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.