A view of the world from my own unique perspective

The Generosity Coefficient

I attended a Catholic elementary and junior high school, and one thing I remember about my religion teachers is that they didn’t do a particularly good job of impressing upon us, the lessons in the Bible. One thing that they failed to comprehend is that metaphor and artistic licence are wasted on children. Children have very literal minds and don’t grasp a great deal of interpretation. For example, years ago I remember reading a particularly negative review of one of the Harry Potter movies; the director had taken a few too many liberties, and the kids hated the re
sult. The reviewer said that the director seemed to forget who his audience was – kids expect the movie to be exactly like the book; only adults will appreciate a director’s nuanced interpretation.

When my elementary school religion teachers told us to “cast our bread upon the waters, and it will come back to us tenfold”, I thought this was the silliest thing I’d ever heard. If you throw a loaf of bread into a lake, sea or ocean, that body of water is not going to regurgitate ten loaves of bread. You are going to end up with either one soggy loaf of bread, or it will float away and you’ll end up with nothing.

The second thing my religion teachers failed to do was quote the Bible accurately. For the longest time, I thought that this Bible quote was correct: “Cast your bread upon the waters, and it will come back to you tenfold”.

I couldn’t help but marvel at the irony contained in that statement. The Good Book is promising a 900% return on our investment – and consistently too. Not even today’s How To Profit From The Stock Market and other investment books promise gains of that magnitude. Clearly, this advice appeals to our sense of greed – but isn’t greed (also known as avarice) one of the Seven Deadly Sins? Something didn’t add up…

So I decided to look up this verse and discovered that it came from Ecclesiastes 11:1, and the actual quote (at least according to the Catholic Bible translation) was “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again”. What happened to the “tenfold” promised by my religion teachers? The Bible was now promising only a 1:1 even-money return on our investment – what a disappointment!

The quote reminded me of some Beatles lyrics. In the song The End (from their Abbey Road album) they sing “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”. Substitute anything for “love”, and the sentiment is pretty much the same; the Bible promises a return “after many days”, and the Beatles promise it much later.

And now, The Bob Angle. I think that my religion teachers may have stumbled into greatness with their interpretation of Ecclesiastes 11:1. After observing human behaviour for many years – witnessing both kindness and the decided lack of it – I think that the the 10:1 ratio is actually closer to the truth. I believe that the goodwill generated by our kindness has a built-in multiplier, and I call it “The Generosity Coefficient”.

It’s only natural to believe that the goodwill generated by our actions is equal to their magnitude: a common courtesy is expected and then quickly forgotten, and a small favour is appreciated for a short time. Only enormous gestures have significant lifespans… or so I thought.

Looking back, I’ve found that I often remember the small gestures as vividly as the large ones, even years later. I also remember petty annoyances far longer than I should. However, I’m not the only one. As Baz Luhrman said in his 1997 recording Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen “Remember compliments you receive; forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how”.

One notable example of the Generosity Coefficient occurs in the movie A Miracle On 34th Street. If Macy’s didn’t have the item a customer was looking for, then the store Santa Claus would send that customer to their competitor, Gimbels, rather than try to sell them a different item. They lost a potential sale, but quickly gained their customers’ trust, and ultimately, their loyalty.

Years ago, the office where I used to work held an extra-curricular activity for its employees. The cost of the event turned out to be less than expected, so we were each given a refund of a portion of our contribution. The president called each employee into his office to give them their money. I forget the exact amount of my refund, but it ended with thirty-seven cents. The president didn’t have any pennies on his desk, so he rounded up my amount to forty cents, instead of down to the nearest nickel. That gesture cost him only three cents, but even now (more than ten years later), I still remember it.

There is a hot dog vendor close to my current place of work. This gentleman seemed to be doing a brisk business because every time I walked past his cart, there were people lined up, even though he wasn’t in what I would consider a high traffic location. One day I bought one of his hot dogs, and I saw that he added a slice of sausage to the bun in addition to the wiener – no extra charge. I looked around at the other customers and I noticed that he did this consistently – everyone got an extra piece of sausage. I was very impressed. Although it probably didn’t cost him much, it did give his customers an unexpected bonus. For only $2, we were able to sample a sausage that normally sells for $3. In hot dog cart terms, we were given the opportunity to enjoy his high-end, premium menu item for free. I’m not surprised that his unusual location does so well.

