Christmas and the True Gift of Giving

 

This is the time of year when people feel the best… even the markets tend to perform better… Mostly it’s a time of spiritual reflection and giving.

Money and success are great, and I’d like to see more people attain that… but what I’d like more is for everyone to have the opportunity to be who they are and do what they love.

On your death bed you likely won’t be counting your money or possessions. Rather you’ll be reflecting on your relationship with people and God (whoever that may be in your particular religion). You’ll remember how you helped or served others.

The principle of giving is integral to transcending the natural relationship we have to “survive and prosper” – which is good and necessary – but which creates limitations on our happiness. Giving takes your focus off of you and connects most people to the greater principle of being, life or God – however you define it.

Since this is the season for such giving, it’s useful to consider the most basic principles of that act and how best to help and serve others.

Giving, alone, relieves the ego. But many forms of giving don’t actually serve others. So if you’re going to give, do so in a way that actually improves the well-being of the recipient. Don’t just give them some temporary pleasure or relief.

As the story goes, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day… teach the man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

A great example of how not to give comes from a December 2 article in Barrons entitled: “Africa’s Aid Mess,” by Paul Theroux.

He starts by quoting a book, The Great Escape by economist Angus Deaton, who quotes the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo as calling aid a “debilitating drug.” Moyo argues that real per capita income in Africa is lower today than it was in the 1970s after massive, decades long. Still more than half of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.

Most of the rock stars, politicians and foundation representatives who offer their support merely drop in and give money or make inspiring speeches.

But the most effective organizations give money directly to those in need. They send real people to live with the recipients of aid… to teach them to understand, speak and read English and to develop practical skills… to help them start new businesses that are sustainable in their world.

For those simply giving to a cause, most of that money filters to the very corrupt political and mafia-like powers that conspire to keep their people poor so they can dominate the little bit of wealth found in their emerging countries.

My wife and one of her friends are a good example of how to give. They started an orphanage in Haiti a few years ago. UNICEF-approved it within one year and it’s running smoothly and is successful. They didn’t just hand over money to some faceless organization. They got involved directly and only give money directly to their staff and the 20 girls they support.

Now more people and churches are supporting the cause because it’s clearly working, unlike most of the high-profile aid in emerging countries.

Thinking about all of this brings a powerful and simple quote to mind. That is: “The pathway to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

Just like the failure of most economists, who insist on treating symptoms rather than addressing real fundamentals and causes – as in the current “stimulate your way out of the economic crisis with fake money” plan that’s currently NOT working – neither does treating someone’s present symptoms by giving aid that just lets them live another day. Such aid only makes them more dependent and weaker.

The greatest gift is to help people move to a new level of function and capacity through inspiration, education, training, tools… and yes, challenge and constructive criticism.

Most gifts just make people feel a little better temporarily, like a box of chocolates – and that is appropriate at times, don’t get me wrong.

But the best gifts are the ones where you step into your beneficiary’s shoes, their life and needs, and determine what would most give them that spark or insight or experience to move them forward to becoming more happy, more successful… and most of all “who they are and who they are meant to be.”

That might mean paying for them to take a really good course that you think will help them achieve a particular goal, or take a trip that will expand their horizons.

Psychological surveys, which I have an interest in personally and because of my wife’s connection to the profession, have shown that happiness comes more from experiential than material rewards – travel, education, relationships – not bigger boats or houses or gadgets. Income levels above $75,000 don’t significantly increase happiness.

I have been inspired lately by the hit talent shows from American Idol to The Voice to America’s Got Talent and The X-Factor. I didn’t like these shows at first because I thought the judges and many of the participants were mostly ego-maniacs.

But I was eventually drawn in when I saw that these were perfect examples of the new “network economy” I see as inevitable – one driven from the bottom-up, not the top-down.

These shows attract a very broad contestant base, literally off the streets and out of their showers… people that would never have a shot otherwise. And they quickly sift out the potentially talented from the absolutely hopeless.

But the real magic happens when these people get tangible support from the best musicians, choreographers, and coaches in their industry to augment their talents and make them “the best they can be” in a short time period.

That is the real gift. And many of the transformations are simply “off the charts.”

My observation has been that it is the constructive criticism and tough coaching that causes the best to finally realize who they are and to become that so totally that they become true stars who win over the audience.

And the winners are rarely the most beautiful or even charismatic. They’re the people who simply become 100% of who they are at their core… that’s what people most connect with.

In fact, the greatest gift of giving is to simply take the time and effort to understand who someone really is and what they’re truly meant to be. Give them a gift that helps them awaken to that reality. That is how you can most help anyone you love or are moved to help.

But to do that you must step out of your shoes and into theirs – as a parent, friend, lover or donor. You must determine what they need to happen, not what you want to happen.

The greatest gift I’ve received in a long time came from a friend, and a few of his friends, when they introduced me to my wife at a New Year’s Eve celebration in Maui. I would never have met her on my own… ever! And I won’t lie… it took a little pushing and coaching from them when I didn’t immediately get what they saw as obvious.

Now, that is a true gift.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all. May you too give and get a true gift this season.

Harry

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About Author

Harry studied economics in college in the ’70s, but found it vague and inconclusive. He became so disillusioned by the state of the profession that he turned his back on it. Instead, he threw himself into the burgeoning New Science of Finance, which married economic research and market research and encompassed identifying and studying demographic trends, business cycles, consumers’ purchasing power and many, many other trends that empowered him to forecast economic and market changes.