You don’t have to be a hero to be a helper

superheromask

Photo via Chiot’s Run on Flickr’s Creative Commons.

Back in April, we posted about professor Adam Grant’s endless capacity for helping and his research on the positive effects of generosity. We also listed some ways to get ahead by giving from Grant’s new book “Give and Take.”

One thing we haven’t talked about, though, is the underlying feeling that may keep many of us from boarding the give-and-gain train.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when standing in the shadows of seemingly superhuman do-gooders. The doubtful thoughts pile up: “How can I possibly be that helpful? What if I’m just not wired that way? How can I be a superhuman, when some days I struggle to be an adequate human?”

Grant believes helpfulness works like a muscle we can all develop. If he’s right, maybe it’s possible we can find ways to get a little stronger every day, without worrying about becoming Spartan-esque triathletes.

In her recent article on Grant, NY Times reporter Susan Dominus tried the theory out and put herself to the test:

I like to think I am a typically helpful person, but after reading Grant’s book, I found myself experimenting with being more proactive about it. I started ending emails by encouraging people to let me know if I could help them in one way or another. I put more effort into answering random entreaties from students trying to place articles. I encouraged contacts seeking work or connections to see me as a resource.

And I did notice that simply avoiding the mental lag of deciding whether to help or not was helpful. At a minimum, Grant’s example presents a bright-line rule: Unless the person on the other end is a proven taker, just do it–collaborate, offer up, grant the favor.

The first time I exchanged those emails, I usually felt good; after the second exchange on a given topic, I thought perhaps I had done my duty. But I noticed that every offer of help I initiated or granted engendered four or five e-mails, at the end of which I sometimes felt surly and behind on my work — and then guilty for feeling that way.

Dominus’ mini-test doesn’t mean it’s unsustainable to be an everyday giver. But it does remind us to find ways to give that don’t trap us in an ever-expanding favor spiral.

How, then, do we find a balance? Learning from Dominus and from Grant, here are a few ways we can start:

1. Make it automatic
How much time do we waste debating whether to respond to an email or to offer a helping hand? The more automatic we make our helpful responses, the less effort and energy they require. What if we turned small things (like picking up litter and throwing it out) into reflexes?

2. Make it reasonable
You don’t have to be a hero to be a helper. Do what you can; know your limits. Instead of responding to every email with the tag “How else can I help?” perhaps only offer when you know you can continue to help.

3. Make it sustainable
Some things–like turning off unused lights or giving away your lunch to someone hungry–don’t require follow up. Those decisions can be automatic. For bigger acts of giving, make sure you take care of your own needs before jumping to attend to others.

4. Make it sustainable…for others, too!
One of Grant’s main findings is that productivity, happiness, and creativity flourish when people see the results of their giving. If you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s generosity, don’t be shy to send them an email or give them a hug to say thank you. It only takes one voice to say, “Hey! It mattered to me!” to keep the giving going.

What do you think? Can giving feel paralyzing? Or burn you out? What are some small (or big) ways of helping that work for you?

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Three unconventional ways to be generous

Photo Credit: arimoore, Creative Commons/Flickr

Today is Giving Tuesday, a collective effort encouraging us to give back this holiday season. While you can certainly make a donation to your favorite organization or cause, what are some other ways that we can be generous?  Here are a few videos to inspire you.

Write Love Letters

At the age of 22, Hannah Brencher was struggling with depression and loneliness. To help her cope, she started writing love letters and leaving them around New York City for strangers. Two years later, she’s leading More Love Letters, a movement that’s rooted in kindness and the intimacy of written letters.

Say Yes

For one month, Sasha Dicther of the Acumen Fund, said yes to every request for help. His month-long “generosity experiment” taught him that generosity is a practice we need to cultivate in order to break our culture of distrust.

Sasha Dichter: The Generosity Experiment from TED Blog on Vimeo.

 

Be an Everyday Hero

Mark Bezos is the Vice President of Development at the Robin Hood Foundation and a volunteer firefighter. In his work he has seen big acts of bravery and generosity, yet the downside is that we tend to think only the big acts matter. He encourages us not to wait to be heroes.

 

 

What does generosity look like to you?

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Three ways to be generous at work and further your career

‘Tis the season for giving! Have you thought about how being generous at work can help your career? In this post, we explore three things you can do for others that help you grow and strengthen your network.

by Eleanor C. Whitney

Thanksgiving is quickly approaching and while you may be in the midst of figuring out the best side dish to make with your turkey or Tofurkey, now is the perfect time to explore how a spirit of generosity can help your career.

Photo credit: Funchye, Creative Commons/Flickr)

Common wisdom in the career-advice field recommends that when you start a new job you should volunteer for tasks that others might be hesitant to take on and go the extra mile to show your capacity for commitment, hard work and acting as a team player. While this is certainly sound advice, generosity goes beyond simply volunteering for tasks at opportune moments.

When you act with generosity you are consistently open with your skills, ideas and knowledge. When you are generous you don’t just give of yourself, but acknowledge the contributions and needs of others. The result is a network of people who are also willing to help you.

Here are a few ideas of how you can bring a spirit of generosity to your career:

  • Create a resource or service that is useful to the people you serve

In my current position I co-run the Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Artists are required to submit a budget for their project when they apply to our program. My colleagues and I noticed that artists often made the same budget mistakes and some neglected to submit budgets at all. In response we organized a free project budget basics workshop that we presented to a packed house and offered online as a free podcast. As a result, artists can build their skills free of charge and we receive stronger, complete applications.

  • Share information that helps others take the next step

In his book The Thank You Economy Gary Vaynerchuk explains that businesses and professionals need to adapt to the openness, feedback and communication the Internet offers by becoming more communicative and caring with their stakeholders.  Keep this in mind as you communicate daily with your clients and colleagues. When they reach out to you with a question or need, even if you can’t offer exactly what they are asking for, give them the information they need to take the next step, whether that’s directing them to someone who can help them or a suggesting a resource where they can find what they are looking for.  Send them a link, a person’s contact information, or an article. They will remember and thank you for it.

  • Take time to understand your colleagues’ needs, goals and concerns

When I worked a large museum in New York City, I took time to understand the schedules and job-related concerns of colleagues in other departments. Because I established a reputation of respecting my colleagues’ processes and listening to their needs I found that people would go the extra mile for me. For example, I knew that the editorial department worked on a strict schedule that was determined by the availability of the graphic design department and print shop.  If I requested last minute changes to publication text from the editors it meant they would have to reach out to the designers and I would potentially slow down the whole publication and printing schedule. When I acknowledged that what I was asking for required extra effort on their part, explained why my request was important to the museum overall, and acknowledged their help, I found they were happy to help me.

Generosity is a kind of currency that you build slowly. When you are generous you establish your reputation as a key facilitator, team member and leader. That recognition can lead to new and deeper connections and opportunities and will translate into a feeling of good will towards you. Good will is the strongest quality you can offer.

Eleanor C. Whitney is a writer, arts administrator and musician living in Brooklyn, New York. She currently is a Program Officer at the New York Foundation for the Arts and is the author of the forthcoming book Grow: How to Take Your Do It Yourself Project and Passion to the Next Level and Quit Your Job, which will be released in the spring of 2013 on Cantankerous Titles

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