On Giving, Listening and Buttered Toast

A few years ago, a colleague at my previous job turned to me one day and said the following: “You know something? You’re probably the nicest person I’ve ever met.” Truth be told, it’s possibly one of the best compliments I ever gotten and could ever really get… you know, besides those compliments I give myself on my looks through this words of this very blog.  To channel the bards of old (The Sugar Hill Gang)… I don’t mean to brag, I don’t mean to boast, but I’m like hot butter on your breakfast toast.  Truth.toast

My response to my colleague on being given this compliment was pretty simple: “It’s just how my Mom raised me.”  That’s less of a slight on my Dad (from whom I get my sense of humor and ability to chat about seemingly anything) and more just the fact that my Mom is very genuinely focused on treating people the right way.  That deeply affected me and sticks with me every day.

What got me reflecting back on all of this during my commute into work (where seemingly 75% of my blog inspirations come from) was I was thinking over the idea of giving.  As a corollary to the whole niceness part of me, I try to give of myself when I can.  Most of my giving is focused on a more personal level with my family, friends and loved ones.  I also do a bit of volunteer work with a youth group, but the bulk of my actions take place on a much individual level because that is just where I tend to find comfort and connection in such matters.

Giving can be a bit of a funny thing.  For a lot of people, it can be a fairly difficult thing to do.  I see two basic reasons for this being the case:

  1. The fear of no return on the “investment”.  If I do something for this person, do I really know they would do the same for me in return?  Or will I even be recognized or given credit for what I did? Fair question.
  2. The fear of being taken advantage of.  If I am nice and giving to people all the time, won’t I just come across as an easy mark for people to take advantage of?

I’ll take these one at a time.

On the return on the “investment” of giving, it’s only natural to want to know if that same person would do the same for you… or at the very least, for you to be recognized for your efforts.  That’s a pretty natural reaction and one I’ve had before for sure.

My own struggle (and one I do well with at times and much less so at others) is to get comfortable with the idea of the giving being its own reward.  Sounds like insanity right?  But if you spend some time thinking about it, I think you will find this more and more to be the case.  If you are giving in a context that is meaningful for you, you are probably more concerned about the benefit that person receives than what credit you will receive for the act.  I obviously have very little (if any) scientific data to back that statement up, outside of my awesomely impressive intellect, but I do believe it to be the case.

On the fear of being taken advantage of… that’s something I wrestle with all the time.  The last thing I would want is someone kind of hovering around in my life in hopes of using my good nature to their personal advantage.  I’ve been pretty successful in this regard… but not perfect for sure.  The people I can tell who are being leeches?  Cut ‘em free.  I’ve enough on my plate without worrying about them.

But beyond that, the reason I try not to worry on this too much is that I would rather be focused internally on where I am doing the right thing than on whether someone else either thinks I am doing the right thing or is taking advantage of my doing the right thing.  It reminds me of a notion from the autobiography on Warren Buffet I am reading entitled, “The Snowball: Warren Buffet and the Business of Life” by Alice Schroeder.  From a somewhat young age, Buffet has been driven by staying consistent to what he calls his “internal scorecard” about whether he is doing the right thing.  By comparison, his mother was overly focused on her “external scorecard” and lived in order to meet the expectations of others first.

But I have seen (even just recently with a friend of mine) the after effects of those who have given so much to another only to have that best part of their nature trampled upon by someone they trusted and loved.  It’s completely devastating to see because that giving portion of us as human beings can truly be one of our best traits.  I don’t want to see that crushed in anyone.

So a piece of advice I have for those who worry about the aforementioned fears in giving… here is a simple form of giving to a try: listening.  Yup, listening.  Powerful and simple and something you can do daily with just about anyone you meet.

Listening is possibly the easiest kind of giving to do and creates a level of benefit for all involved that is amazing.  The person you are listening to will experience a moment where someone else truly cases about what they are saying.  And hey, if you really need to have a personal reason as to your own benefit, the speaker will also find you to be a more genuine and caring person.  And it’s just such a small effort to put in for someone else and hell… you may even learn something in the process.  I’ve focused on becoming a much better listener because (1) there are few things more annoying than talking to someone who just responds to everything with “mmm hmm… yeah… yup… sure” when you can tell they did not really hear a word you said; and (2) it’s just plain good karma and a great way to deepen your relationship with just about anyone.

Now take this advice and go forth and maybe you too can be the hot butter on someone else’s breakfast toast.

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