Is Priceless Pricing About Cost Or Relationship?
--Colin Johnson
12 minute read
Nov 25, 2020


Is "Priceless Pricing" about Cost or Relationship?

In Brief Recap

We just finished the first two week Priceless Pricing Pod. I felt moved to share some of the thoughts that this experience has triggered. The format of the pod was as follows. Each of over forty participants received a prompt every other day that involves learning, practice and sharing a written reflection. The following day, we read the reflections of everyone else. Then the two-day cycle repeated with a different prompt. There is a kick-off call at the beginning of the first week. We met again on a call over the weekend half-way through. We met one last time on the third Sunday for a wrap-up call.

ServiceSpace hosted this mini-pod on the topic of Priceless Pricing in rapid response to strong interest that emerged from the community in these last six months. We held three simultaneous Laddership Circles in the spring. Discussions in those circles led to a couple breakout calls on Priceless Pricing. We had another virtually impromptu call in September that garnered attendance from over 100 people with only a couple day’s notice. And now, this two-week session is over forty strong. I recount all this because it suggests that the topic resonates deeply with many of us.

What’s Calling?

What is going on? What nerve has this topic hit to bring so many of us running at a moment’s notice?

We are drawn to ServiceSpace for myriad reasons, but likely all agree on the fundamental premise that service brings greater richness and maybe even fulfillment to our lives. There are many reasons that service has such power to nurture us. One contributor might be an emptiness that we share. We yearn to connect more deeply and authentically with each other. There are nutrients to our energetic being that the soil of our daily lives fails to supply. Service brings us some of these nutrients. But why is the soil so depleted in the first place?

The History of Money

To posit an explanation, please indulge me as I play the role of revisionist historian.

When we talk about money, we commonly harken back to a romantic notion of human existence within a tribe, where each member contributes to the needs of the whole, and is supplied by the whole in all that the individual needs. The brave hunts a deer, and does not consume the entire animal himself. He brings it back to his tribe, and shares the spoils with everyone. When he needs medical assistance, the Shaman heals him. Others supply him with whatever other needs he may have. The tribal unit is a collective.

We can appreciate the merits of having the deep interpersonal ties that we imagine an indigenous community like the one just described must have. We can’t imagine how anyone could maintain such deep relational ties to more than a finite number of individuals. I believe it was Malcolm Gladwell from whom I learned the statistic that before the advent of social media, most people could maintain productive relationships with up to about 200 people. (Many of us would argue that our social media relationships are not the type of relationships we’re talking about here.)

Yet humanity began to appreciate that interacting with larger numbers of people could bring benefits. Bartering for goods and services requires time, attention, and serendipity. The system works only if you happen to need right now what I happen to offer. To grossly abbreviate the evolution, money was born as an agreement among people to be a medium of exchange. Once we all agreed upon the relative worth of a unit of money, we could buy and sell goods and services with much less friction. Economic activity and prosperity increased. Even now there is a constant debate on how to keep money flowing through our system so that economic activity does not slow for lack of this medium of exchange. Experiments that succeed to keep money flowing within a community show that economic prosperity outpaces the economic activity in communities where money accumulates in the hands of a few and ceases to flow. (Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics goes into great depth on this point, so please refer to that for more information.)

Coordinating the Efforts of Billions

What is most amazing is that we’ve managed to mobilize many of the 7.6 billion members of the human race through the ideology of capitalism, and coordinate our efforts.

Now I benefit from the labors of countless other humans with whom I have no relationship. I drive in cars built by people I’ve never met, using fuel extracted and refined by people I’ve never met, on roads built by people I’ve never met, etcetera. Virtually every aspect of my life is shaped by the labors of countless millions I’ve never met and with whom I have no relationship.

Relationship Lost

To take this a step further, we’ve idolized money for its superb ability to strip away the encumbrances of relationship. As an example, Milton Friedman is not the only proponent of this view, but his Friedman Doctrine (otherwise known as the Shareholder Theory) states that a firm’s sole responsibility is shareholder return. In essence, the company is obligated to do only those things that deliver the highest, short-term financial return to the holders of the company’s stock. By implication, the company has no responsibility to its employees, its community, the planet or anything else. This has become a prevailing ethos of our current economic systems, and explains why managers so frequently trample upon that which feeds the human spirit in pursuit of the all-mighty dollar. (Thankfully this view is under scrutiny and getting overturned by views that promote more wholistic outlooks such as those that birthed socially responsible business structures like B-Corporations and more.)

