The Gift Economy: Path to a Better Working World?

“How much does it cost?”

This question might be one of the most common questions we ask yet it makes increasingly less sense for the world we are moving towards — a work in which we will depend on people who can create, imagine, connect and love.

I made the leap to self employment because of a burning desire to be more creative and spend more time doing the work that matters to me. In a world where price and value and salary seem to be the markers of one’s value, people have challenged me at every step of the journey.

Yet as I have continued to share and create for the sake of creation, I have discovered a hidden side of life. A side where generosity, connection and love are central. I experienced this most recently when I had a conversation with someone in India who had taken my strategy consulting skills course at a discounted gift price. He had completed the course and set up a call to thank me. He told me it was the first thing that really helped him think about how to approach his job search and his work.

That conversation was priceless. I received his appreciation and felt loved.

It was not something I could have written ten years ago as an analytical, “facts-first” person focused on optimizing my career path and trying to break into an industry with high salaries and good “exit options.”

After leaving the corporate world three years ago, I now realize that with work, people are searching for two things.

They want the opportunity to love others and be loved.

However, we’ve abstracted so many aspects of work from this truth and have transformed so many aspects of work into formal processes and procedures that the basic acts like connecting with others, showing genuine appreciation and love and being able to take risks and create have become impossible.

That conversation was worth more than any of the work I did in my entire corporate career, yet it is nearly impossible to convince anyone who has operated with the truth that their income is their value in the world.

For more than five years, I’ve been crazy enough to share my writing and creations, working through the inevitable embarrassment that many feel when they put their ideas in public. Yet, through this and my embrace of a gift mindset, I’ve experienced things I could not have imagined, formed incredible friendships with open-hearted people and have accidentally built a life that is filled with love and connection.

None of this has been easy. It is one thing to intellectually embrace the idea of a “gift economy” and it is another to awkwardly tell a client or conversation partner that you don’t have a price and that you’d prefer to go through an exercise to explore their open-heartedness and generosity.

This essay was originally a way for me to make sense of what it might look like if I embraced the gift economy in my work in 2018. Since then I’ve engaged in many experiments and learned a lot more. Yet this is perhaps the best guide I can offer if you are starting to think about shifting to a new way of being in your work and life.

The current system doesn’t care about your gifts

As Godin argues in Linchpin, “The educated, hardworking masses are still doing what they are told, but they’re no longer getting what they deserve

For decades, we have had a virtuous cycle of a growing economy, generous organizations that took care of people with fair wages, health care and pensions and people who were ready, willing and able to sign up for that offer.

People compromised being creative and doing what matters to them because they were being taken care of AND everyone else was doing it. Now we are in those same organizations wasting our gifts and genius without any of the payoff.

Yet, the world is craving our gifts. Individuals who embrace their gifts and unleash them into their organizations and into world without fear of looking silly will thrive. Seth Godin, The Oracle of Hudson Valley, nails it when he says that the the only choice for people is to “win by being faster, more remarkable and more human.

There is a reason we pay attention every time Elon Musk launches a new venture. He is an original thinker, refuses to follow the script, and is willing to go broke chasing his dreams.

He is an artist boldly sharing his genius.

We are all geniuses and we are all artists

Seth Godin believes that we are all geniuses. In his book Linchpin, he challenges readers:

Have you ever found a shortcut that others couldn’t find?

Solved a problem that confounded your family?

Seen a way to make something work that wasn’t working before?

Made a personal connection with someone who was out of reach to everyone else?

Even once?

With this line of thinking, it becomes clear that we all have unique “gifts” to offer the world. Godin also pushes people to think of themselves as artists. Whether it be creating remarkable PowerPoint presentations like Carmen Simon or creating a fascinating Podcast like S-Town or reinventing the organization like basecamp or automattic or creating a remarkable customer experience at — it is only the artists and the organizations who embraces artists who will thrive.

The internet has lowered the “marginal cost of generosity”

Thirty years ago, gatekeepers controlled the world. If you wanted to publish a book you needed a connection.

The internet has eliminated many gatekeepers and lowered the marginal costs of everything to zero. Every day, people make edits to wikipedia, share code on github and offer advice on Medium and other platforms — for free.

As Godin says, the internet has lowered the marginal cost of generosity

Many people ask me “how will you monetize?” or “how do you plan on building a business?

We are missing the point. The internet means that I can connect with hundreds of people a year from anywhere in the world who I am excited to talk to and help.

I create the work that I am most inspired to create. I do it for the reward from helping people and from the satisfaction of creating work I am proud of.

As Godin says, 

You cannot create a piece of art merely for money. Doing it as part of commerce denudes art of wonder that it ceases to be art

But we still need to get paid right?

