Earlier this year, I heard the founder of an international education startup give a talk on the power of being giving. His presentation discussed the merits of building real human-to-human relationships instead of business connections that focus exclusively on what each person is going to get out of the interaction. He talked about remembering birthdays and anniversaries. Sending that silly thoughtful gift, just because. Being there when the other person's basement floods.
I had heard this all before.
For as long as I have been working, I have been repulsed by the kind of networking that demands a scoreboard. What can you do for me and what can I do for you and then we go our separate ways or reset the counter. Maybe if I do a favor for that person, that person will help me with this business I've been working on. Or the other way around. It feels manipulative because it is manipulative.
But even though the concept of his talk wasn't new, that presentation on being giving clicked for me in a way it never had before. It could have been because I was still under the spell of January's new year, new me mantra, or maybe taking my first vacation in five years really did rewire my brain. Whatever the reason, the message sank in and I've been able to spend 2018 so far approaching my business—and my life—in an entirely new way.
"How much can I possibly give away?"
It takes a certain amount of security in your business (both financially and philosophically) and in yourself (same) to start giving stuff away for free. I believe that creatives should be paid for their work, and that publications, clients, and, yes, even startups, should build into their budget appropriate compensation for the creative talent they plan to hire. With all that said, I was hooked on the question: how much can I possibly give away? And if the work itself isn't what I'm giving away, what can I provide for others?
The answer arose in a form less concrete than I would have liked. I found that I was being more giving of myself in general, as opposed to discovering some set thing I was able to pass out like a business card. The more I think about it, the more this result seems right. It's the authentic, organic version of an answer, in a way. It's not gamifying or automating being giving. It's not being giving in order to get in return, or being giving because I should. It's just being giving.
Being giving gave me courage.
I started reaching out to more people with less fear. Sometimes I was looking for a business introduction, sometimes I was offering one. I went out of my way to get a few performers I know in front of talent bookers at a new venue, for no reason other than that I love their work and want to help them be seen however I can. I sent friend requests and tweets and Instagram direct messages to people I hardly knew but was interested to meet, and to people I once met but never really got to know.
Hey, I love your work. Hey, I'm a big fan. Hey, what can I do for you today?
Here's an example. At the end of January, the hive mind that is Twitter led me to the website and creative work of an artist, writer, poet, and generally talented person named Jocelyn Aucoin. I read her blog, I followed her tweets, I got hooked on her work. So I sent her a note. I told her I was a fan, that I was inspired by what she was putting out into the world, and that I'd love to get to chat with her more. That new sense of courage roared with a sort of Hail Mary play: creatives have to stick together, right?
Then I started sharing her stuff.
We started messaging, she read some of my work, I liked more of hers. I ordered her book—the first of a series of minicomics. Then she offered to send me a copy, not realizing I had already bought one, and when I pointed out that my name was already on her order list, she offered to send me two. I told her I'd be glad to share her magic and her words with another creative in my community.
Her reaction: Okay, you are not real.
She thought I was a bot.
From the get go, this incredible, accomplished creative could have very easily ignored me or written me off, but she didn't. She was being giving too, with her time and her energy, and with a copy of her book once we'd gotten that far. I wasn't offering anything concrete, I imagine it was clearly unlikely I'd be able to directly provide any kind of business opportunity or monetary uptick for her career.
But that's not the only kind of giving that matters. I also wasn't messaging Jocelyn because I wanted to be giving to her. I asked about getting to know each other because I wanted to get to know each other, sure. Being connected to creative, inspiring, wonderful people is important, and here was someone I imagined fit that bill, so I had hopes. But I didn't want anything from her. I'm quite sure being giving wasn't anywhere near my conscious thinking when I reached out. I just loved her work and I wanted her to know it.
Over the course of these weeks, Jocelyn's tweets about creativity and motivation and the writing process were impossibly perfectly timed to my day-to-day emotional roller coaster. And it felt good to find community. To discover that other people feel this, even if you don't always know who those people are. Her words were lifting me up and inspiring me, they were showing me light when I needed it most. So I said thank you.
Everything that happened after that was gravy.
If I had never heard back from Jocelyn, I still would have felt complete knowing that I sent a whole-hearted acknowledgment to someone I respect. Just a little pompom cheer in another person's inbox. Simple as that.
If being giving didn't have an impact, if showing up for the people around you and supporting their work and sharing their art didn't have power, Jocelyn probably wouldn't have thought I was a bot for doing what occurred to me to be a pretty basic kindness. But all that isn't the norm. That's not happens on the internet, mostly. So when it does happen, it's magic.
I write down people's birthdays now.
I write down their kids' birthdays, and anniversaries, and holidays they care about, and make detailed notes about what they're working on. I'm not writing it down because it's a necessary part of my business, I'm not writing it down because I'm going to schedule a follow up and I need a strategy or something to say. I'm writing it down because I know that I can be forgetful and if it's not on paper it's probably not going to stay in my brain. And I've been on the receiving end of forgetful—it doesn't feel nice.
So that's one way I practice being giving. I don't remember the exact birthday of everyone's first-born child, but I do try. A happy birthday unprompted by Facebook. That novelty gift that might end up in the trash but only after rousing a big belly laugh or two. Being on call when someone's basement floods. When someone moves. When someone's having a bad day.
I know exactly who's going to get that second copy of Jocelyn's comic.
These are little things that cost me next to nothing.
It's an important reminder for when being giving looms like another minus item on the balances sheet. Yes, freelancers and self-proclaimed "aspiring" creatives can be giving too, and you can do it without breaking the bank. You can be giving when you're stressed financially or stuck in survival mode. I imagine being giving is probably the only thing that can pull us out of that downward spiral.
It's a little bit of living life by example, which is something I've always believed in doing but have never known how to apply to business... until now. I believe that small business owners and entrepreneurs should be paid fairly. I believe creatives should be compensated for their work. I'm not giving work away for free. But I'm definitely being giving.