The Generosity Test

Here’s a simple exercise you can do to see if you give things freely or if you give them to get something in return. You might be disturbed by the results.

As you do it, pay close attention to each step in the exercise: the moment you decide to do it, the way you do it, and how you feel after you’ve done it.

Try this today: Hold the door open for someone you don’t know.

After you!

After you!

“After you!”

When I do this exercise, here’s what happens.

  1. I get a good feeling when I decide to open the door. I’m about to do something nice.
  2. I make eye contact with the other person or say something to make sure they see me opening the door for them. After you!
  3. When they thank me, I get another surge of good feeling. If they don’t, however, I get irritated, even angry. How rude!

It took me a while before I recognized that I wasn’t really opening the door for the other person. I was opening it for myself and for those positive emotions I would experience. The person didn’t consent to participate in my little feel-good exercise. For all I know, they could be deep in thought or otherwise not in a frame of mind to appreciate or even notice my gesture.  


In Robert Cialdini’s oft-cited book, Influence, he writes about how people are wired to reciprocate and how you can use that to influence people to do things. Charities, for example, often include a small token like address labels in their mailed requests for a donation. That triggers a sense of obligation and makes it more likely you'll do something in return.

It works. When offer your own gift, even social media-savvy people like Guy Kawasaki reference Cialdini's work and advise you to "invoke reciprocity":

“When you help someone with something, and they say thank you, say “I know you would do the same for me.” Most people would then be obligated to return the favor at this point.”

But how does that feel? And does it produce sustainable results or does it only work once? After your first batch of free address labels or an overt mention of returning the favor, you get the idea that you’re being manipulated, or that the other person is keeping score.

A better approach to giving

Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, offers different advice. In his book, The Start-Up of You, he had “a theory of small gifts” and the role they play in building relationships.

“It seems counterintuitive, but the more altruistic your attitude, the more benefits you will gain from the relationship. If you insist on a quid pro quo every time you help others, you will have a much narrower network and a more limited set of opportunities. Conversely, if you set out to help others…simply because you think it’s the right thing to do, you will rapidly reinforce your own reputation and expand your universe of possibilities.”

Small gifts, freely given, are like magic for both parties. For the giver, the contributions feel authentic and genuine because there are no strings attached. It's easier to give because you're not manipulating or promoting, you're being helpful. The receiver, sensing this, isn’t burdened by the weight of an obligation, and the gift no longer feels like an unwanted transaction.

Importantly, when you offer things freely, there is still a benefit. But it isn't on an individual basis - "I did this for you and you'll pay me back." It's over the course of your network. Across the set of relationships in your network, the tendency to reciprocate will yield an aggregate benefit for the person who gives and eliminates the need to keep score.

The Zen of Holding The Door Open

So how would you do on the Generosity Test? What are your true motives in holding the door, and would you be annoyed if you didn't get the response you expected?

If your answers aren't as noble as you'd have liked, that's okay. Offering small gifts freely takes practice. That’s why there are so many contribution exercises in Working Out Loud circles. The repeated practice helps you develop new habits and a new mindset regarding how you make contributions.

The key to real generosity is to be detached from the outcomes. Go ahead and hold the door open without any expectation of a thank you. Make a helpful introduction. Offer some assistance without any mental strings attached.

Your small gifts, freely given over the course of your network, will deepen relationships and unlock access to possibilities.

Lessons from self-publishing a book

There’s something special about holding a physical book in your hands. The feeling is even more special when it’s your book. It gives the ideas more weight somehow (no pun intended, honest). The contents weren’t just written, they were published. Well, now it’s easier than ever for you to publish your own work, whether it’s the next great novel or just stories from your life for your kids to read.

Earlier this year, I self-published Working Out Loud. By sharing what I learned in the process, I hope to encourage you to publish too.

Working Out Loud on Amazon

The trade-offs

The benefits of using a traditional publisher are that you get more services: editing, design, marketing. But those things come with a cost. Because the publisher is providing those services, you tend to have little or no control over them. They’ll cost you in terms of reduced royalties too. (Though it’s the rare author who makes money from publishing a book no matter how they do it.)

Also, the value of their services, particularly marketing, has decreased over time. Because publishing margins have gone down, and because the expectations for most authors are low, a publisher won’t spend much on marketing your book beyond offering it in their catalog to wholesalers. As for the other services, it’s easier than ever to find good copyeditors and designers.

Perhaps the biggest cost is a mental one: you have to be picked. You’ll spend time and emotional energy searching for validation which will be hard to come by, and the vast majority of aspiring authors will never get past the gatekeepers.

Resources to help you self-publish

The best book I’ve found on self-publishing was self-published by a popular and acclaimed author, Guy Kawasaki. Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur is the single best reference guide on the process and the different options. Reading this book can save you a lot of time and help you avoid some grave mistakes.

Author Publisher Entrepreneur

Your First 1000 Copies will help you think about reaching an audience for your book. Without the traditional marketing and distribution channels of a publisher, you’ll need to do something yourself. This book helps you understand what that is and how to do it.

Your First 1000 Copies

Pleasant and unpleasant surprises

While self-publishing necessarily means you’ll be doing work that a publisher would have done otherwise, some context might be helpful. In terms of hours spent, my rough estimate is that 98% of publishing my book was writing and 2% was publishing. So while publishing is important, those percentages make it clear where you should focus most of your time and energy.

I chose Createspace because it’s owned by Amazon and provides a complete set of services. The editing service was excellent, and they easily customized the cover design I had done elsewhere. They created the Kindle version automatically without any work on my part.

My biggest mistake was related to the interior design of the book. I naively assumed I would just submit a Word document and they would “format it.” But the first proof copy came back with issues ranging from header sizing to spacing to capitalization mistakes. It took me three more months of scrupulously checking every line - and ordering more proof copies and paying more fees - till it looked the way I wanted. I could have avoided that by setting up headers more carefully in Word and providing more detailed instructions for formatting from the beginning.

Createspace has some limitations. They don’t print hardcovers, so if you want one you’ll have to use another service (and distribute it yourself). They also don’t offer the same discounts to bookstores as other publishers (20% instead of 40-50%). If you want a bookstore to carry your book, you’ll have to sell it to them yourself.

All things considered, I will use Createspace again for my next book. (Note the self-affirmation in that last sentence!) The Createspace staff was extremely friendly and helpful, and the entire process cost well under $2,500. On June 10th, after years of working on it, my book was available on Amazon sites around the world as a paperback and ebook.

I remember the thrill of opening up the Amazon app on my phone, searching for “working out loud,” and seeing my book there. Just like all the others.

Choose yourself

Each of us has our own story and our own ideas. Now, more than ever, it's up to you to decide whether they are worth sharing, whether what you say might help or entertain or inspire someone else.

You don’t have to wait to be picked. You can choose yourself.

The world needs more good stories and good ideas. Why not yours?