A gift economy is not about the money, it is about unlocking generosity & gratitude

Deepu Asok Gift Economy visual wisdom:
From @deepuasok

Charles Eisenstein wrote the book Sacred Economics (gift version) to imagine how we can build a better world by embracing a “gift economy.” His agrees with Seth Godin and believes that you are “here to give and that you have a unique gift to give.

A gift economy is not radical. It is is already quite familiar to anyone who has operated within a large family, has bought a friend a drink, has offered help when someone needed it or offered our time to someone with no expectation of return.

Within the construct of “work,” however, we abandon this community or friendship mindset in lieu of contracts, transactions and salaries.

Charles Eisenstein shares his perspective in a talk from 2015:

One thing that gifts do is that they create ties among people — which is different from a financial transaction. If I buy something from you, I give you the money and you give me the thing, and we have no more relationship after that. I don’t owe you anything, you don’t owe me anything. The transaction is finished. But if you give me something, that’s different because now I kind of feel like I owe you one. It could be a feeling of obligation, or you could say it’s a feeling of gratitude.

In 2018, I launched a Patreon account so people could support my work for as little as $1 a month. When a good friend became the first person to support me, I was overwhelmed by gratitude. We already had a great relationship, but the idea that this person wanted to support me in a deeper way was powerful. It focused my attention on how I could help him too.

Being Open To Receiving Gift Is Not Always Easy

We don’t want to receive gifts because we don’t want to be obligated to anyone. We don’t want to owe anybody anything. We don’t want to depend on anyone’s gifts or charity — “I can pay for it myself, thank you. I don’t need you

Sacred Economics

Often when someone offers you a gift, your first instinct is to reject the gift. It immediately raises the stakes for the relationship.

I don’t want to owe them anything.

Yet with our close connections and family, we often only operate within the framework of the gift. When is the last time you paid your mother for a home cooked meal?

In a gift economy you cannot get “screwed” — instead it shifts the frame to a world where where people can support each other and embrace generosity as the default state. As Eisenstein notes:

It’s the generous person who is the wealthiest in those societies (gift economies)

Despite this passing the common sense test, , we operate in a world where we are always on the defensive:

In our society we are accustomed to constantly being targeted for the sale. In the world of marketing, we are consumers to be fleeced, objects to be manipulated. Of course then, we unapologetically seek the best deal whenever we can.

Eisenstein’s was discouraged at his first attempts to implement this approach in his own work:

With all this in mind, I set a tuition price point in alignment with the resources committed and the quality of the course — $320. Then I offered a range of scholarship options for people to self-select: half scholarship, three-quarters scholarship, 90% scholarship, and full scholarship. I asked them to choose the level that establishes a commitment and that also respects their financial situation.

The results were quite the opposite of what I expected. Dear reader, maybe you are more cynical than I am, but I was surprised that among the first 150 or so registrants, half chose the full scholarship, and the majority of the rest chose 90% scholarship. The next largest contingent was the three-quarters scholarship, and only a handful paid full price.

To expect everyone to embrace generosity would be foolhardy. We have not created the conditions where that is the accepted behavior. However, we can focus our energy towards the people that are more generous and continue to devote more kindness and energy towards those people.

If people want to nickel and dime you, they are not the type of people you want to work with anyway.

Practical tips for embracing the “gift economy”

I first discovered the term “gift economy” after listening to the interview of “practical philosopher” Andrew Taggart on the Rad Awakenings podcast.

I spoke with Andrew recently about how his use of the gift economy has evolved in his practice. His framing of it seemed to explain some of this discomfort I was facing. The gift economy was about shifting focus to the person and away from the transaction. The goal is to support someone else’s life and their ability to meet their basic material needs.

What I appreciate about Andrew’s approach is that within one thought he can move between Aristotle’s contemplation of the good life, to downfalls of our current economic approach to a practical application of how to bridge that divide. It would be easy to cling to idealism, but Andrew focuses on reasonable approaches given our current world.

How to apply the gift economy to our relationships

We cannot apply the gift economy to everyone equally. This framework does not apply to everyone equally. In our lives, we often have different levels of relationships with different people. In “How An Artist Can Hack a Living” Andrew offers three types of relationships.

1. Tribe,kith and kin — share openly with each to strengthen community

2. With strangers (and I would add, organizations), you enter into exchanges out of a sense of fairness in a way that strengthens social trust

3. With ones friends or other strong connections, you offer what you can based on what you have — this creates hospitality

The first group can be your immediate family and friends and people that are driven by similar passions. Gifting comes naturally within this group.

The second groups is people you would otherwise “do business” with — these could be clients, individuals or organizations that you work with. This group is the key to building a sustainable life and creating the virtuous cycle of people that support you and are generous.

The third group is a larger collection of friends, acquaintances and “digital friendships” that may be aware of your work, may enjoy your work or just enjoy you as a person. This is the largest potential for shifting more attention to the gift economy and away from the mindset of “what is the least I can pay” towards a mindset of “how do I support more people doing great work.”

