Be generous

“Generous acts strengthen the bond of friendship, and what’s more, studies show that your happiness is often boosted more by providing support to other people than by receiving support yourself.”

Gretchen Rubin

Image: emaspounder/Flickr

Image: emaspounder/Flickr

We all know someone like Fred, a former colleague of mine. When we worked together, he wasn’t that helpful. When I was looking for consulting clients, he ignored all of my emails. But every time he needs a job - which is increasingly often - he tries to renew the friendship we never had.

It’s far too late to network with me, I’m always tempted to write back. But to be kind, I help him a little. It’s hard to help him too much, because he doesn’t live by many of the principles I am urging you to adopt.

If you want to have a rewarding life, be a good networker, or accomplish anything… invest your time in helping other people. Think less about the people who can help you, and more about the people you can best help.

Six degrees of separation is an accurate way to summarize how we all are closely connected. That rumpled, seemingly confused, older person in front of you in line might actually be the father of a famous movie executive, CEO, or politician. He might know your soul mate, and introduce you. He might be the wisest and most gracious person you ever meet, once you help him instead of resent that he is “slowing you down.”

Look for connections that others miss. My wife, Kate, is superb at this. Many years ago, she made friends on her daily train commute into Manhattan with a quiet engineer. A few years later, another friend was talking about her sister, and how the family didn’t like her boyfriend. But the sister was always attracted to a certain type of guy, quiet but interesting... a light bulb went off in Kate’s head. The engineer and the sister should meet! Kate introduced them, one thing led to another, and she was thrilled to be invited to the ceremony when they married.

Being generous isn’t simply about work and business connections. It’s about who you are, and how you want to live. A few years ago, driving to lunch, I heard President Obama speaking from Staten Island, where he went to see the recovery efforts from Hurricane Sandy. He spoke to the Moore family who tragically lost two sons in the storm. This is part of what he said afterwards about them:

They, in particular, mentioned Lieutenant Kevin Gallagher of the NYPD, who, when they knew that their sons were missing, Lieutenant Gallagher made a point of staying with them and doing everything he could so they ultimately knew what had happened with their boys and were able to recover their bodies and has been with them as a source of support ever since. That’s not in the job description of Lieutenant Gallagher. He did that because that’s what so many of our first responders do. They go above and beyond the call of duty to respond to people in need. So I want to give a shout out to Lieutenant Gallagher. But I also want to point out, the Moores, even in their grief, asked me to mention Lieutenant Gallagher and that says something about them as well.

It’s easy to be slightly or occasionally generous. Doing so does not require much sacrifice. But it’s difficult to be generous in a meaningful manner. That requires canceling plans, going without things that you want, putting in extra effort when you don’t have much energy left.

The people who aren’t generous, who don’t make sacrifices for others, they operate under a misconception. They think that giving is a cost. Not true. Giving is a benefit, to you. Giving makes you feel better. Helping others in a meaningful way will light up your life. It will sustain you. You don’t just lose the time and money you invested in someone else. You also increase your sense of meaning, purpose and joy.

Being Generous Despite Yourself

I’m pretty good at setting my mind to get the things I want, which is a nice way of saying I can slip into mindsets that make me more concerned with what I want than what other people need.

Shortly after moving to my town, it occurred to me that I wasn’t doing anything to help others in my community. Knowing my tendency to focus on what I want, I volunteered to run for one of the boards in town, and ended up getting elected to the planning and zoning commission. For four years, I was committed to helping others. This took generosity out of the realm of daily decisions and made it a single decision I lived with for nearly half a decade. In other words, I acknowledged my own nature and forced my own hand.

Generosity comes in many forms: donating to charity, helping a colleague, picking up a friend’s kids because you know she is overwhelmed, giving advice or an introduction to job seekers.

Generosity is not a new virtue, but its role in our social media influenced world may be evolving. We all are learning to navigate a world that is less structured and more volatile. We depend more on seemingly random introductions and connections; we can rely less on finding an employer and working there for a few decades.

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