Question from a reader -
Hi Sebastian, a question. I'd like to know how you came to be so... gracious. I've noticed that not only do you preach for others to spread gratitude, but you really do go over-the-top with it. It's a bit unbelieveable at times. But I have a good friend who is always very glad to see me (and everyone else). We aren't close anymore, but I always feel we are. I get the feeling you're similarly genuine. How did that come to be? Have you always been that way? I've been trying to be more thankful, but I don't want it to come off as meaningless as a forced plastic smile.
Well, first, that email totally made my day. Thank you.
Before I answer, I've got to pose a hypothetical question to you. Trust me, it's relevant:
Do you think it's more virtuous to do $5,000 worth of good for someone and get $0 in return, or to do $10,000 worth of good for someone and get $2,000 in return?
Stop and think about that for a moment. Really, don't read on until you've answered.
Got an answer? C'mon, think about it. I'll wait.
Okay. Me, I think it's overwhelmingly more virtuous to do more good and receive more in return.
What's this have to do with being gracious, though?
Well, see, I think people have a problem. Most people believe there's some conflict between giving and receiving. If you put it clearly, most people would say that delivering $10,000 of value and getting $2,000 of it back is better than delivering $5,000 for $0. It's more absolute good, the other person has more, the pie is bigger, and you get compensated too.
But most people cheerlead martyrdom and sacrifice. Most people feel like they should be martyring and sacrificing themselves more, but they also don't like to do it.
Anyway, why cover all this ground?
Because I don't think it's possible to be gracious and helpful and friendly as a martyring self-destructing guy.
Overwhelmingly, the most gracious people I know are comfortable receiving as well as giving.
Oh, don't get me wrong. The most gracious people I know give far more than they receive, but they also receive.
There's a long running half-joke among successful people. "I'm not an altruist." My friend Judd threw an amazing party for a lot of people he knew one time, he spent like $5,000 to throw this party. And I teased him, I said, "You're such an altruist, dude." And he says, "No no no, no, no, I'm not an altruist."
We all say that. I'm not being friendly and gracious and helpful out of altruism. No, no, no.
I'm doing it because it brings into existence the kind of world I want to live in, it helps me serve my ethics and goals, I enjoy doing it, and perhaps the biggest reason - 1 out of 100 people you're friendly and gracious to are going to become amazing friends and confidants and colleagues.
90 out of 100 people are relatively ungracious. 9 out of 100 say thanks and nothing else. But 1 person out of 100 winds up becoming something very special and cool.
Meanwhile, I'm not trying to sacrifice and suffer and martyr myself when I help people. I ask for feedback, I'm friendly and lighthearted about it, and I enjoy it.
A tip - I make connecting with people part of my entertainment time. You know, when most people are watching TV, I'm reading email, writing email, hopping on the phone with people, answering questions, helping other people do strategy.
I usually don't ask for anything in return. Almost never, actually. I try to give a lot. I figure 90 out of 100 people won't give me anything in return, and that's fine, no problem. Still glad they're better off.
9 people say thanks, which is really cool and I really appreciate that. Maybe it sounds stupid, I guess, but I still really like getting encouragement and comments on the site and a friendly email and things like that. I write some rather aggressive pieces condemning the normal way, advocating strength and virtue and imperialism and victory and wealth and things like that. So, y'know, sometimes people take some serious fangs out. I'd like to eventually be mentally strong enough to feel neutral to all kinds of feedback - praise and criticism - but I'm not there yet. In the meantime, kind words and a quick thanks goes a long, long way.
And then... 1 out of 100 people I connect with, we build some amazing shit, some really win/win/win/win positive sum game stuff. I've met some of my best friends through doing random good things, and I know I try to be fanatically loyal to people who do right by me when possible. It's a good thing, helping people.
And it's fun. It's my entertainment time, y'know?
How did that come to be? Have you always been that way? I've been trying to be more thankful, but I don't want it to come off as meaningless as a forced plastic smile.
How did I come to be this way? Slowly.
I realized for a long time it was a good thing to do, but I was still shy about doing it. Dunno why. I think it's a normal human thing. What I did was I started slowly emailing people very short emails to say thank you if a piece of work helped me.
The key is to be short and overwhelmingly gracious. "Hi person. I saw (x thing) and it (meant y to me). I am really grateful for this. Thank you. Sebatian"
Slightly more than that, but not much more. Some people won't reply. No problem. Everyone feels good when they get something like that, even if they don't reply.
Have I always been this way? Nah, it's all learned behavior. All learned. Learned and trained. I added a note to my daily checklist for a while, "Reach out to someone" or something like that. So I'd try to send one nice or thankful email per day, or offer to help someone, or ask quickly what their favorite book is. Baby steps. Now I'm getting fairly a lot of email and comments and people reaching out to me on different sites, and that's really cool. I still try to reach out to people I haven't had any contact with, but now I'm still adjusting to how many people are reaching out to me. (Like you did - thanks)
Now, as to the being worried about a fake plastic smile.
Here's where I've got to clue you in.
You're going to die.
Being mildly embarrassed isn't going to hurt you.
This is when I really opened up and started reaching out to people, started writing what I really think, started doing a lot more. I wrote about this in "Keeping Death in Mind" - it was about getting jacked up by a motorcycle in Cambodia.
I'll tell you the truth. I'll be 100% honest. If you reach out to people, you're going to say some stupid ass something sooner or later and kick yourself. I do multiple times weekly. I shake my head and kick myself.