This is the water in which we swim. This view is so pervasive within society that we cannot even recognize that it exists. I don’t think this is a grand conspiracy. I believe it is simply the natural evolution of a process that was not aware of what it was losing as it became increasingly efficient and simplified.

The Paradox
Herein lies the essential paradox. The very thing that brings us bounty, is also the very thing that starves us of essential nutrients.

Money allows one to exist devoid of relationships. When we think of the adage, “money is the root of all evil,” the “evil” often has its root in the weakness or absence of relationships.


Those of us aware enough to recognize our malnourishment are yearning to find sources of the essential nutrients that we lack. Service feeds us, but we recognize that there is something else at work that still leaches those nutrients back out of our beings.

Those of us in this Priceless Pricing Pod see that money is a culprit, but we’re not sure how to deal with the paradox of its central role in our world.

One undercurrent of the conversations and shares in this pod has been that Priceless Pricing helps us bring back greater relationship to our lives. It has the potential to return nutrients to our being. We are in the pod to explore how we accomplish this in our individual circumstances.

Different Places on the Continuum

Each of us stands at a slightly different place on the continuum.

Some of us have known in our bones that something was wrong in our world, but could not articulate what. The sangha of this forum validates that we are not the only ones to suspect that there is “something rotten in the Kingdom of Denmark” as Hamlet so famously observed. For some, this realization alone brings an energetic release. It is a “coming home” of sorts.

Some of us have recognized the paradox for some time already, but have struggled to figure out a practical implementation in our own circumstances. There are many messages that swirl around on this topic, and some of those messages are conflicting. This issue is, by its very definition, a paradox. It is appropriate that the messages are not all in agreement.

The Pace of our Conditions

I love Audrey Lin’s timeless quote that, “We cannot outrun the pace of our conditions.” For those of us exploring these questions within the ServiceSpace ecosystem, we hear frequent aspirations of gift economy. ServiceSpace itself is a creative expression of these principles. Many others of us in the ecosystem are practicing pure giftivism, and are delighted to be in reciprocity with the tangible and intangible bounty of all types of capital that emerge.

We see its power at work before us in this and other organizations, and we want to emulate it. We suspect that pure giftivism is how we should start. And yet, especially at the outset of our Priceless Pricing Project (PPP), how do we serve the other obligations in our lives?

Downsizing is one way to accommodate a reduced or arrested income. But are we prepared to leave our homes, deny food and shelter to our families, foreclose our debts, and assume a monastic existence? Some of us dive in with radical trust and surrender to accept the possibility of these outcomes and experience what emerges. That might be a hard pill for the rest of us to swallow, and feels like this too could be a misinterpretation.

My Eureka Realization - A Subtle Reframing

This leads me to my crowning realization from the Priceless Pricing Pod. I have been holding the wrong calling question as I’ve considered Priceless Pricing over the last couple years. I had been asking myself, “How do I live in the gift? How do I not charge for my product and service?”

The slightly reframed calling question that now feels more authentic and appropriate to my current circumstances is, “How do I bring greater relationship into my life? How do I re-imbue money with the relationship richness that our economic and capitalistic evolution so efficiently stripped out?”

This reframing gives me new dimensions of freedom to play with. I now recognize that I don’t need to commit myself to an “all or nothing” dependence on the gift.

Is the Soil Ready?

There is also the question of what is happening for the would-be recipient of our gifts.

Most people in my world don’t know what to do with a gift. Many at the outset of such an offer are afraid of the ancillary obligations that a “gift” might carry with it. “Is it a Trojan horse?” they might ask. For many of our contexts given where we are in the world, there is much soil we must still cultivate for the seeds of giftivism to take root at a level that could sustain us. Declaring that we must “live in the gift” might be too fast too soon.

As Vasco Gaspar pointed out on our call on November 8th, offering one’s services to a company as a gift might be seen as “foisting your problems on the client.” A company is not set up to receive a gift. In fact, there is nothing in the conventional accounting systems of a company that can accommodate a gift.

