Last week I went to another brilliant lecture run by Action for Happiness. I listened to the hugely inspirational Nipun Mehta – founder of servicespace.org, a volunteer run organisation based around generosity projects and a ‘gift economy’ whereby services are given for free with the trust that people will be so overwhelmed by the kindness that they will return everything you need. (Pretty mind-blowing faith in humanity I think you’ll agree!)
Disillusioned with the greed of the 1990’s in Silicon Valley, Nipun and his friends began volunteering and conducted generosity ‘experiments’ by providing their I.T skills free of charge to non-profit organisations. The venture went so well that by the age of 25 he’d given up his promising career to helping others full time. He even took a walking pilgrimage across India to test the boundaries of generosity and love. (It was only 10 minutes into the talk and I was already in awe)
What started out as a grass-root community project has turned into a global movement with ‘radical generosity’ at its heart. Some of his initiatives include Karma Kitchen a volunteer run restaurant where each dish is given out for free because each person makes a donation for the next diner.
Now I know that there are those of a more capitalist perspective (including my boyf who I had big chats about this last night!) who say that to use the word ‘free’ is wrong because you’re still paying for the meal – all be it for someone else. So what’s the point? The point is the change in mentality – the idea that you’re getting something from someone else and passing it on to someone else. I think it’s a subtle but huge change in mindset and the possibilities if it became a more mainstream idea could create a whole different world. I mean, what a cool concept! This ‘generosity entrepreneurship’ turns our dominant economic paradigm on its head by shifting from ‘consumption’ to ‘contribution’ and ‘individuality’ to ‘community’. Ultimately it relies on the trust that people aren’t going to take advantage… pretty huge. There are those who argue that people who only ‘give’ will end up at the bottom of the pyramid but there are certainly people at the top who haven’t had to stand on anyone to get there.
Servicespace has also created ‘Smile Cards’ which allow people to do anonymous small acts of kindness and then leave the card telling the person that they must pass it on. They’ve shipped out almost 1 million cards which is an incredible amount of good deeds. They have also developed a daily good news email bulletin because if we’re not exposed to good things how can anyone believe in them? I often wonder why only bad things count as ‘news.’
Nipun quote’s the Dalai Lama’s words ‘be selfish, be generous’ to support his idea that by giving away something we are not poorer but become richer in our own inner transformations. He says that this transformation is a powerful tool for positive social change.
So what can we all do to foster this generosity?
As with every mindful venture I explore, it’s something you need to work on. But the more you develop your kindness the stronger it becomes. It’s about looking for the collective good first and the personal good second. One of Nipun’s key principals is to think small. Small acts are no less worthy than big ones so just begin by doing what you can. He say to stay rooted in the ordinary and don’t worry about the whether you have a bigger picture. Appreciate all that you receive and pay it forward, to cultivate networks of generosity and circles of kindness. Start to trust in goodness of people – I think that we are so accustomed to be wary of everyone in modern society that we selfishness is our natural mind-set. Although sadly there are people who will take advantage of your generosity it’s important to rebound those negatives with stronger positives and believe in yourself.
When we arrived in the lecture we all got given a ‘gift’ – at the end we were allowed to open them and inside was a chocolate, a smile card and a pound coin. We were asked to use the coin in a small act of kindness.
After the lecture I was discussing with my friend, who had also been to the lecture, what to do with our pound coin. We agonised over how little a pound gets you but eventually Charlotte decided she would buy a cup of tea for a man she sees sitting outside the same café every day on her way to work and I said that I would use it to contribute to buying a Big Issue magazine from the same homeless guy I see every day. However, on my way home I saw a homeless man sitting outside the nearest tube station and without really thinking about it I placed my coin into his cup. Why you may ask, did I give up my coin so easily? Because it occurred to me that normally I bypass anyone begging for money because it’s been programmed into me that by giving money it encourages dependence on hand outs. I remember once I gave a man who had come onto my train some money and was loudly tutted up by several other passengers. The reason I put my money into that man’s cup then was simply because if I was so down on my luck that I had to sit outside with a cup for money someone would be kind enough to help me.
By following Nipun’s advice and not fixating about maximum impact I feel this small act made a positive ripple…and if we all made small ripples then it’d create a much bigger wave.
Let me know what you think.. do you think this idea of ‘passing on’ could work?
For more info on any of this click on the links!