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How to create a Culture of Giving PDF Print E-mail
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Kad je dosadno - Ekonomija poklanjanja
Written by Aaron Baldassare   
Tuesday, 06 March 2012

Aaron Baldassare: How to create a Culture of Giving.

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This article is licensed under the Creative Commons


That sounds nice, doesn't it? I would like to join a culture of giving. The first thing I think of is all the free stuff I would get, and then I check myself. It doesn't work that way. I have to work hard and earn it. Wait, actually it doesn't work that way either, as I discovered a few months into a stay in Ecuador.


Supplanting myself from the US to Ecuador gave me a taste of a giving culture. Ecuadoreans pride themselves in their generosity to strangers. (It is strange how universal this value is outside of America). At first, plugging into a giving culture really was like getting things for free. But then I ran into problems.

 

 

Aaron Baldassare: How to create a Culture of Giving.


That sounds nice, doesn't it? I would like to join a culture of giving. The first thing I think of is all the free stuff I would get, and then I check myself. It doesn't work that way. I have to work hard and earn it. Wait, actually it doesn't work that way either, as I discovered a few months into a stay in Ecuador.


Supplanting myself from the US to Ecuador gave me a taste of a giving culture. Ecuadoreans pride themselves in their generosity to strangers. (It is strange how universal this value is outside of America). At first, plugging into a giving culture really was like getting things for free. But then I ran into problems.


A sense of indebtedness grew in me, which itself is natural. However, the cultural tension stemmed from how I tried to deal with this feeling. I tried to repay in kind, but my hosts seemed offended. It would erase their generous deed to accept any repayment. So, not understanding what to do, my shame grew and increased the difficulty. My generous hosts expected enthusiastic warmth, gratitude and a sense that I would pay it forward. Instead, I subconsciously resisted their gifts, not wishing to become indebted any further. I would smile and say thank you, but I think they could sense the tension. Eventually, I developed a reputation as cold and uncharitable. The giving relaxed a bit. Also, I ceased to be much of a stranger any more.


My friend Danilo asked me if all Americans were this way. I said "yes, to an extent, but I am this way especially." I was humiliated.


I'm not saying that any culture is better than another, but I am saying that some cultural values are more effective in achieving their intended effect. Note that humans promote generosity universally because it efficiently facilitates exchange and individual well-being by way of social cohesion. In the end, we are generous because we want a better life. And we remain generous because it works.


Something is broken in many of the subcultures I know: families, the workplace, government, communities, friends and business partners. However, in many of the American subcultures I would most like to be a part of, much like the Ecuadorean culture, they all have a culture of generosity in common. This cultural value helps to explain the wealth I experienced in a country in which the average yearly income is $3300 (The median income is less) and why it seemed clear to me that the average Ecuadorean feels richer than the average American does, (and does not believe it. They cannot imagine being dissatisfied with so much wealth). Ecuadoreans get a LOT of vacation time and many have a hired cook in the household.


Who of us wouldn't love to be part of a culture that incorporates a good old-fashioned barn raising? (I once quipped that I suspected the Amish of occasionally burning down a barn to have an excuse for another barn raising. "We haven't had a barn raising in a while…")


So I have been examining my generosity values, I have made a few tweaks to them and I am very pleased with the results. I am enabled to experience greater stability and more positive experiences despite having less money. Still, I have quite a ways to go. I am good at genuinely experiencing gratitude, but I am still poor at asking for help or expressing my enthusiasm. Whatever small improvements I have made, however, have had disproportionately positive results.


The science of generosity


Generosity is a form of alchemy. It enables you to get more than you put in.


Yet there is a danger here. The danger is what brought down most every hippie commune in the 60's: idealism. No doubt a culture of generosity smells of utopian idealism, and it should. It seems too good to be true, but it isn't. It is just good and true. However, the only way to know that is to study the past, not merely imagine the future and assume it will conform to our hopes.