Vasco pointed out how important it is in the structure of the DeepU program to introduce the participants to the context of “paying it forward.” In one of the earlier calls this spring, Parag Shah observed that his experiments with Priceless Pricing were most successful when the interaction allowed person-to-person love to grow. Priceless Pricing for school tuition might work because the family builds a relationship with the school. It worked less well for a book sale where abrupt transactions allowed little relationship to be cultivated, and love could not take root.

Sustaining Ourselves
There is the question of how we sustain ourselves as we experiment with Priceless Pricing.

Jane Murray spoke so eloquently about this very point on our second-weekend call. She advised that anyone considering Priceless Pricing take a sober look at the conditions in one’s life, and resist the siren call of “magical thinking.” She offered that, "Rather than taking the plunge, and assuming that the Universe will rise up to sustain you and your good works, be realistic about securing standard income sources to sustain yourself so that you do not fall into scarcity thinking, and undermine the very purpose you are trying to achieve."

The point is to open ourselves up to the magic of that comes when giving without expectation of return. The relationships that blossom in the response to the disposition of giving is one of the fundamental missing nutrients of our soil. Feeding our beings with this richness supplements and replenishes what relationship-less money has leached from our bones.

Vasco Gaspar also had a means of sustaining himself that was independent of what happened with his launch and perpetuation of DeepU. This gave him the freedom to be present to and able to observe what was working and not working about his early experiments with Priceless Pricing.

Elizabeth Gilbert speaks of this phenomenon in her book on living a creative life, Big Magic. She tells of her career as a writer. She knew that she would be a writer, and she wrote because she had to write. The pitfall that she avoided that so many others have fallen into is that she refused to burden her writing with the expectation that it had to sustain her. She did not write because she wanted to make a living. (For most, that is a very bad career move.) She made a living because she had to write. She took odd jobs. She waited tables and tended bar. She carved out time in her day to do what she loved, and she protected writing by earning her daily meals elsewhere.

Then, as fortune would have it, her forth book, Eat, Pray, Love received critical acclaim, and her passion of writing for the first time in her life became a force strong enough to sustain her. I found her notion of “protecting” her passion by finding a different way of earning a living to be an eye-opener.

Gilbert’s example is germane to how we approach our passion for reclaiming relationship in our lives. We protect our passion for building relationship through unencumbered service and giving by having a frank discussion with ourselves. We require a way to meet our conditions and provide for ourselves. Maybe we choose livelihoods that grant us greater flexibility so that we have the space to be of service and give in ways that are outside of our livelihoods? As with Gilbert, perhaps this flexible livelihood becomes a springboard to a day when our Priceless Pricing Project blossoms to a level that can sustain us. We risk putting too much pressure on the project if we expect it to sustain us before it has fully taken root, and grown strong in its own regard.

Solving for Relationship

By reframing my thinking about Priceless Pricing to solve for “building relationship” rather than “not charging,” I see opportunities before me in a different light. I have more dimensions of freedom to work with.

By changing my view of money from one as the culprit to one that is simply a medium of exchange that lacks the full measures of value I wish to give and receive, I am open anew to doing whatever delivers and brings richness.


The nomenclature of “multiple forms of capital” is an essential bridge to bring us away from a black and white view of the world of tangible objects that are calibrated solely in dollars and cents. We need this bridge to remind us that the world does not reduce to a singular monetary unit, despite all the pressures of capitalism to persuade us to the contrary.

Beyond that mindset of “capital” in whatever form, I feel myself rising in my chair, buoyant from the lightness of an image of unmitigated “richness” all around. My cup runneth over. The notion of “richness” (that transcends a currency of any sort) makes my heart sing.

How do we become vectors of richness?

Simplicity and a World Reimagined

It occurs to me as I strive to bring this essay to a close that one of the aspects that made money so successful in driving capitalism into the preeminent ideology of our world, mobilizing and orchestrating the efforts of billions of people, was its simplicity.

As we imagine a world where we claw back some of the qualities of human interaction that we lost when we scaled up from small tribes to global economies, we will need a similarly simple approach. I use the world “approach” because I don’t know that currency in any form can hold the multiple dimensions of value that feed our beings - the essential nutrients that we lack. What form will such an approach take? I can scarcely imagine.

Maybe the simple “approach” will take the form of the gift?

What can we do to till and condition the soil so the seeds of giftivism may grow?

This is an exciting time to be alive, exploring with each of you these questions that will likely shape the future of our species and the planet.


Posted by Colin Johnson on Nov 25, 2020

10 Past Reflections