If it feels like you’re trying to get something in return

He felt uneasy about Working Out Loud. After a few weeks in a WOL Circle at work, he felt like he was trying to win people over by doing something for them, and it seemed wrong. So he posted his concern on his company’s intranet, along with a question.

“My understanding of Working Out Loud is that I should contribute and ‘do good’ without the idea of getting things in return….On the other hand, I consciously create a relationship list where I collect the names of certain people who can help me with achieving my personal goal. Then I specifically target them with my ‘contribution’ - attention, support, whatever it may be. Effectively, I am trying to get their support by doing them favors.
What am I missing?”
If it feels wrong.jpg

Some responses

His colleagues responded with their own opinions and experiences, and the person managing the community shared the discussion with me. Some responded that they don’t expect anything in return from a particular individual, and yet believed that, across their entire network, there would naturally be a benefit to them. Others shared how the listing of names helped them to go far beyond the individuals they already knew in a purposeful way, and gave them access to learning they didn’t have before. One woman said she didn’t see it as currying favor with people but rather  “improving the odds” or “creating one’s luck.”

Everyone agreed that intention mattered, that the core principle was to offer things without expectations. I had the chance to send in my own reply.

"If WOL ever feels like you're ‘targeting’ people or trying to manipulate them into reciprocating, you should stop. That's not the intention nor is it a healthy, sustainable practice.
Think of your relationship list not as a set of targets but as people who can help you explore. You're not doing something TO them but rather being OPEN TO them, to their work and ideas and more. 
Each person is like a door. The greater the sense of trust and relatedness, the more that door may open, giving both of you greater access to each other's knowledge, resources, and other people. Now, if a particular door never opens, if a person never responds or you never develop any sense of relatedness, that's okay. Your contributions, if offered in a positive, empathetic way without expectations, can still benefit them (in ways you may never know). As you contribute to more people on your list, you simply increase the chances that you'll develop genuine trust & relatedness with some of them.”

And another question…

As the discussion unfolded, the topic shifted to the relationship list. After all, he wondered, if you’re offering things without expectations, why do you need a list? I replied, “If the relationship list makes the practice feel artificial, don’t use it.” 

The reason I put the relationship list in Week 1 of a Circle is because it helps you attune your attention, opening you up to people (and thus ideas, resources, and more) related to your goal. Right from the beginning, that simple act can help you see things you may have never noticed before. But if I’ve been working on a goal for a long time, or if I find the list to be a barrier of some kind, I may stop maintaining it. 

A practice like any other

Though there is a reason for each of the exercises in a WOL Circle, what’s more important is whether or not you find the exercise to be helpful. I added:

“You can think of your initial relationship list as “scaffolding” that helps you set up your practice. Eventually, you may no longer need it if you feel your practice can stand on its own.”

And that’s true for much of Working Out Loud. Like any practice, there are guides and traditions and even rules, but those are really just meant to help you get started. There is no one right way. Rather, the best practice is the one that’s right for you at a particular time, one you discover and adapt through practice, feedback, and...questions.

The list Santa never made

The list Santa never made“After all this time,” my friend said, “I think I finally understand what you mean by ‘contribution.’” Then she told me a story. She had thought of something that would be useful for an important person in her network. She worked hard on it, sent a nice note, and felt certain this would help deepen the relationship.

Then she got no response.

How would you feel? What would you do next?

An annual ritual in my house

My mother was a generous woman. We didn’t have much money, but she always managed to have something for people. It might be cookies or bread she baked. Or cologne or soap from the burgeoning inventory of Avon products she sold.

She also sent out Christmas cards each year with a personal note. She kept  list, and next to each person’s name, she checked off who sent her cards in return. If there wasn’t a check next to your name, you wouldn’t get a card next year.

A simple self-test

Perhaps you would agree with my mom’s score-keeping strategy. Or maybe you think it’s childish to withhold such a small gift for lack of a response. So consider this everyday situation:

What do you think when you open a door for someone and they don’t say “thank you”?

Would you open that door for the same person again?

When you smile at the universe

My friend was irritated. She told me how she fumed for a few days, thinking of various personality flaws that might explain the person’s lack of gratitude and, even worse, lack of acknowledgement.

But a gift with strings attached isn’t a gift. It’s bait, trying to lure the person to do something. It’s something many of us get wrong and so in our working out loud circles we practice what to do when we don’t get a response, whether you’re offering help or asking for it:

“We assume the best of people – they’re simply busy or have some other legitimate reason – and we focus on what else we can do to be helpful. That mindset ensures your requests don’t feel like burdens and makes it much more likely people will respond favorably in the future.”

With this approach, your contributions feel like an invitation, not an imposition.

After our talk, my friend simply let it go. She stopped making up stories, she mentally untied the strings from her gift, and she felt better about what she had done and about the person she had done it for.

The next day she got a response. A thoughtful, lovely, generous note.

Sometimes, when you smile at the universe, the universe smiles back.