Sometimes the best way to get ahead is to help others first. It’s the little things we can do to help people — a favour to a friend, or picking up the tab when someone is down on their luck — that often come back to in positive ways. Your own generosity fosters success.
This post originally appeared on Ramit Sethi’s blog, I Will Teach You to Be Rich.
One of my favourite stories about generosity comes from Steve Wynn, the hotelier, in this article from The New Yorker.
Steve decided to sell a painting he’d acquired, a Picasso, for $US139 million dollars. (Yes, $US139 million for a painting, “the highest known price ever paid for a work of art” at the time.) That weekend he invited some friends to see the painting, and while he stood aside the picture explaining it to his friends, things didn’t quite go according to plan:
Wynn suffers from an eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa, which affects his peripheral vision and therefore, occasionally, his interaction with proximate objects, and, without realising it, he backed up a step or two as he talked. “So then I made a gesture with my right hand,” Wynn said, “and my right elbow hit the picture. It punctured the picture.” There was a distinct ripping sound. Wynn turned around and saw, on Marie-Thérèse Walter’s left forearm, in the lower-right quadrant of the painting, “a slight puncture, a two-inch tear. We all just stopped. I said, ‘I can’t believe I just did that. Oh, shit. Oh, man.'”
Wynn turned around again. He put his pinkie in the hole and observed that a flap of canvas had been pushed back.
He told his guests, “Well, I’m glad I did it and not you.”
This is one of the most striking and graceful things I’ve ever heard someone say. Instead of cursing or getting mad, he simply said, “I’m glad I did it and not you.” In other words, better he did it than you — at least he can afford it.
When I think about a “rich life”, I don’t just think about wearing a beautiful suit or having the nicest apartment. I think about being generous with my time and money. In fact, sometimes a little helping hand can go further than a $10,000 check.
Steve Wynn’s comment taught me a lot about generosity. As a young guy, I didn’t really get generosity. I thought about “paying my fair share”, but I didn’t make generosity one of my core values like it is now.
I remember the small things that taught me about being generous. I remember back when I was a student, asking business people and CEOs to meet me for lunch, they always paid. 100 per cent of the time. Even though I was the one asking them, they took pity on a university student and paid. I’ll never forget that. Whenever I meet with a young university student, I always pay.
I remember getting a small gift — just a simple hand-written card — from someone I’d helped with some business stuff. I will always remember it. I also remember helping someone get a job in NYC and only finding out about it months later from someone else. When she emailed me again asking for another favour, I ignored her.
And I remember the joy of sending people small gifts and seeing their reaction. Sometimes, it’s a book I find on Amazon or a photo of a funny sign on the subway. It’s such a gift for people to know you’re thinking of them.
Ironically, the more generous I started to become, the more successful I became. Sometimes, the connection is obvious: I help someone out, they make an introduction, and suddenly I get invited on a national TV show. (This happened.)
Other times, generosity comes back in unexpected ways. A couple years ago, I was at a club with friends and my jacket vanished — a $1000 jacket. My friend helped me look for it and I felt that horrible sinking in the pit of my stomach when it was nowhere around our table.
Then I shrugged and said, “Better me than someone else.” My friend couldn’t believe it. “It doesn’t bother you?” Of course it bothered me. But I know I can get another one. The ability to be calm at something that would have been financially overwhelming a few years ago is something I’m very grateful for.
Generosity now means that I send gifts to my friends for no good reason. I love to pick up the check. I did this before I had money and I keep doing it now.
Think about the ways you can be generous. It doesn’t have to be expensive.
Have you seen something on a street that reminds you of your friend? Why not send the pic in a text and say, “Thinking of you”? If you see a book your mum would like, send it to her and write “I love you” on the cover page. What a treat for her to receive.
I once couldn’t figure out how to lace my shoelaces in a certain way, so I asked my dad. He burst out laughing, then showed me. The next time I laced them, I sent him a picture and thanked him. Imagine how it feels to get that from your son.
Generosity also comes from connecting people together. One of my friends, Nick, invites me to his house for events with other interesting people. Another friend gave me a tip when I wrote for the New York Times: “Link to as many friends as you can.” Spread the love. I’ve said over and over that money is only a small part of a rich life. I really mean it. I don’t just want you to think about how to get the biggest raise, or start the most profitable business.
I can offer advice on all of that, but then what? I went from a guy focused entirely on achievement and numbers to thinking about the softer side of what I wanted my core values to be. And generosity is one of the ones I’m most proud of.
I don’t have anything to sell you. I don’t have a call to action. I just want you to think about what your friends would say about you. Would “generous” be in their top three words? Do you want it to be?
Think about it. Thanks for reading, and here’s to a rich life.
Most generous thing I’ve heard in a long time [I Will Teach You to Be Rich]