Living the gift: an economy of generosity

2014

Connecting with and acting in the service of our gift is such a fundamental human need that social upheavals are often motivated not by financial poverty, but the poverty of the imagination that arises when our gifts are not seen or wanted by others.

Historically, we lived and thrived for thousands of years in economies in which the primary mode of exchange was through our gifts, rather than through money. This may lead us to wonder what business might look like if we were rewarded not only for our productivity, but for our gifts and deeper humanity as well.

It is in the nature of the gift to transcend what we believe is possible so that our destiny can be fulfilled. That is, our gifts bring us into a world of people, places, connections and synchronicities we would not have known otherwise.

How the gift does this is largely a mystery. Without engineering it or even understanding how it works, the gift just keeps giving. Since the gift is beyond our capacity to control or master, what is asked of us in return is to adopt an attitude of humility and generosity so that the full bounty of the gift can live through us and transform our world.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I have often guided executive leaders in a process in which they can discover how to live and lead through their own gifts and signature strengths. To begin with, I ask them each to take an index card and write down the gifts they think they possess.

When they have finished I ask them to put their cards under their chair. Then I ask each of them to tell a story about a time when they were engaged in something in which they experienced a sense of aliveness and vitality, a time when they could say, “This is what I came for. This is what I was born to do!”

Often it is when we feel most alive that we are most in our gift. So following each story, I ask them to share the gifts they saw in each other. When I outlined this process with one group of senior executives from a global construction engineering business several laughed. “This should be easy!” One said. “We all know each other pretty well. I’ve known Fred for over 30 years. We’ll be done in a hour or two.” The others nodded their heads in agreement.

Five hours passed before everyone had shared their story and received their gifts.

“I didn’t know the others saw me this way,” one leader said. He was visibly moved by the experience. Others nodded in agreement.

“There is so much we have never shared regarding how we are seen and appreciated by each other - what our real strengths and gifts are - and we would never have known how we were seen by others if we had not done this exercise for ourselves.”

What struck them most was that when they thought about their own gifts, their perception was entirely based on performance - visible and tangible accomplishments, goals, projects, outcomes and results. But the gifts they saw in others were based on their presence - qualities of being that were apparent no matter what or how that person was doing.

Later one leader observed, “Maybe there are two economies, two bottom lines. One is based on managing performance and production, the other is based on our presence, sharing our gifts and nurturing a spirit of generosity. And it’s the economy of gift-sharing and generosity that makes the other economy possible. Imagine the potential that would be unleashed in our business if we were to see the gifts in other people and not only their skills.”

As Lewis Hyde wrote in his wonderful book The Gift, “a gift is not a gift until it is given.”

I have received the gift in different ways.

Early in my music recording career, I visited an educational centre on a remote part of the California coast. During the evenings following dinner I would often go over to an old upright piano and play.

One evening a young man joined me on the bench. When I finished playing and was about to leave he stopped me.

“Excuse me, I hope you don’t mind,” he said. “My friends and I were listening to you and were commenting on how much we enjoyed your playing. But there is just one thing. You sound too much like another pianist we listen to. His name is Michael Jones. You sound just like him and you really should develop your own style! ”

For a moment I was stunned. Once I had regained my composure I said, “actually my name is Michael Jones. I may the person you are talking about.”

He looked at me for the longest time. “No, you’re not!”

I showed him my drivers’ license and for a time he looked at my picture and then back at me. “You really are Michael Jones!” He said. “Excuse me, I have to go tell my friends.”

I stepped outside the lodge for a moment. In the sudden darkness I listened to the Pacific surf surging onto the rocks below and reflected on how significant his brief visit had been. His gift to me is that he had recognized something in my music that had drawn him to the piano, a recognition that after so many years of searching and imitating others, I had in these early recordings found a distinctive and recognizable musical voice.

The German Philosopher Martin Heideggar wrote, “more is given to us than is made by us.” When the gift is given freely and unconditionally it completes us. It is not a skill acquired over time but an endowment that is given over for our use so long as we labour in its service, and for the betterment of humankind.

Just as the moon reflects back the light of our own sun, when we see the gifts in others, we also see our own gift reflected back to ourselves.

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About The Author

Michael Jones
Michael Jones

Michael Jones is a leadership educator, author and Juno-nominated pianist/composer. His most recent book, The Soul of Place: Re-imagining Leadership Through Nature, Art and Community, is the third in a series asking how leaders can re- imagine places as living systems inspired by nature, art, community and our deepening humanity.