For the love of everything holy, proceed with sober judgment, so you are not tempted to form a society based on good feelings, dance naked around a fire, take LSD and then get cynical and bitter when it doesn't work out. Instead, let's figure out what really works and roll with it.


The desire to give, to contribute, and to be significant is hardwired, yet we often don't know how to deal with it. Human society is a complex, fragile, beautiful thing, and like all such things it warrants a lot of care.


In general, people in America want to contribute more than others are willing to ask of them. Yet we squander the aid available to us by making demands on others instead of asking their help, by setting up minimum requirements instead of inspiring people to self-actualize, by attaching monetary penalties for noncompliance instead of letting natural consequence speak for itself. This is a very poorly designed ecology of motivation. (I actually doubt there is any design to it whatsoever).


Now, let's discuss how we make this happen, because I am determined to make this happen.


Pitfalls


When it comes to a gift economy, there is a way to idealize it, there is a way that I secretly hope it works, and then there is the way it actually works. I intend to discuss the latter.


There are catches to a giving culture, aka "gift economy." A giving culture isn't free, nor easy, but it has a big payout. Every giving culture must adhere to the natural conditions of generosity, which are less obvious and accessible than anarchy, for example.


It may be pointed out here that one of the demands of generosity is "no demands," which seems contradictory. However, the guideline in this case is that no individual make any condition for generosity, and that rule is consistent. A system of generosity requires this behavior in order to work, in the same way as a bicycle demands pedaling in order to work. My goal here, then, is not to make up rules, but to define the conditions that naturally enable generosity to flourish.


The first catch is there is naturally a power imbalance involved in generosity. The giver asserts some power and the receiver submits. The only way for generosity to be sustainable is for both sides to be cool with this arrangement, which requires an ongoing relationship. At some point, the receiver must be allowed to become the giver, the giver must submit, or resentment and power struggles ensue.


This is quite different from the utopian ideal of the gift economy (give to everyone according to need), but in this case, the utopian ideal doesn't work. To some degree, help and resources are exchanged for status and recognition. We all long for status and recognition more than resources, and the trick of it is that generosity often entails accepting help graciously and supplying the giver status and respect. This is where most Americans fail, because we are rich in goods but poor in perceived status. So it is not that we are unwilling to give that is the problem; it is that we are unwilling to receive. It's a pride thing; we already feel too low in status to take a submissive role. Fortunately, a gift of status is free. You strengthen the other without weakening yourself. When generosity is done right, both sides win and the relationship is strengthened. So get over the pride thing.


Another catch. One big glitch in humanity is that we routinely tend to underestimate how good giving feels and overestimate how good indulgence feels. In the end, we tend to regret not giving more and eating too much. Therefore, it is wise to condition a learned response: give often, savor the flavor, and anticipate the pleasure of giving the next time. (Also, as a bonus, learn to associate the sick feeling of overeating with the rich food that caused it).


Another big catch is that a culture of generosity is very difficult to scale. The more people in the culture, the more precarious the system, i.e. the smaller the percentage of "bad apples" that can ruin the barrel.


Therefore, the best way to benefit from a giving culture is to join a small one and play by its rules. You have no chance to transform U.S. culture, but in a small group, especially within the relationships you already have, you have a fighting chance to make waves. Then start by giving as much as you can and receiving everything that is offered with sincere thanks. See the guidelines below to maximize success.


Think of your mini-culture as a pilot program. If it works better than the status quo, people will want to replicate your example. That is the only way the world is changed, from the inside out.


This is my plan, anyway. I hope to integrate it with a weekly mastermind, or Ben Franklin-esque Junto. (I will explain all of this later).


A framework for Generosity Movements


The key to sustaining a giving culture is to make sure everyone feels ingratiated to one another rather than indentured. Feelings are paramount here. The quantities of two exchanges, and the participants, can be identical, but depending on the attitudes of the giver and receiver, both can be impoverished in one case and both can be enriched in the other. There is a big difference between coercing $20 from a friend and receiving $20 as a gift from a friend.


