I am, by definition, a giver.
Every day, I write “Give to receive” at the top of my to-do list. I wear a bracelet engraved with the same phrase. I give my time, advice, and yes, physical gifts — usually of the handmade variety — more often than I don’t.
In fact, “giving” accounts for almost 50% of my time spent at work, according to my time tracking tool.
So when a mentor told me I needed to learn to give less, I didn’t know how to respond.
I’ve been told to give less many times. I’m a chronic over-committer who often works myself into a frenzied state of exhaustion trying to live out my personal values around generosity and service.
Over a year ago, health concerns related to stress and fatigue forced me to evaluate my choices. I came to understand that if I give until there’s nothing left of me, I won’t be able to give anymore at all. That’s why since then, I’ve been disciplined about carving out time for myself and learning when to say no, or at the very least, setting boundaries around when and how I can give.
But my mentor wasn’t telling me to give less to take better care of myself.
She pointed to my head as she said, “Keep some of that to yourself. Give away fewer thoughts.”
After replaying this conversation in my mind more times than I care to share, I finally realized she wasn’t saying “Talk less, smile more” to protect myself, à la Aaron Burr in Hamilton.
Instead, she was encouraging me to ask why I felt the need to go so above and beyond in every explanation, client project, and group training I delivered. In other words, she was nudging me towards a more mindful giving, one that is fundamentally selfless.
Because not all giving is selfless, after all.
Mindful Giving Versus Mindless Giving
The two most important ingredients for good gift-giving — at least the kind specific to holidays and celebrations — are intention and audience.
I’m an obsessive gift-giver who has transformed loved ones into illustrations, developed candle scents that hearken back to shared memories, and stalked colleagues to learn their favorite comedians and musicians in service of landing on the best tickets for them.
I literally keep excel sheets of important dates in my friends’, colleagues’, and family’s lives filled with notes about their needs, wants, and preferences.
But all this work would be for naught if I wasn’t focused on setting an intention and knowing my audience long before I seal that gift in handmade wrapping paper.
My intention always starts the gift ideation process. Do I hope to spark joy in this person? Remind them of an important time we shared together? Make them feel special and seen? Solve a problem in their lives?
Then, I spend the remainder of my time going over what I notice about them — specifically, what they like, want, and need and how that relates to the intention I’ve set.
But when it comes to less traditional gift-giving like knowledge-sharing, I don’t go through this same process. I think about my audience to make sure the examples I use are tailored, but the intention-setting ends up being more about me than those I’m supporting.
I didn’t realize this until I came across Jon Kabat-Zinn’s characterization of mindful giving versus mindless giving in Wherever You Go There You Are. He writes:
“Mindless giving is never healthy or generous. It is important to understand your motives for giving, and to know when some kinds of giving are not a display of generosity but rather of fear and lack of confidence.”
Just like self-medication and self-care are not the same, mindless giving and mindful giving are worlds apart.
Mindless giving often results in acting from a self-serving motive. The focus is on the giver and not the recipient.
Suddenly, I understood what my mentor was trying to instill in me.
What’s So Wrong with Mindless Giving?
My dogged commitment to sharing as much research and data as possible for every point I made was not about helping others so much as it was about proving to myself that I knew enough to be there. That I was enough to be there.
Part of my problem was that I hadn’t learned to distinguish between genuine excitement and anxiety in myself.
This feels natural considering the biggest compliment I’ve ever received was an oft-hand comment my husband made to someone else that I am an “unashamed scholar.”
I love learning more than virtually anything else in my life. I light up epically when I unearth a new technique or wrap my head around a difficult concept. Nothing energizes me more than understanding how things work or how seemingly disparate elements are interconnected.
But, precisely because I am comfortable in a learning environment and have always received validation as a student, knowledge becomes a crutch when I feel insecure or undeserving.
When I feel I don’t belong, an unconscious reflex kicks in to give as much information as possible. And that’s mindless giving.
The defensive part of my brain, the kind that responds to feedback and self-critique with a threat response, wants to know, “What’s so wrong with mindless giving?”
Giving to make sure others like you is insincere at best and manipulative at worst. You might be of use, but you’re likely so focused on how you look to others that you don’t look closely enough at the problem you’re trying to solve or the person you’re trying to help.
Or, like me, you might run into the trap of giving more to the person than they’re equipped to take. When it’s anxiety pushing me to share knowledge rather than excitement, I don’t stop and pause to make sure others understand. I can be overwhelming, turning on an unexpected firehose. In this situation, the recipient doesn’t learn and may feel farther away from achieving a desired outcome than before.
There is nothing inherently wrong with knowledge-sharing or giving insights to others. However, without a clear intention focused on supporting, bettering, or revealing insights to another, neither is as valuable.
That’s why I’m committing attention and awareness to using knowledge as a channel to help others reach their own realizations rather than bolster myself.
“Real change happens when people see things they have not seen before. The best way to help someone see something new is to help quiet her mind so that she can have a moment of insight.” –David Rock, Your Brain at Work
The best givers, especially of knowledge, are those that hold mirrors up to their recipients and show them parts of themselves they couldn’t see otherwise. They ask the questions that uncover deeply personal insights in the other person, not the answers that tell them how to think or be.
If your goal is to help someone learn, whether it’s how to solve a problem, understand a concept, or something else, you have to focus on their needs rather than your own. That’s what makes for effective teachers and mindful givers.