A friend of mine, Joanne, is probably the best example of the Generosity Coefficient in action. She told me that she was walking down the street several months ago, when a lady passed her, and then complimented her on her perfume. Without hesitating, Joanne reached into her purse, took out the bottle and gave it to the lady. Joanne said that this gesture made her feel good, and that she was glad that she was able to help a stranger.

The amplifying effect of the Generosity Coefficient also works in a negative way. I’ve noticed that petty annoyances generate far more resentment and ill will than they should.

The classic negative example is the universal consumer irritant known colloquially as “nickel and diming”. It can take the form of administrative fees, minimum balance requirements, inactive account fees, exorbitant shipping and handling charges, roaming charges, and my personal pet peeve, convenience fees. To some corporate bean-counter this may seem like a reasonable short-term revenue-boosting strategy, but the long-lasting effects (in my opinion) more than negate any short-term financial gain.

  • Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime”.
  • Ferengi proverb: “If you sell a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, then you’ve lost a paying customer”.

Picture the following scene: You walk up to a vending machine, insert your money, and make your selection. The metal coil holding your snack begins to rotate, but it doesn’t rotate enough. Your bag of chips or chocolate bar is still there, hanging precariously on the edge of that little shelf. How do you feel at this moment? More importantly, how would you react in this situation? Let’s look at this logically first: What are your losses? $1.00, $1.25, $1.50? In the grand scheme of things, that’s a pittance. However, some people become enraged when this happens. As I’m sure you know, people will strike and shake the vending machine, sometime quite vigourously. In a few newsworthy cases, people have been crushed to death when their violent shaking caused the vending machine to topple over and fall onto them. A premature and decidedly inglorious death – all for $1.00 – $1.50.

Here is a letter to the editor, taken from a local newspaper. This person is miffed that a neighbourhood store is charging customers five cents for plastic bags. Whether this additional fee actually reduces waste by encouraging more customers to bring in their own bags is debatable (and probably the subject of another blog post), but the additional charge is very small – five cents – compared to the customer’s total bill of $123. While the store may receive an additional nickel in revenue for the bag, just look at the ire it raised in this shopper:

 The Generosity Coefficient confers upon us, remarkable power and influence. It doesn’t take much additional effort to make others happy or to make them infuriated. Like option traders, we are harnessing the power of leverage. However, unlike option traders, there are no external forces acting on our decisions. We know exactly what to do in order to make this leverage work in our favour. Here are a couple of examples to get you started.

First of all, be charitable, but don’t remain in a quid pro quo mindset. Pay it forward and do something nice for someone unrelated to you. For example, the next time you’re in Tim Horton’s or Starbucks, quietly give the cashier an extra $2-3 (or $5-6 at Starbucks) and say that you would like to pay for the gentleman or lady behind you in line. Do it discreetly, and don’t announce anything. Most importantly, don’t stick around waiting for thanks – make sure that you’re out of the store before the recipient realizes what’s happened. If s/he thanks you repeatedly, then s/he will feel that s/he has paid you back. If you’ve disappeared, then s/he’ll feel that s/he owes somebody something, and is therefore more likely to do something nice for others. This will also have a secondary benefit of re-affirming a stranger’s faith in humanity – all for a couple of dollars.

If you can’t afford a couple of dollars, then you can certainly afford two or three pennies. The Canadian one cent piece will likely be phased out in the not-too-distant future. This gives us an opportunity to put the Generosity Coefficient into action, by practising our own personal phasing-out strategy. The next time that you buy something, look at the change amount on the cash register screen. If the last digit is not a multiple of five, then tell the cashier “keep the penny(ies)”. You won’t accumulate as many, the cashier is less likely to be short at the end of his/her shift, and you’ll be generating more goodwill than you realize.

As one of seven billion people on this planet, it may seem that our individual impact on the world is negligible. However the amplifying effects of the Generosity Coefficient mean that our behaviour toward others has a much greater and longer-lasting impact than we think. Your creation of goodwill in others, along with their renewed faith in humanity and feeling obliged to “pay it forward”, means that there is always the possibility that your generosity and kind gestures may ultimately “go viral”.


Comments on: "The Generosity Coefficient" (1)

  1. Beautifully written! I will be sharing this with my teens this weekend. Thank you.

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