gift giving

For the longest time, my lowest-scoring love language has always been gift giving. I've never been too particularly fond of the concept. I think it stems from my upbringing — aside from rare moments in Chinese New Year, childhood Christmases, or big birthdays, my family wasn't too keen on that kind of celebratory culture. Even those holidays didn't have the most ceremonious exchanges. There was a surprisingly positive side effect though: I developed an armour that guards me against the enticing powers of materialism. Funnily, the way I overcompensated for this shortfall was by making grand gestures for my close friends and my romantic pursuits. Framed differently, this tendency to “go big” is a remix of my personal kryptonite: oversubscribing to a “more is more” mindset!

As I look at 2021 as a whole, I fear I may have been looking at gifts in a completely backward way, naively dismissing it as nothing more than the sum of performative behaviours and capitalistic occasions. If we really wanted to play devil's advocate here, aren't all the other love languages — quality time, acts of service, physical touch, words of affirmation — just derivatives of gifts? We often hear that it's not the gift itself that matters, it's the thought that counts. Definitely an overplayed cliche, but also a statement soaked with truth.

Instead, we can view a gift as more message than material. They are symbols to help mark important life events, cement existing relationships, invite people to join a specific culture, and represent an exchange of value. All of this makes sense, but I've also been thinking more deeply about two related concepts: generosity and gratitude. If you'll indulge me for a bit, there's a special pattern that emerges when you combine these three G words together. This "3G" framework spins like a flywheel — the hallmark trait of generosity enables higher-intent gift-giving, driving greater levels of gratitude, which then reinforces consistent generosity.

I realize I definitely don't give enough gratitude and credit to the people who have played crucial parts in my development — my high school English teacher, my favourite newsletter writer, my case competition coach, my existential psychotherapist... Some gifts — or at least heartfelt letters — are in order.

An important distinction: I think the secret sauce is not really measured by the numbers; rather, it's about developing deeper intuition about what other people care about and how you can best serve those needs and wants.

To fully embrace the authentic principles of gift-giving, modern history already gives us a rich series of comparable case studies. Gifting is a universal human activity and figuring out what “thoughtful” means is a path to powerful insight. Only then can we broaden our appreciation for the dual-sided art of giving and receiving, and even extend the act of gift discovery to an introspective practice.

Over time, the idea of the gift economy has surfaced in many different circles — everything from potlaches in Canadian Indigenous groups and the Koha reciprocity customs by New Zealand's Māori, to even early-Bitcoin/Dogecoin tipping applications for content creators. There's a whole domain dedicated to the anthropology of gifts (Mauss, 1950), but since this is my touchy-feely blog and not my scientific sandbox, I'll park the technicals to geek out another time!

In simple terms, instead of “what's in it for me?", players in the gift economy might ask “what's available for me to share with others?", with no expectation of something back. A shift from selfish zero-sum to prosocial positive-sum. Learning about these trends is fascinating, and raises a suite of new questions for myself: [[What do gifts really mean in today's hyper-capitalistic, yet mindfully-woke society? What are the specific types of gifts that I personally would be overjoyed to receive? What are my gifts to others and the world?]]

. . .

When I think back to my formative years, the business school narrative that kept getting shoved down my throat was to emphasize relationship building over transactional trading. The business bubble was a real limiting thing, and maybe I chose to ignore it to fit in. “Networking” was the infamous buzzword — I taught it to my students but never tried to abstract the useful principles that came when you sincerely care to listen to someone else's story. After a few years in the corporate sphere, the taste of the Kool-Aid had gotten more than stale; it had morphed into cough medicine, as something you felt like you had to drink but despised it all the same. Could you tell me where the enthusiasm for giving was? Oh no, it's not here!

The new technologist in me is cautiously optimistic: the “let me know how I can help” offer is a straight-up meme at this point, but it's hard to deny the strong evidence of gifts scattered around the ecosystem: open-source software in GitHub repos to fork and build, thriving digital tribes on Discord to participate and share, and cohort-based courses to collaborate and learn. I guess I need to start getting more active on apparently the platform of free gifts: Twitter.

Meditating more with this gift model has given me hope and a new appreciation for this constant cycle of generosity and gratitude. So as we reach the most festive gift-oriented season of them all, here's a cheeky checklist I quickly designed to remind ourselves that good gifts take time, care, and attention!

Good gift guide: aka Sam's recipe for thoughtful gift due diligence   
1. The person: The who — sounds simple but I'd like to think the best kinds of gifts are the ones you least expect (i.e. away from the birthdays and holidays). Knowing what this particular person might be going through and empathizing with their unique situation can help cut any guesswork and broaden the universe of gifts you can consider. 
2. The language: The what — what you give will depend on how they prefer to receive. The love languages is a good starting point, but cannot be the only source of truth: people are highly nuanced in their needs & wants, and these can evolve substantially over time. Make a mind map and triage details from your interactions and conversations.
3. The build: The how — the process from ideation to selection to execution. I like framing it with "build" because it takes away the artificial feeling of just grabbing something off a shelf and calling it a day. You're choosing something worthy, and dressing it up with both conventional clothes (the packaging, the accessories) and a unique style (the "touch").
4. The touch: The why — arguably the most important ingredient, this is the special meaning you, and only you, can imbue on the chosen gift. This takes many forms: a callback to an inside joke or memorable moment you've shared, a handwritten letter as the primer, a fun & fresh way of delivering the object, service, or experience. Bonus points +1000 for getting this right.

All of these puzzle pieces I've laid out shape up into one big personal question. What is my own gift? Is it a particular skillset? Is it a unique perspective? Is it a distinct characteristic? The biggest clue might be tied to our identities — if I say I identify as a builder, writer, improviser, my gift could be a common thread among all of these. A first attempt: my gift is that I create joy and entertain others through my infectious energy and storytelling prowess. Or my gift could be a byproduct of my core values. A second attempt: my gift is my relentless curiosity about myself, other people, and the world; an intrinsic quality that inspires and invigorates, pushing ambitions and aspirations.

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder right? No matter what my gift is, I'll keep believing that the more I grow up, the gifts I provide will take on a new, different look. And that's a wonderful thing :)

Published by Sam (samwong) 5 months ago on Tuesday the 21th of December 2021.

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