Last year at this time I went home to see my Dad, who was feeling unwell. At home, I saw there on the bookshelf a really horrible painting I gave my Mom as a Christmas gift when I was in second grade. I used to give my Mom all sorts of amateurish projects I had made: paper mâché animals, cardboard picture frames, woodworking projects, and terrible paintings I hacked my way through.
There’s still a painting supposed to be a Mona Lisa replica hanging on the wall at home that looks less like Mona Lisa and more like Moby Dick. Bodily proportions were never my thing in art class. Perhaps some of you did similar things when you were younger. As I got older and really started to make my own money when I was in high school, I thought the proper thing to do was to spend more money on the gifts I gave to my Mom. After all, Mom and Dad were getting me gifts that were more expensive than the ones I was giving them. Soccer balls and computer games cost more at the store than cardboard cut-outs. So isn’t that what adults do: give each other ‘real’ gifts, rather than the homemade ones I was creating?
I went out and bought her some expensive this or that. My sister, too. I thought it was necessarily better if I spent $90 on blue jeans for her, rather than to get her the $25 ones she wanted. (If you want a quick and funny story that displays not only my lack of awareness of suitable gift-giving but also fashion sense, next time you see my sister, ask her about the blue jeans I bought for her when we were kids. You’ll be in for a laugh). I didn’t appreciate at all that the gift itself, while worth something of course, wasn’t the true purpose behind gift-giving. Likely, we all realize now as adults it's the demonstration of thoughtfulness for another person. What the gift really means to the other person. The simple act of thinking of another can be so much more magical and long-lasting than a Playstation, a necklace, or a new jumper.
The holiday season is upon us. Wherever you go in Shanghai, it feels impossible to escape the wreaths tied with bows, the iridescent shimmering snowflakes, and the general feeling of holiday spirit. Of course, the general ‘holiday season’ if largely co-opted by signifiers of Christmas because it’s a commercial bonanza. And yet, the underlying feeling of giving gifts, spending time with loved ones, and enjoying great meals does seem to transcend even the most capitalist of values.
Being in China and surrounded by such a multi-cultural team, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a tradition that is sacred in many cultures is that of gift-giving. Each culture or country also has their own idiosyncrasies around the gift-giving process. In China, to be modest and polite, you often refuse a gift two or three times before finally accepting it. In Japan and China, giving white gifts is taboo, as they signify death. In the U.S., we often open the gift right away in front of the other person to demonstrate our gratitude and thanks for it. Other places, that’s considered rude. In France, I’m told that giving a piece of art, writing, or music that is mainstream is considered poor form - any gift of ‘culture’ should only be one of a high-brow nature! There’s probably an entire book (or several) written about gift-giving culture. Clearly, we all take gift-giving seriously enough to make it something to have traditions about.
We can look at gift-giving as scrupulously as we wish, but the general idea is the same across cultures: giving gifts represents building a relationship. In some instances it is about thanks and gratitude, in others about recognition, in others about preemptively creating a positive connection between two parties who know each other less well. If the differences in gift-giving culture tell me anything, it is that gift-giving is more about the people involved and their beliefs and traditions and less about the gift itself. After all, the same gift delivered from person A to person B can mean an entirely different thing than from person C to person D. It’s not rocket science, but it did take me a few years to learn this as I’ve grown up.
Back to my Mom’s 'art collection.' She has a bonafide gallery of these horrible picture frames, colorblind paintings, and barely recognizable creatures, all scribbled or scrawled with my autograph somewhere on them (as true artists do, after all). I was clueless at the time when I made them how much they would mean to her. The thought that she’s held on to those 20+ years later blows my mind. “Why would anyone do such a thing? How can a small gift actually mean that much?” I thought, as I fell asleep while back home last year.
