Friday, February 26, 2010

The Generosity Factor

I love audiobooks, because I commute for about 2.5 hours a day and sit in front of a computer the remainder of the day, so they're a good background noise, and I can learn stuff. Big fan of the audiobooks.

Yesterday I listened to The Generosity Factor by Ken Blanchard & S. Truett Cathy (founder of Chik-fil-a), which detailed the role that generosity could play in leading a life of significance. While the narrative is a bit campy, as these sort of self-help books usually are when they try to go fictional (the primary goal isn't a good story, after all, but is instead to beat you over the head with their message), the book has some great insights. It is religious themed, but the main character balks at that somewhat and is still able to understand the importance of generosity, so the book's really aimed at everyone to some degree. It's a quick book - the audiobook took up just two disks - so anyone can fit this into their schedule.

So, the actual details of the book.

Ways to Give:
According to the book, there are four things that a person can give: Time, Treasure, Talent, and Touch.

While Time, Treasure, and Talent are fairly self-explanatory, let me take a moment to discuss Touch, which is the idea of literally a hands-on connection with those who are close to you. They don't get into this idea in much detail in the book, but one of the major characters wrestles with his "adopted grandkids" and this is the idea of touch. Hugs and that sort of thing, to the people you care about, as a means of showing that you care. It is true that people need touch with others to feel connected, and I know a lot of people who just don't touch people.

So touch people, already!

(With their permission, of course.)

(And not in pervy ways.)

(Or, at least, not in pervy ways without their permission ... but then you're going from generosity to a whole other emotional state. I need to get back on topic.)

Of the other possible ways to give, Time and Talent often seem linked to me (such as tutoring poor kids or adults), although I suppose there are many ways of giving Time which require no particular Talent (answering phones at a telethon). Answering questions on FreeRice.org is a nice way to give time, because it helps enhance your talent!

Comparisons and Contrasts
Ken Blanchard is a writer who specializes in books on business management, so the majority of his market are people who want to become successful in business. In fact, in a note at the end of the book, Blanchard points out that part of the reason it took him so long to write a book on generosity is that he had trouble figuring out how to translate the concept in a way that would seem relevant the modern day businessman.

He achieves this mainly through two distinct contrasts that he sets up in the book:

The first is: successful life vs. significant life

The second is: driven people vs. called people

So, for example, if you are driven and successful, the question that you should ask (according to Blanchard) is whether you are also called and significant. Are you truly doing the most significant work that you can, and the work that's in line with your fundamental nature? Are you just consumed with acquiring "things" or with building meaningful relationships?

While Blanchard means "called" in a religious sense, I would argue that a religious viewpoint isn't necessary to believe this way ... anyone can be called to serve their fellow men (and women), even if you believe that the calling comes from within instead of without. Also, being "called" instead of "driven" means that the work involved is more enjoyable. If you are driven to do something, it implies that you don't really have control. If you truly love doing it, then you don't have to be driven ... you just do it whenever you can. That is a calling.

No matter how we were designed (either intelligently or natural selection, or some combination of the two), we appear to be constructed in such a way that we want to reach out to others and have significant lives, so even without an active belief in God, it's natural that many people want the richer significant lives over just material success.

The Guidelines
Finally, Blanchard and Cathy offer up the following guidelines for how to live by "the generosity factor."
  • He owns it all.
  • Every day is an opportunity.
  • Action is required.
  • Remember your blessings.
  • Thank Him.
If you're paying attention, you may have noticed the secret message inside the above guidelines. (If not, then look at the first letter of each line.) Again, even without a religious viewpoint, these seem like useful guidelines to follow. Let's consider them one by one.

He owns it all
Even if you don't believe "He" exists, the fact is that everything you have is on loan from the abundance that exists within universe itself. It's in your hands for a while, but eventually you'll have to pass it along to someone else. Keeping this in mind helps keep a lot of things in perspective, I've found.

Every day is an opportunity
This is part of what this whole experiment is about - specifically trying to look for the opportunities to give in our daily lives. And, really, it is true that every day is an opportunity to make a new connection with someone else, to form a new relationship, and to move a little closer to the sort of person you want to be. Don't beat yourself up if yesterday didn't go so well, just take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves today. If you want to be a more generous person, then every day is indeed an opportunity to do that.

Action is required
This is where a lot of people trip up, because they have great ideals but then don't act on them. (I have this problem with exercise and eating right.) You have to really make the choice to act when the opportunity presents itself. Again, this is at the heart of this experiment.

Remember your blessings
Remember how I mentioned that everything you have will have to be passed on to someone else, and so in a sense is just on loan to you? Well, before it came to you, it had to come through someone else. So now it's in your hands, and it's important to remember that didn't have to be the case. And blessings are not, of course, just material things, but even more important are the blessings of relationships with others and caring for them.

The fact that my wife exists, and is such a wonderful woman and partner, are things that I had absolutely no control over. They are truly blessings, because I had no part in forging these factors. The fact that I had good parents, who helped form me into the person that I am (who didn't screw up the relationship before it started, for example), is also something that was beyond my control.

My first book, String Theory for Dummies, though I worked hard to write it, is also the result of many factors over which I had no control. Consider the many factors that went into just getting the offer in the first place (not to mention the writing of the book itself):

An agent contacted me, which only happened because a publisher was looking for a good science writer and I had shown that I was a good one on About.com. The publisher was looking for a good science writer because it was in business, successfully publishing books, and there was a market for science books. I only had the job at About.com Physics because someone (I don't even remember who) had happened to mention in an e-mail that they were looking for writers, I had a physics degree, and I had a good non-fiction writing sample available to send them with my application. I only had the good writing sample because I'd volunteered to write for EpicSFF.com in an effort to get some exposure and practice writing. I had the physics degree largely because of a lot of support from parents and teachers over the years.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not belittling an ounce of the work I put into the book, my work at About.com, my writing in general, or the work I put into getting my degree. But as the paragraph above demonstrates, there were many aspects of getting the offer on my first book which were entirely outside of my control.

Thank Him
Again, while the "Him" might not sit well with some people, the idea of being thankful hopefully sits well with everyone. There is actually ample evidence that being thankful is a good thing, independent of any religious perspective, and in fact I'll be covering this idea in the weeks to come in greater detail. Every culture and faith seems to manifest some sort of thanksgiving, so just from an evolutionary psychological standpoint it would appear to have some sort of tangible benefits. So, even if you're just talking to yourself, it's definitely good to be thankful for the things that you have in your life, because you certainly didn't do all of the work involved in bringing it into your life.