Every once in a while, I’ll hear of an idea that’s simple, yet so powerful, that when it’s put into practice by enough people, has the power to change the world. That idea is called Pay It Forward. If you’re not familiar with this phrase, here’s a definition: responding to a person’s kindness by being kind to someone else, instead of the person who was nice to you. That person could be a friend, colleague, acquaintance or even a complete stranger.
The Pay It Forward concept isn’t new. In fact, there is a reference to it dating back to 317 BC (in a Greek play called Dyskolos). Benjamin Franklin, in a 1784 letter to Benjamin Webb, wrote “I do not pretend to give such a deed; I only lend it to you. When you… meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress.“
However, Pay It Forward didn’t make its way into the public consciousness until the theatrical release of a movie with the same name, in 2000. In this film, a grade school boy decides to conduct a social experiment for a school project. Every time someone does something nice for you, you have to pay back that kindness by doing something nice for three different people.
Why Is This Idea So Powerful?
When somebody does you a favour, it seems only natural to do something nice for that person in return. The expression “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” reinforces this philosophy of mutual assistance and co-operation. In fact, there is nothing inherently wrong with it. While the approach is perfectly logical, it’s ultimately ineffective if you want to change the world. Being nice only to those people who have shown you kindness creates a closed system. The kindness gets passed back and forth, benefiting only two people. However, if you receive a favour and pay it forward instead of paying it back, and do a favour for a stranger, the kindness now diverges and spreads, like ripples in a pond.
This is the power of paying it forward – your simple acts of kindness won’t get lost in an endless loop. By redirecting your good deeds outward, there is always the possibility that your kindness will “go viral” and spread further and farther than you’ve ever imagined. A 1970s shampoo commercial illustrated this binary growth potential quite effectively. Their message was “try our product and you’ll be so happy that you’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on, and so on…”. This is the underlying strength of paying it forward.
Think about all of the YouTube videos you’ve watched recently. Each minute, over 100 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube, and I think it’s safe to say that many of those uploaders desperately want their own videos to go viral. Knowing that something you created is spreading around the entire planet and is being enjoyed by thousands or even millions of people is the ultimate validation in this online age – you are the one making those ripples in the pond (or making a splash). Unfortunately, there is no “view counter” or any other measurement device with Pay It Forward – and there is no way to know how far or how quickly your kindness is spreading – but rest assured that the positive effects of a single good deed will far outweigh any happiness bestowed upon the world by a YouTube video of a cat chasing a laser pointer.
Why Isn’t The World Already A Better Place?
If this idea is so powerful, why aren’t we all doing it, and why isn’t the world already a nicer and more benevolent place? I can think of three reasons: few people have heard of Pay It Forward – it’s a fairly new concept, so it may take a while to catch on; secondly, fewer still have tried it; finally, those who have tried it are doing it incorrectly.
I don’t blame anyone for not trying it, because it goes against our inclinations. It feels natural to reciprocate kindness directly. If someone is nice to you, then you feel obligated to do something nice for that person when the opportunity presents itself. Doing a favour for an unrelated person feels like we’re cheating our benefactor. Also, If you are the benefactor, it can be difficult to put your ego aside and tell someone not to repay you, but to pay it forward instead.
The expression “what you reap is what you sow” reinforces this attitude – why would I be consistently nice to people if others will reap the benefits of my kindness? Answering this question requires a subtle shift in perception. Consider the following expression: what goes around comes around. There is no promise that what goes around (in this case, your good deed) will come back to you immediately – it may affect the lives of many people first before finally making its way back into your life. This is the essence of Pay It Forward. However, even if it doesn’t return to you, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that your actions had a positive effect on the lives of many people.
Paying It Forward – The Wrong Way
There have been a number of instances of Paying It Forward that received media attention recently:
- In late December 2012 in at a coffee shop in Winnipeg, one person paid for the person behind him in line, and this generosity was repeated 227 times, until someone finally “broke the chain”.
- In July 2013 at a coffee shop in Edmonton, two people gave a total of $1812 to the manager, and asked that it be used to pay for the customers’ purchases, until all of it was spent.
- A few days later, at a coffee shop in Toronto, someone did the same thing, but with $750.
Interestingly, a news outlet criticized the Toronto customers for failing to grasp the concept of Pay It Forward, and not perpetuating the kindness offered them. The customers simply accepted their free coffee and walked out of the store, which prevented the kindness from spreading, and brought the social experiment to a premature end.
While the criticism is warranted, the charity would have fizzled out anyway, because the coffee shop staff were not implementing Pay It Forward as efficiently as they could have. In the Winnipeg case, a single good deed was passed along from person to person, as if they were all dancing in one giant, magnanimous conga line. In the Edmonton and Toronto cases, even if you happened to be one of the enlightened few who gave a donation before they left the store, it would have simply gone to the next person in line. While this is better than nothing, the kindness still isn’t spreading beyond the store, and will never have the opportunity to go viral. This structure does not allow the goodness to grow or spread. The Winnipeg example, while well-intentioned, is particularly weak and vulnerable arrangement because a single person has the power to bring it to a screeching halt.
Improving The Coffee Shop Examples
While I admire the generosity of those who started each of these coffee shop examples, it’s clear that the philanthropy was going to fizzle out fairly quickly, and never take on a life of its own. Therefore, I’d like to propose another, more effective way to implement this coffee shop Pay It Forward experiment. Giving away all 500 coffees at once will create a surge in demand; as word spreads of the giveaways, most people will descend on the coffee shop like a bunch of parasites, going there only to snatch their freebie(s) and then continue with their day. If I were the benefactor, I would instruct the cashier to say nothing, and give away free items, one at a time and at random intervals – thus extending the giveaways over several days. The sporadic nature of the generosity means that the customers won’t expect anything for free, and any kindness will be a genuine surprise. As the cashier hands the order to the customer, s/he is to say “This is a “Pay It Forward” gift by someone who wishes to remain anonymous. All s/he asks in return is that you consider doing something nice for a complete stranger”. This plants the seeds of social obligation into each customer’s head, and will (I hope) encourage some people to follow through with the suggestion and perpetuate the kindness.
Paying It Forward, The Right Way
Why aren’t we harnessing the awesome, society-enhancing potential of this idea? It’s because aren’t implementing it properly. Despite our best intentions, our Pay It Forward efforts are not being maximized because we’re once again following our instincts and being nice to only a single person. If it’s any consolation, Benjamin Franklin also got it wrong. However, the Pay It Forward movie got it right, and that’s the method that we need to emulate: for each act of kindness bestowed upon us, we in turn need to be kind to more than one person. In the Pay It Forward movie, Trevor’s social experiment dictated that a recipient of an act of kindness was obligated to do something nice on three separate occasions, for three different people. Only then would the debt be paid. This eliminates the possibility of a single person “breaking the chain”.
If you’re still reluctant, then remember – what goes around comes around. Your good deeds won’t bounce back and forth directly and exclusively between you and another person – they will travel on their own circuitous journey and in the process, affect a large number of people before they make their way back to you.
Imagine the excitement that a YouTube uploader must experience when their video goes viral and the number of views begins climbing into the thousands. Now imagine the satisfaction and the warm fuzzy feeling you’ll have by knowing that your single act of kindness also went viral – spreading throughout the world and benefiting hundreds or even thousands of people. This is the power of Pay It Forward – properly implemented – and this is the society-changing power that you and I can use right now.