Some talk is cheap

The meeting you cancel because the topic has been covered, because the work is done, is a gift to everyone.

The meeting you never have because the conversation is too real or seems too hard – that is the real waste of time and opportunity.

It’s not time that’s scarce, it’s courage.

Two ways to ask for help

Business schools and career centers have taught the wrong lesson: when trying to get noticed (for a job, an informational interview, etc.) send an email (those used to be called “cover letters”) that succinctly tells your story, touts your credentials and all the amazing things you have done.

The reason it’s poor advice is because for a job or an organization that’s special enough to deserve you, you won’t standing out from the crowd based just on what you’ve done and what’s on your resume.   There are too many great and accomplished people out there sending too many emails that look more or less like yours, so you can no longer distinguish yourself by a record of accomplishment.  You distinguish yourself by how much you care (and I don’t mean caring about getting that interview, I mean caring about doing something of value, of giving more than receiving); and you might distinguish yourself by work that you’ve done that we can see, feel and touch.

Your opportunity is to put effort into helping the person you want to connect with – offer them something of interest, something relevant to their work, an article they might not have found that they’d like to read, and explain why it connects to what they’re doing.  Create something that might help them meet their goals.  Share an insight, an actual insight, that they’ll want to hear.  Reciprocal exchange has a long history, and it doesn’t work because I am obliged to do something for you, it works because you showed that you care enough to do something of value to me, and I want to return that favor.

The reason people don’t do this is because it requires shifting the time/effort asymmetry away from the person asking for help.  In 30 minutes you could send a reasonably similar email to 30 people asking for 30 minutes of their time.  But it might take you four hours to do something remarkable to get one meeting with one person.  The worst part is that you might do all that work and still not get the meeting.

And that’s exactly why doing that work makes you stand out from the crowd.

A week

It hasn’t been a great winter for running for me.  Between the cold snowy weather, late sunrises and general busyness, I’ve just not gotten out there that often.

That didn’t stop me from deciding, this past weekend, to take my one free daylight hour and head out for a 7 mile, very hilly run in 25°F weather.  Brilliant, I know.  Usually I feel like most of the effort is in just getting out there, and after I start things get easier.  This time, between the cold and the brutal hills (I think there was maybe 1 mile of true flat road on this run), I spent the better part of an entire run talking myself into finishing the run.

Even in that context, one moment stood out.  The last mile of this run is practically straight uphill, and steep, and I was at the base of the steepest part of that incline.  I had psyched myself up by convincing myself that this section of the last hill was short and steep, and the strategy had been working as I trudged along with my head down.  Then, reflexively, I looked up to discover that the hill was about three times as long as I’d pretended it was.

At that moment I had an overwhelming urge to stop.

The interesting part is that being out of breath or feeling a huge burn in my legs didn’t demotivate me, but seeing how far I still had to go did.

And so, switching gears, I wonder: how do we really go about making changes in our lives? (Alternately: why do New Years resolutions fail?).

I’d propose that the thing that holds us back is that “looking up” moment, when you see how big the hill you want to scale is and decide that it’s just too darn big, too hard, too much, so you don’t start.

Despite being a believer in big audacious goals, when it comes to the hard work of personal transformation, I’m most successful when I start small.  If I want to cut out eating sugar, if I want to meditate daily or be more generous or ignore my inbox for an hour a day or give myself more whitespace for reflection, I’d much rather set myself a clear one-week goal and start on it today.

You can do anything for a week, easily.  And by committing to just a week, you don’t have to engage in the meaningless anticipation of what this undertaking will mean for you – because, let’s be honest, until you do it (whatever IT is) you really don’t know what IT feels like.  The powerful part is that a week is long enough to start getting used to a new habit: it’s long enough to change how salty your think food should taste (try it, it’s true).  It’s long enough to discover whether mornings or evenings work better for you for _______ [YOUR NEW ACTIVITY]; long enough to discover why, really, it’s hard not to check your smartphone right when you wake up or right when you go to bed or every time you step into an elevator.

Just one week.

Don’t allow the sight of the big hill keep you from starting to run.  Give it a week, start today, and see how you actually feel when you behave differently.  Then decide how big this is going to be for you.

Generosity Day – and now, the fun part

Earlier this year I found myself wondering: what should I do for Generosity Day this year?  Meaning “I” or “me.”

In many ways, I asked the wrong question.  Of course I have an important role to play, but what I’ve discovered in the past few weeks is the beauty of something you give away: it doesn’t belong to me any more.  Generosity Day is out there in the world, it has touched peoples’ lives, and in this day and age that means that Generosity Day lives and is real and spreads because of all of you.

This year in particular a crack team of volunteers showed up and took things to a whole new level.  Their work and dedication has absolutely blown me away.  And each volunteer had a real story, a personal story, of what happened to them on Generosity Day last year or the year before, and each story was beautiful and profound.  That’s a Genii you can’t put back in a bottle.

