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The New Gift Economy

Posted by on Jan 16, 2012 | 22 Comments

Since Shelly and I began our journey to nomadic running hobos, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves.  A large chunk of this knowledge came from a fairly systematic process of “lifestyle” experimentation.  One idea we’ve been playing with came from Seth Godin’s excellent book Linchpin.  One of this themes involves the idea that all of us should create art.  He broadly defines “art” as anything that causes a change in the recipients.  He persuasively argues that we should freely give away our art without expectation of anything in return.

The entire premise of the idea is exactly the opposite of how our society normally works.  Gift-giving is usually based on the idea of reciprocity- I give you something, I expect something in return.  It’s based on an idea of scarcity.  We have a limited amount of resources.  We obsessively focus on hoarding as many resources as possible.

Godin’s idea is based on the principle of abundance.  We obsessively focus on creating great art that makes a tangible difference, then give it away without expectation of anything in return.  Determine what you need to survive, then give away the rest.

At first, the idea may seem absurd.  How can you make a living by giving everything way?

Simple.  Giving things away allows your ideas to spread.  The Internet is the key to this spreading, it’s a medium that removes all the traditional gatekeepers.  The more your ideas spread, the more opportunities you get.

Here’s the tricky part- you don’t collect the opportunities to amass and hoard fame and fortune.  That’s based on the scarcity principle.  You leverage the opportunities into more giving.  The result is an upward-spiraling cycle of being able to give more and more gifts, which affects more and more people, which leads to more and more opportunity.

It sounds a bit hokey, but I really believe we have to be the change we want in the world.  I want to live in a world based on generosity and mutual support, not based on competition, exploitation, and hoarding.  Godin’s “art as a gift principle” seemed like the ideal means to start creating this world.

In practical terms, this is my experience with the idea:

I first read Linchpin early in 2011, right around the time Shelly and I started eliminating our excess material possessions to begin our travels.  The idea fit perfectly- we were lowering our cost of living AND getting rid of stuff (literal gifts).  We had been selling most of the stuff.  Instead, we started donating it or placing it by the side of the road with a “FREE” sign. It felt good.

Around the same time, I decided to give away the PDF version of the second edition of my book.  This had been a significant source of income, and I knew I’d lose a big chunk of that.  I did.  Some people wanted to somehow return the favor.  In that case, I suggested they pay it forward by passing the PDF on to anyone else that may be interested OR do some selfless act for someone else.  This was also my first experience with giving opening up new opportunities.

Since releasing the free PDF, the book has been spread far and wide.  Lots of opportunities have popped up.  As of right now, I haven’t taken many because they would require a lot of time- time I’m spending developing other ways to give.  In short, the new opportunities would decrease my ability to give.  If that changes down the road, I will be much more willing to take them.  For now, I will continue to give, receive what I need to survive from the opportunities the giving presents, then using the rest to create and give more art.

Some other examples of giving include giving away the “swag” I get for reviews, giving away the freebees I get from running and outdoor stores, giving advice to my blogger friends, giving advice to other runners (barefoot or otherwise), taking pictures at races then posting them on Facebook so people can use them as they wish, and writing this blog.

The blog thing is especially interesting.  I suspect many people write for one of two reasons- either they love writing OR they are trying to get attention, fame, swag, followers, advertising dollars, or other such “material” things.  Those that write for the first reason do so because of the intrinsic drive to create.  That’s good.  Those that write for the second reason do so because of the extrinsic drive to get more.

I’m think there’s a third option- consider your writing to be a gift to your readers.  If you already write for the first reason, it’s not much of a jump in perception.  If you write for the second reason, I think you’ll find this suggestion to be much more fulfilling. And effective.

I’m lucky.  I already have a lot of blogger friends that write to give.  Some may not even realize it, but they do.  And it shows in their writing.  They are a constant source of inspiration to continue doing what I’m doing.

Of course, I also know a fair number of people that blog for that second reason.  It shows up in their writing, too.

For another case study, check out my friend and functional fitness master Pete Kemme.  He decided to start writing workouts and posting them on his Kemme Fitness site at no charge to his audience.  Then he made videos.  And free ebooks.  And guides to make your own homemade gym equipment.  Pete put a tremendous amount of emotional labor into producing this stuff… then just gave it away.  It’s no surprise that he is experiencing incredible growth and exposure… which he’s using to produce even more gifts.  He’s making a difference by giving his art with no expectation of reciprocity.

I don’t suggest you give away most of your possessions and become a semi-homeless hobo, though I think many of you would LOVE the lifestyle.  I’m suggesting you begin reframing how you view interactions with others.

Start creating art.

Give the art away.

Don’t expect anything in return.

The key- make most of your decisions by asking a simple question- will this allow me to give more?

Give it a shot.  Try it on a small scale.  See how it feels. The giving will invariably result in some sort of opportunity.  Don’t hoard that opportunity, turn it into an opportunity to give more.  Repeat.

I have to warn you, however… it’s horribly addictive.  😉

What are your thoughts?

If you think the idea is worthy, please share wherever you feel would be appropriate.




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  1. Barefoot Running University » Building a Legacy Project: A Good Blueprint For A Life That Matters
    January 24, 2012

    […] Third, he champions the idea of creating legacy work.  Legacy work is something that makes a difference in the lives of others.  It’s work that leaves a lasting impact.  It is a powerful idea, especially when executed under the gift economy framework. […]

  2. Tracy Longacre
    January 18, 2012

    Hmm, this is all nice and everything, but you don’t say much about how you get what you need. As far as I can tell, most people have full-time, full-paying jobs–or they did and now they are living off their savings. The blog is a “hobby” that doesn’t need to make money.

