How To Survive In A Gift-Economy

Posted by Nipun Mehta on Jul 5, 2008
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At just about every gift-economy talk I deliver, a timid hand raises itself half way, followed by a sheepish "Can I ask you a personal question?" remark, and then the million dollar question -- "How do you pay your bills?"  For a generosity entrepreneur, it's a question that doesn't require an answer.  For the rest, it warrants a curious inquiry.

"How do you survive?"  Deep relationships, call it social capital.  "How do you build social capital?"  By giving unconditionally.  "Does what-goes-around really come-back-around?"  It does, for me.  "But what if it doesn't for me?"  You suffer for a bit and soon enough your patterns change.  "What do you get by doing this?"  To be in constant state of giving, while also receiving; you always feel connected.  "When you live off gifts, aren't you just externalizing the costs?"  To take just one breathe, we're killing beings; so I don't know how to exist materially without externalizing some cost.  "Do you know others who do this?"  Monks and nuns across all traditions have been doing this for decades.  "What does the world look like, when we're in a gift-economy?"  Consider indigenous cultures, anywhere in the world.

Coupled with stories and research, one can make a pretty compelling argument.  Yet, the CharityFocus innovation (if that's the word) has been to port this into an organizational paradigm.  So how can an organization (or a movement) be gift-economy?  I usually cite three requirements:

  • Service: be useful; find a way to deliver value (not the value you want to offer but what people want to receive).
  • Social Capital: you can't do this alone.  Sustain networks of people that support the values you stand for, by paying-forward what you receive, and sharing stories as an expression of gratitude.
  • Surrender: trust the mystery of self-organization; have a context for suffering (ie. answer to "why do bad things happen to good people?") and if you suffer/fail, use it to break new ground and adjust yourself and your offerings.

That's a bit of an over-simplification but a good starting point.

So why is this more relevant now than before?  Externally focused service has always been there, internally focused surrender has also been there, but what our modern-day networked economy offers is the ease of creating and sustaining a community.

In the past, only money-power-fame elites had access to broadcast channels to form groups around themes they cared for.  Now, we live in a era of long-tail themes, where simple collaboration tools make it super easy to create groups, and all for free since processing power, storage and bandwidth behave like free.  In today's world, anyone can stand up for an idea, be-the-change, share stories of the process, attract like-hearted people and create a collective voice to start a movement.  While this applies to any and all movements, it is particularly interesting for gift-economy infrastructures that are built solely on the strength of social capital.

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Comments (5)

  • rahul wrote ...

    Nipun, This post was very timely for me. In my own experiment with gift-economy, I'm learning that in order for it to truly work [cuz it only kinda works at the moment], I have to be constantly giving. This is where I falter. The habit of taking, or expecting still comes up. I catch myself drawing lines, demarcating some things as service-worthy & other work as unnecessary instead of taking each situation as an opportunity to serve. Underlying it all, two realities emerge clearly: I'm not yet at a point of wanting nothing and it truly is external meditation to hold attention firmly to the desire to serve. Something that would be helpful for me, and probably others, to hear stories about the journey of how you process or processed the impulse of wanting. Do you just watch that arise & pass, do you do the opposite, or something else entirely?

  • Nipun wrote ...

    Rahul, the journey of shifting reciprocity to sacred reciprocity is a crucial one, and I'm not sure there is a one-size-fits-all path to it.

    I have many personal anecdotes of how I have learned (and continue to learn) those lessons, but no theories. While those stories may provide inspiration to experiment, I sense that balance between suppression, expression and observation has to be rooted in experience.

    So, stories? One of these days when I get a chance to do a writing retreat. :)

  • preethi wrote ...

    i would really appreciate if you can put few of your stories here.For a long time I have been trying to live a life with inner motivation rather than external force from the world.

  • Dan wrote ...

    I'm proud to call Rahul a friend, and I admire what he's doing. In order to keep doing what he's doing he just got a job that is consistent with what he's doing. So how does that bear on the topic of the gift-economy?

    I on the other hand am doing ten different things all oriented in one way or another to public health issues in both developed and developing countries, and I find it hard to keep expenses paid, much less have adequate reserve for, for instance, project travel, or emergencies. I can say that I am not deeply enough engaged in deep social relationships, such that there is critical social mass to support me and my daughter. So what to do? Just this morning I received a call about a child abuse situation that took 90 minutes that I had planned to use for another activity. I never questioned the importance of the need, nor the giving of myself to help put the caller on a strong legal foundation to help the child, but in the short term it reduced my ability to pay the bills, not enhanced it. So there's a tension there, and I don't frankly know how to resolve it. Perhaps there isn't even a logical way to resolve it, and I'm simply not seeing some nonlinear solution to the dilemma?

  • rahul wrote ...

    Dan, Thanks for your comment and for stepping into the conversation. I usually don't end up sharing my own stories, so this gives me a chance to do that while deepening and clarifying. First, let me say that I did NOT get the job at USC. Mostly because they are on a hiring freeze til May 2009, if not later. Still might be working with them on something else, but like most other things in my life, my contributions will be a gift to them. Next, I have to confess that I don't have any answers and can only share my own experiences for what that's worth. I hope that you'll challenge that experience with your own experiment and let me know how it goes :-) Ideas and their possibilities are energizing for me. There's a kind of rush that comes from having a new idea, to the point where [...] See full comment.
    Dan,

    Thanks for your comment and for stepping into the conversation. I usually don't end up sharing my own stories, so this gives me a chance to do that while deepening and clarifying.

