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.”

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Walking the path

I recently had the chance to have dinner with a small group of amazing nonprofit leaders. Our host gave us all a gift by asking us to start the meal by going around the table and each sharing why we do this work.

Each member of the group was honest and open, and, in listening to story after story, I began to see that they were all essentially the same.

They were stories about role models, whether a mother or a grandfather, a teacher, a social worker, a friend.
Stories of seeing their own relative good fortune – because everybody is more fortunate than somebody.
Stories of the call to serve.
Stories of stubbornness in the face of the impossible.
Stories of discovering that their talents can be used for good.
Stories of getting hooked on the feeling of making meaningful change.
And stories of them fighting each day to keep walking the path and making a difference.

You may think, in hearing this, that these are other people’s stories, that you are still seeking out your purpose and your role, that others have arrived while you are still looking.

I ask that you consider two things:

  1. That you are on the path already. There is no moment of arrival. It is your job to keep walking, to keep listening, to push yourself to go closer to what is real so you can understand it, because understanding is the precursor to being useful. It’s also your job to invest in building the skills and the self-knowledge you will need to make a real difference – including confronting your fears and your self-imposed limitations.
  2. You don’t know it, but you are already inspiring others. The courage to look, to listen, to care, to dream – all of this already sets you apart. Each of the stories I heard started at a very young age, and the path from there to today was never straight.

Keep walking.

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Layers

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.

Layers

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.

Posted in compassion, Courage, empathy, Generosity | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Experiment

Try this one day.

After an event where you’ve talked to a lot of interesting folks, sit down and write an individualized follow up note to everyone with whom you had a substantive conversation.

It can be short. It just has to be real and personal, meaning that there actually has to be a next step in the conversation/relationship that would make sense.

Now pay attention to how everyone responds. How quickly, how clearly, how personally.

In my experience the people who seem to have the least time are often the ones who respond the most quickly and in the most genuine way.

Makes you wonder which came first: the amazing people they are today, or the behavior of making sure that real connections get acknowledged and amplified.

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When you are stuck

Go slower, to give yourself a breather.

Or go faster, because this will push your focus and intensity.

Just change speeds.

By changing speeds you’ll feel different.  By feeling different you’ll tell yourself a different story.  By telling yourself a different story you’ll discover that it’s the story, not how you feel or what you can actually do, that’s making you feel stuck in the first place.

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My bad

Nearly every legitimate customer complaint could be turned around right away with an immediate, forceful reply:

This shouldn’t have happened.

I’m sorry.

It was our mistake.

I’m going to fix it right now and make things better than they were before.

In other words, “I feel as bad about this as you do, because I care as deeply as you do – or more – about keeping the promise I’ve made to you as a customer.”

The power to diffuse comes from your definitive and quick response, which is only possible when the person hearing the complaint has the power to make things right.

Once a complaint has gone through four levels of escalation, no matter what you do it’s too late.

 

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Things we’ve done before

The things we’ve done before get less scrutiny. We did them last year (or last quarter, or last month) so when the time comes to do them again, we turn the crank and start.

New things, on the other hand, get all the tough questions.  Why?

Did we know more last year about what needed to happen today than we know today? Probably not.

Rather, the things we’ve done before, collectively, add up to our sense of who we are. Organizationally, we are the sum the things we do – our programs, our initiatives, our product lines – and cutting one of those away creates a sense of loss.

Worse, that loss may arrive special delivery from the outside.  Those close to you – customers, donors, friends – are quick to say, “I miss that thing we used to do.”  But they’ll never bang on your door with nostalgia for the thing you’ve never done.

If you’re in the “creating new things” business, your job is to understand how much the people around you resist white space and how much loss will be experienced by letting go of something familiar. Then your job is to work through these tough, personal conversations, not to pretend they don’t have to happen.

Remember, old versus new isn’t a fair fight based on the merits what makes the most sense today.

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