    But Jason, if your giving is somehow generating enough income for your family to live, how is that happening, can you share? This is always where it falls apart for me.


  3. David
    January 17, 2012

    Based on your “being change” comment, check out Being Peace by Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh, a short read you’d probably like. We’re all interconnected so what we are permeates, perceptively or not so much.

    • Jason
      January 17, 2012

      Thanks for the tip, David! I’ll check it out.

  4. briderdt (David)
    January 16, 2012

    This post came at a very critical time for me, I think. I needed it. I’ve actually been looking at monetizing my blog, but have seen all the spam comments I get from people trying to sell SEO that it sickens me. I think you’ve just pushed me into the decision I’ve wanted to make — leave the blog as is. Don’t sell out.


    • Kittyk
      January 17, 2012

      David, I have had the same dilemma. Monetizing my blog, using it to get free gear, doing give-aways for no real reason but to get something back. Essentially changing it into something more commercial.

      In the end, I made the same decision. I kept the blog as it was. My blog was to be about me and my life. It was about everything I had learnt about my running. I don’t have thousands of followers and I don’t get thousands of hits a week. I am okay with that, because every person that reads my blog is now a friend who know something more about me.

      That’s much better I think.

    • Jason
      January 17, 2012

      This is a tricky issue for me and one of the opportunities that have popped up over the years. Sometimes I’ve done it, sometimes I haven’t. Websites can be an excellent source of income that doesn’t require a lot of work, which gives you the free time to create art. Or there may be products or organizations that have a similar outlook I have a friend that places advertisements on their site for organizations like Kiva. They get paid, but feel it supports a greater good.

      Other sites may use advertising as the sole means of paying a staff which keeps the website running. In that case, it’s a necessity.

      As far as giveaways -I did it a few times but it didn’t suit my style well. It does bring in a bigger audience, though. If that’s leveraged to spread a message, that’s a good thing. I see that as using an opportunity to give more gifts.

      I think a lot of the decisions surrounding websites comes down to intent. If adding averts to the site helps serve a greater good, go for it. If you’re adding them to help pay for that new boat, that’s okay, too… but I’d urge those people to consider using it to give more in some way instead.

      As far as BRU, I haven’t posted ads for a really long time because I didn’t need the income. More money wouldn’t necessarily help me spread my message, so I resisted. As time passes, I’m slowly getting closer and closer to my “minimum income needed”, so I may change my mind. It would serve the purpose of helping spread the art.

      How’s that for a long, muddled answer? 🙂

      • Jesse
        January 17, 2012

        I concurr for the most part. I monetized my blog for a while, but then took it down. I think what Godin(and now Jason) is saying is that the getting money/surviving is independent, rather than mutually exclusive. A true artist doesn’t perform to make money to get rich, they perform so they can make money to keep performing. I’ve used my blog to gain some funding for races. Racing makes me feel alive. Feeling alive inspires me to write.

        Apparently I’m good at long, muddled answers as well. 😉

        • Jason
          January 17, 2012

          Your answer is much better than mine. 🙂

        • briderdt (David)
          January 17, 2012

          And I guess I see the point. My wife and I are running a non-profit race promotion company, and so far it’s been (thinly) self-funded… meaning funded by us. So far we’ve had to re-schedule one race due to funding, and another is in jeopardy since my car decided to break down yesterday. If I asked the question of “what would allow me to give more?”, the answer could be justified as “it would allow me to put on more races to raise money for charities”. I don’t have the traffic yet to make monetizing worthwhile, but I’m also not going to try to artificially increase my traffic just to do so.

  5. Kate Kift
    January 16, 2012

    Completely agree, 150%. I think we are all capable of changing someones life, even by the smallest actions. A smile, a laugh, or even just letting someone else go first.

    Whatever you give out will come back to you eventually — usually when you need it most.

  6. Brian G
    January 16, 2012

    Great post!

    Regarding “will this allow me to give more?”, please consider donating blood, platelets, and plasma on a regular basis. It can be a lifesaver (literally) and the stuff never runs out.

    • Jason
      January 17, 2012

      Great idea, Brian! This is something more of us need to do.

  7. Angie Bee
    January 16, 2012

    i wish more ladies had Peggy Hill feet so I could give my shoes away 🙂

    • Jason
      January 17, 2012

      Angie- all I had to do was post a message on FB. Within five minutes, I had four takers. Free shoes = lots of excitement. 🙂

  8. Bob (Downtown Runner)
    January 16, 2012

    Now I’m back to agreeing with you 1,000 percent!!

    Great post. Great principle.

    • Jason
      January 16, 2012

      Thanks Bob!

      I may have to violate my own principle and close the comments on the other post… 🙂

  9. Shelahd
    January 16, 2012

    Changing the world…one person at a time. It is nice to encounter others with this mentality. You just went up another notch in my book Jason.
    (thanks for the book this weekend. My hub sure enjoyed meeting you on Sunday.)
    Keep inspiring!

    • Jason
      January 16, 2012

      No problem, Shelah! Hopefully we’ll make it back there this spring.

      • Shelahd
        January 16, 2012

        Hopefully I can make the northward trip to meet you then.

  10. The Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
    January 16, 2012

    Pay it forward and it all cones back to you. Thanks for spreading the good word!

    • Jason
      January 16, 2012

      That little kid in the movie started a revolution. You know, before he died.