Do Nothing Generosity

May 8, 2013

[Recently, I was asked to speak about ServiceSpace.  Below were my remarks, which synthesizes a bunch of recurring themes.]

Just the other day, I read a newspaper article that argued for the "Greed is good" position.  ServiceSpace aims to deliver an upgrade to that meme: "Generosity is better."

We hold spaces in three spheres: inner, outer and online.  In each of these spaces, we form circles that operate with an assumption of value in the collective center.  That is fundamentally a position of radical generosity, because in those difficult moments where positive value is hard to identify, our assumption leads us back to ourselves – I need to transform myself so I can see the gifts in this situation. 

Connecting one’s inner transformation to the external world in this way changes everything.

Smile Cards, for example, encourage small acts of kindness. You open the door for someone, you leave a gift for your mailman, you pay toll for the car behind you, you walk your neighbor's dog, you write a note of appreciation to a teacher, you give your parking spot to another driver. One argument for doing these acts tells the story of how our one act creates an endless ripple of positivity that could change the world, akin to the butterfly flapping its wing in Texas to create a tornado in Hawaii.  That’s true – and inspiring.  Yet, there’s also an additional, and far more powerful, story in motion.  In performing that small act, we change ourselves (as verified by science), and those micro moments of transformation ultimately shift our relationship to situations that previously might have felt adversarial.

We don’t have to go farther than Gandhi to see example of this in action.  In South Africa, after defeating General Jan Smuts in a bitter human-rights struggle over many years, Gandhi sent him a pair of hand-made sandals as a parting gift.   Decades later, on Gandhi's 70th birthday, General Smuts returned them with a note: "I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man. It was my fate to be the antagonist of a man for whom even then I had the highest respect."  What better testimonial than one that comes from one's own opponent!

That’s a unique flavor of social change.  We call it Giftivism – the practice of radically generous acts that changes the world.  It’s a kind of activism without an opponent.  Martin Luther KingJr., Mother Teresa, Dalai Lama, Cesar Chavez, Aung San Suu Kyi and many others operate with this fundamental idea that the inner and outer are connected.  That what I do to others, I do to myself.   And conversely, the more I transform, the deeper my service to others.

ServiceSpace, then, has designed an ecosystem that encourages Giftivism.  Because it assumes value everywhere, it places more emphasis on discovering than creating.  Business-school credos like “plan and execute” are flipped on their heads to “search and amplify”.  Leadership turns into “laddership”.  And because it is planted in the game-changing era of Internet organizing, it creates a movement of many distributed, everyday Gandhis across the world’s local communities. 

When small acts of Giftivism get connected in a circle, it creates a gift economy.  For many, this reads like a utopian ideal.  The tragedy of the commons seems more apropos.  However, this is only so when inner transformation is stripped out of the equation.  Compared to acts of external generosity, acts of transformation-driven Giftivism have a much longer after life.  Put another way, each kind act creates an external ripple effect and an internal one; *both* are required to create a gift circle.  If you reduce generosity merely to its external impact, it naturally will decay into the tragedy of the commons.

Karma Kitchen, for example, is a restaurant where each diner pays forward for the person after them.  We’ve tried this concept over tens of thousands of meals in over a dozen locations around the world.  On paper, it bucks the “free loader" tragedy of the commons notion (and many researchers are trying to understand why).  In practice, though, it works not because we are appealing to create a new world order, but simply because we are holding space in a way that honors inner transformation.  When volunteer waiters unleash a Smile Deck to play with the diners, when there’s a kindness table where people can share their gifts abundantly, when DailyGood stories are elegantly placed under your table tops, when it is safe to practice acts of generosity (leaving $100 gift card on an unknown table, or gifting flowers to volunteers, or singing a birthday song for a stranger), it creates an ambiance where people’s innate empathy blooms by itself.  Then, when they receive a meal and are invited to feel a connection to those before them who paid for their meal, and those after them who will be receiving the product of their gift, it becomes much, *much* more than a circle of gifts.  It is a circle of Giftivism, of profound inter-connection. 

Holding that space is the secret sauce of ServiceSpace.  Through weekly Awakin gatherings in more than 60 cities, we’ve held physical space with tens of thousands of people.  Through online communities like DailyGood and KarmaTube, we’ve held that space for hundreds of thousands of people online.  And through a very explicit emphasis on doing practices that help us “be the change we wish to see in the world”, we hold inner space.  All put together, it creates a thriving ecosystem that is constrained only by its three, self-imposed principles: stay volunteer run, work with whatever you receive, and think small.  That means that instead of having five staff working forty hours a week, you have forty volunteers volunteering five hours a week; it means that you can’t fundraise, and have to instead wait patiently until someone’s cup of gratitude overflows organically; and it means that you honor small bits of the process because ultimately, every act has equal potential for inner transformation.

I am partly joking when I say it’s the secret sauce of ServiceSpace.  Yes, there are many best practices that we’ve learned; yes, we have built up smart, in-house technologies that run into millions of lines of code; yes, we are fortunate to have some profoundly inspired coordinators.  Yet, in the larger scheme of things, those are resources that can be acquired with sufficient hard work.  The real secret, which is really no secret at all, is that we double-down on Nature – on our propensity for inner transformation.  We are powered by love, simply and deeply, and in every imaginable way.  If all life wasn’t wired to be kind, ServiceSpace would die out of existence tomorrow.

The hardest job for ServiceSpace leadership is to keep trusting Nature.

Masanobu Fukuoka, the grandfather of modern day permaculture, said he was practicing "Do Nothing Farming."  He wouldn’t till the soil, or pull out weeds, or use fertilizers or pesticides.  His farm looked more like a forest than anything else, yet people would travel the world just to get a taste of his fruits.  And he would emphatically declare, "Nature grows these plants, not me."  His job was simply to get out of the way, so Nature could do its job in all its glory.

That’s exactly what ServiceSpace aspires to.  Do nothing generosity.     


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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."