeper stories to tell – helped me understand what was going on in a new light.

I’ve been purposely exploring generosity for nearly five years now, and while I humbly admit that my own practice of generosity is still very much a work in process, my points of reference when hearing the word “generosity” are profound, textured, nuanced, and potentially very deep.  Generosity and giving are cornerstones of cultural practices dating back thousands of years; they are bedrocks of all the major religions; generosity is one of the five yamas in the eight-limbed path of yoga!

That’s the opposite of small, the antithesis of trite.

Nevertheless, just because that is my experience of generosity does not mean that is what others hear.  If someone’s conscious engagement with generosity is limited, when they hear talk of “generosity” their minds can naturally avoid things that are deep, grounded, or profound.

If I could restart the conversation I had with that group of executives, I would ask a different question.  Not “what does generosity mean to you?” which somehow got people to talk about when they had been generous, but “when has someone else’s generosity made a difference in your life?”  I’ve been amazed with how consistently I hear poignant stories of generosity when people are freed to answer this question.  People see others’ better angels.  Small, fleeting acts from decades ago are revealed to be seminal milestones in peoples’ lives.

I just heard about an effort to raise $60,000 on Indigogo to produce a movie called The Perfection of Giving.  I thought the trailer looked good and that you might want to check it out.

If I have one wish for the project, it would be that it move beyond the more obvious focus – how a practice of generosity transforms the giver – and delve deeper into how acts of generosity changed the lives of recipients (and, equally interesting, to uncover the countless acts of generosity practiced daily by people who do not, by external appearance, seem to have a lot to give).  I know all good stories need a protagonist, I just think the message is most powerful when we can share others’ stories, rather than describe our own experience of transformation.

So: when has generosity touched you?

Perfection of Giving