Under certain circumstances everyone can feel as if they are getting a raw deal, or everyone can feel they are getting the better end of the deal (accountants may cringe at these evaluations, which is why they have an account for "goodwill" on the ledger).


In romantic relationships, it is common for both partners to feel they are getting more than they give, inspiring each to give more, escalating the exchange and strengthening the bond. (Oxytocin and Dopamine help this process along). This is a virtuous cycle.


On the other side, it is common in corporate culture for everyone to feel they are doing more than their fair share, to feel resentment, and to reduce input in order to restore a perceived equity. The problem is that when everyone does that, the system is demotivating and ultimately stagnates, a vicious cycle.


The 3 commandments


Generosity requires three behavioral restrictions, the absence of which naturally erodes the virtuous escalation of mutually beneficial exchange. They are:


No expectations. No entitlements. No demands.


Expectations are particularly damaging from the giving end. People are sensitive to giving with strings attached. It inspires resentment in the receiver and all the gifts are wasted. The only way to get around this is to genuinely like, even love, the recipient and to give out of a sincere desire for that person's happiness. This simultaneously increases your happiness while increasing the likelihood that the other will feel inspired to reciprocate. Just don't count on it.


It is imperative not to expect anything in return for two very good reasons: First, you will inspire an indentured reaction, rather than an ingratiated reaction, and you will receive resentment instead of reciprocation. Secondly, you may not get anything in return. It is wise not to ruin the natural giving high with indignation at a response you have no control over.


Entitlements are expectations, except from the receiving end. If you feel you deserve everything, you are incapable of feeling grateful for anything, and the impetus for generosity is neutralized. Fail.


Demands are conditions. "If you do what I want, you will get a treat." This, however, deactivates conditions of generosity and instead invokes values of fairness. Would you rather receive a generous sum or a fair sum? Think about that. By demanding a fair payment instead of asking for help, you can forfeit the larger sum the other person wanted to give to you until you made it clear that the nature of your relationship is strictly professional. (I've done this a hundred times, to my detriment).


Even demands of gratitude inspire resentment and decrease the likelihood of genuine gratitude.


With conditions, generosity isn't generosity. It is an up-front payment.


Fan the Flame


With the necessary preconditions for generosity in place, there are various ways to fan the flame.


Give out of desire and enjoy the natural high of giving.


Give what others want. Scraps don't count, nor do "dead bird" gifts (something you mistakenly think the other person wants because you want it, like a cat that gives you a dead bird).


Appreciate gifts to your fullest capacity, even scraps and dead birds.


Ask for help when you need it, but make it easy to say no. Generosity is more difficult if no one asks for it.


No is an okay response. Likewise do not be frustrated with a no answer. This liberates you to ask without worrying that the other will feel obligated, which is handy.


When asking for something, give the other an easy out. That is just classy.


Keep open communication about the roles each member takes in the community. Celebrate contribution, and silently pity greediness.


Play up your cute, fuzzy likeable traits. I struggled with thinking this is unmanly. If so, being manly is expensive. Besides, women LOVE cute, fuzzy and likeable. Everyone generous does.


Discipline is imperative. However, punishment does not work. Generosity does not thrive on hypocrisy, and punishment is inherently ungenerous. Besides, it is not very effective. Instead, inspire others, lead by example and reinforcement. Generosity has real benefits, so it is self-reinforcing. The best you can do is to demonstrate this reality by example. Shine the light, so to speak.


Why generosity?


Generosity is often confused with martyrdom, though they are near opposites, and this indiscretion cripples our abilities to realize the natural benefits of generosity. While generosity requires some degree of selflessness, at the same time it abhors affliction, self-imposed or otherwise. Nobody should be getting hurt by it. That's the point.


Generosity enables me to appreciate the gift of life. Since I did not ask for life, nor did I earn it, I do well to accept it, enjoy it, and give it to others when done with it.


Self-sufficiency = poverty – Matt Ridley, scientist and author.


So how do you think my plan will play out? Are there any other pitfalls to avoid? Guidelines to add?

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