The next morning when I woke up, I looked around my childhood bedroom. All I could see, in every corner of the room, were gifts that others had given me. Nothing particularly fancy, mind you, but gifts all the same. Books on my bookshelf, courtesy of Mom and Dad. Sherlock Holmes radio program shows on cassette tape that Grammy and Granddad gave me. Grandma Nona’s birthday gift one year of new Vic Firth drumsticks, now splintered towards the tips. My high school and college diplomas, which were in essence both gifts from my grandparents as well. A New Jersey Devils jersey from Uncle John and Aunt Meg, hanging proudly on the wall. A picture frame from my five closest friends in high school. A framed letter from my camp counselor. A bookshelf from my godfather, littered with trophies from youth sporting events given to me from coaches. A two-volume encyclopedia from my godmother. A sign given to me from a friend to commemorate our failed boat-cleaning business one summer in high school. On an on. The physical objects conjured up in my memory countless other acts of kindness each of those other people had shown me. The items on the bookshelf were only the tip of the iceberg.
It’s amazing how these memories and people would stay in my heart and on my bookshelf, even 20 years later.
There was nothing in that room worth more than one hundred dollars. Maybe nothing even worth even fifty bucks. And yet everything felt so valuable to me. Even asked now, “If the house was burning and you could only take one item with you, what would it be?” I have no clue what the answer would be. All of those small gifts matter so much to me, even though I haven’t ‘used’ them in decades. The gifts themselves might only serve as tokens of a relationship. But ‘Wow!’ - how valuable those tokens are to me, even if worth nothing to someone else. I recognize the good fortune I’ve had in life to have the support from family and others for these gifts.
Those gifts have made a lasting impression on me. I cannot claim is the ‘right way’ to go about living is to think in terms of defaulting to generosity, but it’s only a mindset that I feel has proven healthy for me thus far. I know others who have grown up in different environments - maybe those less stable, secure, or supportive - may have vastly different attitudes. I can only share my experience and mindset because it’s the only one I’ve actually lived.
I’m a big believer in the ‘Give. Give. Get.’ mindset. Here’s what it means to me:
Give people the benefit of the doubt.
Deliver more than 51% of the value in any relationship.
Leave some money on the table.
Cheer for people’s better angels.
Trust more than is obvious.
Give more than you expect in return.
I have definitely received some pretty scathing retorts when I’ve sought to explain this mindset to others in the past. The classic responses/questions I’ll get are, “How can you give someone equity in the business without them investing in it?” Or “How can you really trust people to make decisions like that without having them work with you for at least a few years?” Or “Did you really let a random friend of a friend stay in your apartment? You don’t even know them!” Or “How can you ever trust them again if they’ve failed you once?”
My response is pretty much always the same, paraphrasing in some form Dr. King’s breathtaking aphorism, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
I’m okay being patient on this one. I’m in no rush 'to get mine.' When I’m on my death bed fifty years from now, I’ll know I did as well as I could by other people. I’ll know the number of people who looked back on their interactions with me feeling I did well by them will dramatically outnumber those who look on their interactions with me and felt like they got the short end of the stick. And I think that’s a pretty darn good way to measure if the world was a better place for your existence or not.
I can’t really think of an alternative way to go through life, to be honest. Defaulting to trust and you will definitely get ‘burned’ some of the time. It’s true. It’s unavoidable, actually. But to go through life doubting people by default and not giving them the trust required to develop a relationship sounds wildly depressing to me. It reminds me of the old New Yorker cartoon where there are two people sitting at a desk, one has the name card of CEO and other CFO. CFO says to CEO, “What if we spend all of this money and time developing people and they leave?” The CEO responds, “What if we don’t and they stay?”
Defaulting to distrust and then trying to form an honest and long-lasting relationship with someone else must be exhausting. Remaining on edge, on guard, and on tilt at every moment in engaging with another person is something that must be intensely emotionally draining. Perhaps I just don’t have sharp enough elbows for that type of life. But I’m okay with that. I can see the other side and the benefits of protecting downside risk by never letting people get close. I just choose to operate with a different mindset that focuses on giving more than is expected in return. Give. Give. Get.
I share this ramble with you to make a simple request: as this holiday season approaches, don’t hold your spirit back. Give like you want to. Give like you would even if you knew the other person wouldn’t reciprocate. In some cases they won’t! And in my opinion, I don’t think it should bother you. This doesn’t mean expensive things. This doesn’t even mean time-intensive things. All it takes is to share your feelings and openness and gratitude for those in your life.
You never know how long your generosity will stay in someone’s heart, or on someone’s bookshelf, even 20 years later.