And y'know what? It's not so bad. I'm in conversations with amazingly cool people. Just signed with LevineGreenberg, a top literary nonfiction agency and I'm working hands on with Jim Levine, who is amazing. I'm talking to scientists and entrepreneurs and we're swapping notes. I'm helping lots of people, I'm writing a lot, I'm making art, I'm making new friends...
...and yeah, I have 5-10 embarrassing or annoying moments per week. I say something stupid or write something stupid or get a fact wrong or some random anonymous bozo insults me or whatever. It happens.
And you know? I think 5-10 moments like that per week is considerably higher than the normal person has happen to them.
If you reach out to people, you are putting yourself on the line a bit, you will say something stupid sooner or later, and come across poorly.
Do it with good intentions.
I just got an email from a guy who criticized me publicly a while back. He said, upon reflection, his criticisms were mistaken and he thinks I'm doing good stuff. And now we're having a good conversation.
That's pretty cool. I get to do so much cool stuff. The embarrassment... yeah, you have to pay that price. It's not so bad, really. I promise. I mean, you dropped me a line, and I just wrote up 1500 words for you. Maybe 4 out of 5 don't reply if you drop them a line? Who cares, 1 out of 5 or even 1 out of 100 is enough.
Okay, summary time -
1. Don't try to be suffer or martyr or sacrifice your way into being gracious. It's not sustainable. Enjoy it and have it serve you and your goals.
2. Enjoy the 9 out of 100 people who say thanks, and especially the 1 out of 100 who becomes something amazing. The other 90 out of 100 - meh, so what. They're not people who take action, I guess. That's fine, maybe they'll become action takers later, or maybe not. But 1 out of 100 becoming an excellent friend, colleague, or confidant is pretty amazing.
3. Make connecting with people part of your entertainment time. Don't make it work time. Do it to relax, to cool off, enjoy it. Think of it as a nice privilege. I really enjoy it.
4. Stuff like this happens slowly. Incremental progress. Work towards it.
5. Start by sending out short (the shorter the better) emails to people who you see saying or doing something cool. Even if they don't write back, I guarantee they appreciate it.
6. Embarrassment and errors are part of doing meaningful things. It's not such a big deal, really. Eventually it becomes less of a horror and more of a shrug-and-roll-your-eyes type thing when you get embarrassed.
7. Keep in mind you're going to die. It puts things into perspective. Mild discomfort? Who cares, you're going to fucking DIE at some point. DO SOME COOL STUFF BEFORE THAT HAPPENS. As far as I know, you get one bite at the apple that is life. Embarrassment? Dude, eternity stretches before and after us. Embarrassment is your neurochemistry in a mildly uncomfortable position. It doesn't matter at all. None of us are such a big deal that we can't be embarrassed. Do some cool stuff today, there's no reason not to. Thank some people, do some art, drop a line to an old mentor or teacher or to your family or whatever. Life is fleeting. I meditate on this daily, which helps put things in perspective. The worry of being embarrassed pales in comparison to the the very real concern with wasting my limited life energy. The worry of coming across poorly or ingenuine or fake pales in comparison to the very real concern of wasting my limited life energy.
Helpful? Feedback welcome. Drop a line sometime, too.
I might as well comment and offer you thanks - since it's what you desire. I'm surprised by how much I agree with what you wrote. Be pleased that I'm hoovering through your material.
This actually reminds me of one thing: Is it true that we can rarely connect with people in the real life as deeply as with certain strangers on the internet, simply because in reality we might have too much conflict of interest (say among coworkers or classmates), and isn't it just way too hard to expose the visceral/philosophical side of us? After all, we are all vulnerable human beings...
In any case, I am inspired... Gotta take actions with 100% sincerity (rather than just being gracious from the bottom of my heart)! BTW, Sebastian, thanks to your article, I just sent a short note to someone who has helped me but been out of contact for a while. I am planning to make "reaching out to people" as one of my daily tasks from now on, too. =)
Thanks for the article. You covered a lot of ground but it is very useful. I generally keep to myself but these days I am realizing that we can do anything only together with people but not isolated in a cave. I came here from hacker news and started reading all your posts. You are writing awesome stuff. Keep writing.
Just found your blog. Love it. Thank you.
you’re going to fucking DIE at some point
I laughed. I'm not sure why. Maybe the sudden profanity after an otherwise "clean" article. Death is something I try to remember constantly. Keeping my own mortality in mind helps to motivate me to do something, anything, because there are only so many moments left and I don't want to waste any of them.
I don't like making mistakes. In fact, I think I dislike it more than most people.
Yet, in any discipline that includes new and novel and pioneering things, mistakes must be made. This is not a good thing, per se. But it's not a bad thing either. It's just a thing.
Embarrassment is something else entirely. The vast majority of mistakes won't be noticed by anyone else, but embarrassment is when you do something that you don't like how it reflects on you to other people.
While most mistakes can be fixed and then mostly shrugged off, I think embarrassment cuts people much deeper. In fact, I've heard plenty of anecdotes of a person getting embarrassed the first time they tried to do something, and then not trying again for a few years. Or quitting entirely, even.
I used to lie a lot when I was a kid. I wasn't intent on deceiving people, but for some reason I would just tell made up stories. They weren't even fantastic stories, they were just things that hadn't happened. I really have no idea why I did it.
One day I was hanging out with my friend Ryan and his family. We had just gone to a movie and were driving back to his house. Right as we were driving down his street I told a story to everyone in the car. I don't remember the story, but I remember it had something to do with cabinets. Hey, it was a long time ago.
Ryan's mother innocently asked a question that began with, "Wait... if you did that, then how could you have..."