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).

*                       *                       *                       *                       *                       *

“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.)

*                       *                       *                       *                       *

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