July 28, 2014 » 6:20 pm

The Practice of Generosity

Jessica and Christy

I spent this past weekend spectating while friends and family achieved acts of extraordinary physical exertion. On Saturday, I watched my friend, Greg, complete a full Ironman in Sonoma County — a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, and ending with a full marathon (26.2 miles). On Sunday, I watched my sister, Jessica, run her first marathon, which might seem modest next to an Ironman, but is well past the threshold of sanity in my mind.

I will never truly understand what compels people to push their bodies to such extremes. What I have come to understand is the important role that community plays.

My sister runs regularly with friends, a few of whom also participated in the marathon. Those who decided not to run the whole thing volunteered to act as running buddies for parts of the race. My sister had someone running with her for the last 12 miles — no small thing at that point in the race, when your body is constantly telling you to quit. (She’s pictured above with her friend, Christy, who ran the last six miles with her.)

I ran with her from miles 14 through 18. I’m in decent shape, but I’ve never run in an organized race or for more than nine miles (I consider five miles a long run), so I had a hard time relating to my fellow runners at that point. What I could plainly see was that most of the runners were in a lot of pain. Many ran with a labored gait, and many others stopped repeatedly to walk. All along the way, several people had stopped to catch their breath or stretch.

It felt surreal to be running with so many people at once and to feel strong and fully conscious while everyone else seemed to be in pain and slightly unaware. I was in awe of the grit and perseverance of my temporary companions, even while questioning their sanity. Then again, while it was meaningful to experience this viscerally, I wasn’t altogether surprised by it. After all, they had all chosen to run 26.2 miles.

What surprised me was the overwhelming generosity — from the people cheering on the runners every step of the way to the volunteers to the runners themselves, who were constantly looking out for each other, gladly sharing their water and other aids to those in need. There was a bond of mutual support between the runners that was unmistakable, extending well beyond specific actions. I saw knowing nods and glances that seemed to acknowledge the hundreds of hours and miles of perseverance that they all knew each other had experienced. There was no faking it. You couldn’t be there if you hadn’t put in the time.

Everyone cared about each other, and everyone rooted for each other. It felt pretty awesome to experience that first-hand, and it made me wonder what the world would be like if we were all like these runners, if we could all feel that constancy of mutual support.

Upon further reflection, I decided that we are already all like that. We do fundamentally care about each other, and we are fundamentally generous with each other. We just aren’t necessarily conscious about it, nor are we conscious about practicing it. Running brings it out in people, but there’s no reason why we couldn’t be more like that in other aspects of our lives.

My friend and colleague, Renee, is constantly asking about the principles of effective collaboration, a framework upon which we can build and practice. I find these requests challenging, because I feel like these principles have already been articulated by many people, that the framework already exists and is widely understood. Having Renee is a useful foil, because it forces me to challenge and test my assumptions, and it’s surfaced lots of places where I’ve been wrong.

However, I have one nagging belief that has not yet been disproven. I believe that the main reason that it feels like there’s no clear framework for effective collaboration is that the suggested principles seem too simplistic, too obvious.

For example, generosity is a clearly an important principle in effective networks. “Of course!” you might say. “But there must be something else! That can’t be it!”

Are you sure?

At Leadership Learning Community’s Creating Space conference last May, there was a brainstorming session on modules for developing network leadership. We had a number of smart, creative minds in the room, but we got stuck almost immediately. People seemed overwhelmed by the complexity of it all.

I suggested that we focus on one thing and encouraged folks not to censor themselves. Simple, “obvious” ideas were more than okay. They were great!

We chose to focus on generosity as a practice. The group generated a slew of good, interesting ideas. One of them was a generosity award, which anyone could award to anyone else. All they needed to do was to fashion the award out of pipe cleaners and give it someone. It was so simple, we decided to test the idea right then and there.

People started fashioning awards to give to their peers, and three things became immediately apparent.

  1. There were some highly skilled pipe cleaner artists in the room.
  2. People had no problem identifying acts of generosity that had happened over the course of two days among a group of people who largely did not know each other.
  3. Simply naming the generosity that was already happening in the room was itself an act of generosity, one that created a stronger bond and greater sense of community among the group.

Many of the principles of effective collaboration are simple and obvious, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong or insufficient. If we’re going to make progress in the world, we need to start with the simple, the timeless, the human. We need to commit to these things, to practice them unrelentingly, and to give them time to work before we give up on them and seek something new.

Fortunately, while we may forget these principles in our every day work and lives, there are plenty of good models that remind us of their simple, yet critical importance as well as their strong desirability. Running with my sister, watching her, my friend, and their people persevere, and experiencing their community firsthand was a wonderful reminder of what the world would be like if we were all more generous with each other.

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