Giving It Away

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What Does This Mean to Us?

Are people like Karim and Payeng superhuman? Or do their examples apply to us too?  We aren’t all called to plant forests or write inspiring books, but we can all do something.

I like thinking of our lives as planting a forest.  You plant seeds and they grow up around you, though we often can’t see them. So there are things we can learn from these forestry stories.

● Good things take time. If Jadav Payeng had spent a year on his sandbar and then gone home, it might have done some good. But as he stayed on, the results grew exponentially.

Like trees, children take years to grow. You won’t see the results of your mentoring, feeding, coaching, raising or whatever you do with children for years. When you do, they may bring you joy for the rest of your life.

Social changes may take even longer. Nelson Mandela spent 50 years trying to overthrow the apartheid regime in South Africa, including 27 years in prison. He didn’t feel positive about his path all the time. There were doubts, and there was anger. But he helped bring democracy to his country, and without a violent revolution. He became the first elected president and inspired the world.

● Appreciate small successes, like Abdul Karim did when water came back into his well.

● Don’t attach to results – In Camden, New Jersey, a man named Mike Devlin has spent 40 years planting seeds, in the form of groups where impoverished people learn to grow their own food. He came to Camden in the 70s. According to Yes! Magazine, organizations he started include the Camden Children’s Garden, Camden Grows, a program that trains new gardeners; a Food Security Council, which was adopted by the city; a truck that sells fresh produce in the neighborhoods, a youth employment and training program; and Grow Labs, a school program to teach kids about healthy food.

Not everything he started worked. As Camden kept sinking further into poverty and crime, as industrial jobs went overseas, life got harder, but Devlin kept going. He did the best he could and let go, and his results are feeding, employing, and inspiring thousands of people, including many who never heard of him.

● There may be a learning curve. You just can’t throw seeds out the window or plant a seedling and come back 20 years later to find a tree.  There are right and wrong ways to plant.

Whatever we do, we can’t expect to be great at it from the start. We learn, we grow, we get better, and our results improve over time.

● Enjoy the process. I’m pretty sure Karim and Payeng didn’t wake up in the morning dreading going to the forest to work for a miserable boss. They didn’t have a boss. They enjoyed the planting and the learning and being out with Nature.  If it’s a chore, you won’t keep it up.

● Small things count. If you can’t plant a forest, can you plant one tree? If you can’t end world hunger, can you help some others eat? If you can’t write an inspiring book, can you write poetry? Or write letters to old people or shut-ins, or write letters to the editor to share your ideas? Every tree, every person or animal fed, or creativity shared has value.

● Any way you can express yourself has power. Even if only a few people ever see what you do, it can make a difference for them. Too many of us hide our creativity, which is frustrating for the artist and a loss for people who could potentially benefit.

● To give, you must take care of yourself. Payeng and Karim both live in their forests and are comfortable. They didn’t wear themselves out; they worked at a steady pace they could manage.

Many times we feel our cause or project is so important we have to give ourselves to it completely. This doesn’t work for long. We need rest; we need food. We need to enjoy life. Otherwise we get sick, burn out, or die.

● Don’t let others dictate to you – Payeng and Karim both had families and friends telling them they were wasting their time. A more famous forester, Wangari Maathai of Kenya, actually went to jail several times for planting trees in opposition to government development projects. She became the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Giving doesn’t mean never taking any reward.  Matt Mullenweg founded WordPress, the blogging software used by millions of people, including this web site. It’s free to users, which is what makes it so powerful. Mullenweg makes money from his work on the Web, but he says, “The project touches a lot of people. I consider myself very lucky to be able to work on something I love so much.”

Tim Berners-Lee is known as the “inventor of the World Wide Web.” He created software and computer programs like hyptertext transfer protocol (or HTTP.) He gave them away. His company decided that “its standards should be based on royalty-free technology, so that they could easily be adopted by anyone,” which helped the Web get started much faster.

He could have made more money had he, say, patented the Web, but then the Web wouldn’t have grown as it has. As it is, he has been knighted and has had a series of exciting positions that pay pretty well.  Giving away and receiving are not mutually exclusive.

What have you contributed?

Most people have contributed far more than they realize. A valuable exercise is to write a list of ways you have contributed to the world.  Little things and big things, things you did on your own and contributions to a larger effort. Things that are over, things you’re still doing, things you would like to do.

I call this naming my reasons to live and find it helps me to make sense of my life and find my place in history. Take your time; think it over; ask others for help.

As Jadav Payeng and Abdul Karim have shown, the more you keep planting, and caring for the shoots you’ve planted, the more beautiful your forest / life becomes. As Lao-Tzu wrote, the more you give, the more you will have.

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3 Responses to Giving It Away

  1. Donna says:

    At a point in one’s life – or in some niche in one’s life – it stops being about yourself and starts being about other people. I used to think this had to do with maturity, or with career stage, but I don’t think that any more. It works for everyone. When I speak with students about leadership, I ask them to reflect on some time they helped another person succeed, for example, as a tutor or study partner; then to take that as a touchstone for their own growth as a mentor.

  2. sekani says:

    For me the patience is the hard part

  3. Mathias says:

    I was struck by the subtle need for small steps in both stories of planting in India. I imagine it is like this in many cases: in places where trees are most needed, they will not grow on their own. It may be necessary to plant other vegetation first. As you mentioned, in (re-)establishing abundance, there are few shortcuts, much effort, and the most reliable product is joy.

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