    First, let me say that I did NOT get the job at USC. Mostly because they are on a hiring freeze til May 2009, if not later. Still might be working with them on something else, but like most other things in my life, my contributions will be a gift to them.

    Next, I have to confess that I don't have any answers and can only share my own experiences for what that's worth. I hope that you'll challenge that experience with your own experiment and let me know how it goes :-)

    Ideas and their possibilities are energizing for me. There's a kind of rush that comes from having a new idea, to the point where I would say that this is an addictive pattern that I've observed in myself. As much as I might pretend that I'm about answering and solving important questions, the truth is that I'm more like junkie who gets high on dreaming up something and tossing in my two cents. I chase those ideas down a good bit, but the truth is that the fun is already over and the pursuit is more about maintaining the personal illusion that I'm more than the junkie. That might be a noble way to 'shoot up', but like any addiction, it self-escalates and is disastrous on a personal level. Attention is much more like a ripe plum than an apple: when you divide it, you're left with a wet mess that you can't put back together again.

    So what's my answer? Follow one idea in many ways.

    There's a big difference between doing ten things and doing one thing in ten ways. The former is the cut ripe plum whose juices might feed lots of little 'ants' and 'bacteria' but the latter is more than a cut apple. There's a sort of constructive self-interference that amplifies and multiplies the apple so that its either a bigger apple, or that there are more apples. In fact, both choices have their own multiplication but in radically different directions.

    Tuesday night while I was editing one of many overdue videos, a friend called in the midst of a personal crisis and was sobbing on the phone. I dropped everything, went over with a four course meal, and spent the next 3 hours sharing what physical and experiential food I could to restore balance. On the drive back, I was reflecting on how it was pretty incredible to have been called: everything I said deepened something for myself and gave me a new perspective on an unrelated issues in my own life. Truth is that I helped myself much more than her (despite long email the next day professing otherwise), but I had to fully accept and own that act without thinking that it was taking me away from what "I'm about". It was just another manifestation of the same thing I try to do with my videos.

    Wednesday I was invited to speak to a group of kids in an afterschool program. It would be easy to brush that off as not worth my time, and not even relevant to what I try to do with it, but I trusted that the invitation could not have happened without a reason. What was supposed to be 15 minutes of talk and 15 minutes of videos turned into 3 hours (and it was a 30 minute drive both ways to get there!). On the drive back, I realized that I had not eaten a meal all day, and it was 6pm. When I thought about where all my time went, all I could think of was the 7-year-old girl who raised her hand and said, "I want to make world peace," and then the huge smile on her face when I told her that she could, and it started with being peaceful herself. As I expanded on that thought, her smile got bigger and the rest of the kids around the room were nodding their heads. The program coordinator called her regional supervisor during my time with the kids, and the supervisor turned up to listen. By the time I checked email later that night, there was a note in my inbox from the coordinator talking about how she have never seen their kids so attentive and engaged, nor had the supervisor across all of their programs and several years of experience. They apparently come from 'troubled houses' but all I saw were little angels. They're now working on a peace mural that will apparently end up in Egypt!

    And it goes on and on... Everyday is like this. I just need to work on having the eyes to see the truth. And that involves getting myself-- my habits, addictions, patterns, and many-hued-glasses out of the way.

    None of these things 'pay the bills'. Then again, I have so few bills. I sleep on the living room floor of a relatives house. Until a few weeks ago, my daily wardrobe had 5 t-shirts in it, and 4 of them were identical t-shirts that I won from a contest in 2007! The biggest recurring expense is gasoline, so I ride my bike anywhere that is 10 miles or less away. There are some hardships that come with living this way, but the burdens of my previous monied life felt heavier. Everyone has to find their own equilibrium point.

    But more importantly, what do you think would have happened if the friend who I visited Tuesday night knew that I didn't have a bite to eat for most of Wednesday? I'd be willing to bet that the parents of any of those kids Wednesday night might also be willing to take me out to dinner after seeing their so-called 'troubled children', even though the children were teaching me that 'man does not live by bread alone'.

    I bought the wedding ring I'll give my soon-to-be wife last Saturday, wondering how I would cover that when the diamond itself was listed at $2000 (even though I would have gotten her the $10K diamond in another lifetime), but on Monday I found out that I'll be getting $2460 for something I did months ago and never saw a cent from. I had no idea that money would come from there, but I suspected it would come from somewhere.

    Can I go on like this indefinitely? I don't know. Will things change after I'm married? Probably. No, definitely. Do I always get what I want? No, but there was a long period in my life where I got exactly what I wanted almost all the time, and while that's fun for a little while, its kind of boring and empty after that.

    What I know for certain though, is that my attitude and my deepest intention count the most in whatever I do. If I don't serve from a space of gratefulness, the service doesn't turn out to help me or anyone else. And I can't give other people something I don't have myself. So if the core of what I'm trying to do is to spread inspiration, peace, and happiness, I have to commit to finding and deepening those things in myself first.

    I'm the only project I'm working on, under the guise of a kaleidoscope of external activity. Hide full comment.