There are too many people to thank individually, and too many people who would be left out from any list I could write.  The good news is, you all know who you are.  I thank each and every one of you for showing me what generosity can be, for fueling my optimism, for sharing your own fears and failures so I could share mine, and for deepening my own exploration of generosity which I know just beginning.

In case you missed it, the crew created this fun 55 second video that will bring a smile to your face, as will the beautiful comment from a reader of Brene Brown’s blog about her daughter’s story of buying ice cream for everyone at MacDonalds.  When I read a story like that I’m reminded how real this is – the joy, the way we touch others, what we teach our children, how we walk through the world.  This is important.  This is potentially transformational.  Thank you for being part of it.

Now get out there be generous today.

Try it, you’ll like it.

Generosity Day – is it about the money?

Our stories hold truths for us.

One of my truths is that my journey into generosity began with an encounter with a person on the NYC subway asking for money (FOR homeless people, he was not himself homeless as far as I know).

Saying “No” in that situation makes a lot of sense.  If you don’t believe that, check out Zorro’s very personal comment to yesterday’s post.  He said that his son is homeless, that if someone gives his son money that money will be spent on drugs, that giving to his son is irresponsible behavior.

I don’t know the big answer to the question that Zorro is asking.  My personal answer has been that saying “no” all the time and automatically made me feel less human; and I also don’t believe that every dollar given to a homeless person makes that person worse off.

Even though my story started there, Generosity Day isn’t, for me, about whether or not I give to the homeless.  That said, at the outset, I did feel like giving money more freely was a critical ingredient (the critical ingredient?) to my own practice of generosity.  Four years in, I don’t feel that as strongly, but I still ask myself whether an active practice of giving is essential to a practice of generosity.  Put another way, can I fully explore generosity without directly confronting my relationship to money?

This is one in a long list of questions that’s a work-in-process for me, but here’s where I am today: in today’s society money plays a huge role in defining us.  It is one of our scorecards and an important source of our identity.  (Ugly to say that out loud, but it feels like a fair generalization).  And I think that part of seeing abundance and our good fortune in the world is letting go more of the money we have.  This is where the ancient notion of tithing comes from – that our good fortune flows from the blessings we have received, and part of our work on earth is to share these blessings with others.  (Even if a conversation with religious or doctrinaire underpinnings isn’t your cup of tea, I think it’s impossible to look at the world – the whole world – and deny that some or even most of my or your good fortune is due to accidents of birth.  We won a lottery we never knew we’d entered.  At yet, ironically, it is mostly up to us to decide what to do with that abundance.)

That said, my own practice of giving money is still evolving.  These are hard, challenging, very personal questions.  Broadly, I do give more than I used to and, as important, I agonize much much less about each time I give.  I experience less scarcity.  And that feels right to me.

I also know that this is only part of the equation.  These days I’m as interested in generosity of spirit, the generosity of a heartfelt apology, the generosity of giving time to help another, the generosity of putting yourself out there and (really truly) expecting nothing in return.  So today, for where I am, money is not the focus of my own inquiry, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle.  That said, I do feel that a practice of generosity, a practice of recognizing and sharing abundance, must impact to how we think about, hold on to, and let go of our money.

My hope for this year’s Generosity Day is that people will share their own stories of generosity – the questions they ask themselves, the insights they’ve gained, the fears they confronted (or failed to confront).  Simple stories.  Happy stories.  Hard stories.  Stories that make you laugh.

Stories about what they did on Generosity Day – and before and after.

Fun tools on the Generosity Day site make it easier to commit today to what you’ll do tomorrow. Or just throw a #generosityday into your online updates and we’ll see it!

Generosity Q&A

Edna Rienzi, one of the amazing Generosity Day volunteers, asked to me to do a short Q&A about generosity and Generosity Day (below).  She also shares her own beautiful, honest story in her blog post about her own exploration of generosity – and how learning about vulnerability from Brene Brown helped her understand the fear that she experienced with her own generosity experiment, and helped her reengage with generosity in a new way.

I’m so looking forward to reading all the generosity stories that get shared between now and February 14th.

Q: Generosity is…

Opening your heart, being courageous, creating connection, living a life of service.

Q: What is something you know now about generosity that you didn’t know before your generosity experiment?

A lot. Honestly I’d never given any proper thought to generosity before my generosity experiment and I never thought of it being particularly important. That is, I always admired generous action but I never understood how foundational generosity could be in our relationships, how it is the foundation of all philanthropy and social change work, how all the major religious traditions have generosity as a core foundational pillar, etc.

I find that we walk through the world deciding what to notice. So before I had kids, I never really noticed kids. And once I became a father I saw strollers everywhere! It’s been the same with generosity. Once I started paying attention to generosity, I started seeing it everywhere.

Q: Did your generosity experiment change your behavior in any lasting ways?

It did, but it really was the first steps down the path. I’d love to say that I’m radically altered, but I think change takes time. I’m naturally a highly analytical person, and I think that mindset can create separation. I see people who don’t have to overcome this like I do and I really admire them. That said, like everything in life it is a practice, and by creating a different intention and by creating space for a new orientation, I have seen changes big and small. I’m keeping at it.

Q: In your blog, you wrote that you believed that Generosity Day struck a chord with people because everyone is hungering for more connection and more meaning. What do you think makes connection and meaning more difficult to attain in today’s society?

At least in the West right now, we’re all so hyper-connected, hyper-busy. We’re running around with our heads buried in our devices and our inboxes overflowing. So on one hand we’re more in touch than ever, but it also feels to me like we’ve created so much separation. It’s so easy to tune out the world around us these days, and in some sense I feel like in doing so we’re denying our basic humanity.

Q: How do you respond to critics who say that it is irrational to give just because someone asks? Some, for example, would argue that it’s a more effective use of your money to donate to a homeless shelter than to give to someone begging on the street.

Of course it’s irrational to give just because someone asks! I don’t think giving starts with rationality, I think it starts with expressing a purpose, acknowledging abundance, and confronting the terrifying notion that you (the giver) and the person who receives your gift are not so different from one another.

What I think confused some people about my generosity experiment was that they might have understood me to be saying that everyone should give to everyone always. I don’t believe that. But I also believe that if you never pick up your head when someone asks for help, if you never actually see the person right in front of you with their hand out…well then you’ve lost a tiny piece of your humanity.

I see a lot of parallels between my generosity experiment and my yoga practice (which was pretty regular up until last year when my third child was born!) So much of yoga is about teaching yourself, through repetition, to unlearn patters of thought and reaction that you’ve taught yourself over decades. So while it’s not actually important to be able to contort your body into some strange position and not panic, it’s really important to learn how to be in stressful situations and stay grounded. The yoga poses are practice for real life. Similarly, I wanted to create a new pattern, to cut directly against the grain of saying “No” every time someone asked for a handout—just to see what a habit of “yes” would feel like and how it might change me. So far I’ve been happy with the results.

Q: Are there any requests for help that you would refuse even on Generosity Day?  

Sure—ones that seemed ugly or self-serving or intentionally against the spirit of the day.

Q: Does romance fit into your vision of Generosity Day or does that get lost in the “reboot”?  (One of my daughters, by the way, accused me of being the Valentine Grinch when I explained Generosity Day to her!)

My wife and I still celebrate Valentine’s Day—in fact, if anything, I’ve been more comfortable with Valentine’s Day than she has over the years! I finally understood what she was saying when we had one of our most romantic dinners early on a Saturday afternoon right before she drove me to JFK airport for a trip to Kenya. I’m a real romantic, but I do agree with my wife that saying, “OK, tonight we’re going to have a special memorable evening!!” can raise the stakes too much, and that the most romantic moments are often the unexpected ones.

Q: What do you hope Generosity Day accomplishes this year? And in the next 10 years?

I’ve had this dream that we could actually shift Valentine’s Day and create broader traditions of love and giving on this day. There’s no reason that can’t happen—I think it would be a relief to people (well, maybe not to Hallmark and Godiva, but to lots of folks).

This year, we’re really focusing on people engaging in generous action—in addition to spreading the word. Because the day won’t really stick with you if you don’t behave differently.

I promise, if you engage in just one act of radical generosity this February 14th, you’ll remember it for years to come!

Generosity Day – ready to launch

Just three days until Generosity Day and all the pieces are in place – so now is the time to start spreading the word!

The “why” of generosity and of Generosity Day is something I continue to explore for myself, and I’ll share more thoughts in the next few days.  I just posted a piece on Fast Company’s FastCo.Exist as part of their wonderful generosity series – and in the act of writing that I learned something about what’s at the core of this for me.  What I realized is that when this all started, when I first jumped in to my generosity experiment:

“…I knew almost nothing about generosity. I’d never worried about it, cultivated it, practiced it, or thought about how regularly I failed to be generous. And suddenly I felt a huge disconnect. Suddenly I realized that I could never make the change I wanted to see in the world using half of my brain and none of my heart.”

To me that’s the starting point, and it’s what I keep returning to.  I’m trying to understand what a practice of generosity means in social change work.  I’m trying to cultivate generosity in me because, paradoxically, it is core to so many decisions I’ve made in my life and yet at times it doesn’t come naturally to me.  So I work at it, I try to understand it, I decide to practice it even when it does not come naturally…and slowly, day by day and action by action (but never in a straight line, never just in one direction) I change.

If I have one wish for Generosity Day this year it’s that it be a day of action.  What would it mean to have a million generous acts happen around the world?  It would be transformational.

To help make that happen, this year it’s easier than ever to share your story.  There’s amazing momentum building already on  People are already tweeting with the #generosityday hashtag – things they’re doing, ways they’ve been touched by generosity, and just to spread the word.  I hope you’ll be a part of it.

Just three days to go.  Can you hear the distant rumble?  That’s the momentum building.