How to have the “money” conversation in the gift economy

After establishing an initial relationship with his “conversation partners” and sharing his overall gift economy approach, he then gets to the point (typically a 2nd or 3rd conversation) where he has a more explicit and in depth discussion about money and what might make sense to offer through three questions:

1st Question: What can you offer to meet my needs?

“How much during a certain period of time would you be able to offer to help meet some of my material needs?

This may raise a number of questions.

First, you are wondering, what does he mean by material needs? Andrew defines it by starting with the six ways to die, outlined by Vinay Gupta and working backwards to what helps you avoid those:

1. too hot (cooling and shelter)

2. too cold (heating and shelter)

3. thirst (water)

4. hunger (see food)

5. illness (public health and medicine)

6. injury (medical treatment)

He also often gets the question, “does this mean just your material needs, such as water, food and nothing else?” He shares that he does save for the future, but gifts help him support his desire to “ live simply and in accordance with philosophical life.”

I am struck by how different this frame is compared to a contract. Contracts have a short section outlining the work, relationship and deliverables and then devote a large amount of legal nonsense outlining what happens when one person doesn’t follow through.

Instead, this approach, as Andrew says, shifts the focus to the “social relation holding us together.”

2nd Question: Will this prevent you from caring for yourself?

If you were to offer X, would doing so make it impossible for making you care for yourself or those dependent on you?

When the person responds with a number “X,” he does not immediately move forward. He tests the answer. He tells the person that they will go through a “meditation of a sort” to test the numbers:

I tell them that we’ll be going up until we reach some pain point, which would be an intuitive way of registering over-generosity. I mark that pain point: call it B. Then I slowly count down to a point at which they feel another kind of pain, which in this case signals under-generosity. Now we have a range (A-B) with X being somewhere between A and B.

Then Andrew goes back to question number one and asks the same question:

“How much during a certain period of time would you be able to offer to help meet some of my material needs?

The answer can be the same number X again, or it can be slightly different — lets call it Y. He then asks which number sits better with them, X or Y.

If the person chooses X again, he confirms,

So, are you willing to say, then, that X is neither too much to give in light of your current material circumstances nor too little to give in light of your current material circumstances but more or less just enough?

If they are comfortable with the amount, they move on to the third question. If no, they start back at the first question with a clean slate.

This may sound laborious and stressful but Andrew feels that “it’s very important to test the answer to ensure that it’s the best one” to avoid resentment. He also acknowledges this process is not easy and that “finesse, compassion, and patience” are vital to the process.

3rd Question: Wholeheartedness

If you were to offer X within this period, could you do this wholeheartedly?

If the answer is no, you would again go back to question one and start the inquiry again. If the person says yes, then Andrew responds that he accepts this wholeheartedly.

Is this number fixed in stone? Again, here is Andrew:

…the amount of the offering may change over time and with reason. At certain times and due to changing circumstances, it may make sense for you to offer more, less, or something else. We’d want to inquire about your reasons for wishing to explore this change. And yet what needs to be underscored from the outset is that the more your life comes to order, the easier it will be for you to give freely.

Andrew has found that this approach, while seeming awkward at first, actually “irons out a lot of difficulties with money.

While he is motivated by leading an ascetic life, he has been surprised by increase in the gifts he has received over the years.

Beyond Pride: Not Being Attached To What We Create Or Expecting an Outcome

As I tried to make sense of all of this, I used the word “for” as in: “here is a gift for what you did for me.”

Andrew calls this an illegitimate move. The goal in the gift economy approach is to support each other’s attempts to meet their basic needs. This means disconnecting activity X you may do for someone from the gift of supporting one’s life, Y.

When we create something remarkable or do great work, we are wired to think we should be paid for this.

In order for gift economy to work, we cannot just apply the thinking of our existing economy. We need to pursue the work we are most passionate about and aim to create things that are remarkable — and once we create those things are created, continue doing the work that matters to us…

If we instead attach pride to our work, we will become obsessed with thinking we need to be paid for everything we create.

The reality is that some of what you create may inspire others, but many things may not. We need to continue to experiment, create and as Andrew says, “hack a living as an artist.”

It may not be easy and it may not make sense. There may not be a “business plan” and the model may not meet your basic needs at first, but judging by the increasing number of people embracing this approach, the benefits in connection, energy and the belief in other people seem to be more appealing than the old model.

The gift economy can be a spark to help unleash the huge potential in our world

In How an Artist Can Hack a Living, Andrew states:

the modern institutions, built in part, to financially support and encourage the creative life are in decline.

Yet, we operate in a world in which parents tell people to do what they love and where the advice we scream on Medium is “pursue your passion!”

This disconnect shows itself as the increasing anxiety and disengagement in our organizations.

To me this is good news.

This means there is enormous amounts of human potential and creativity waiting to be unleashed into the world.

But we need to bridge the gap to a better working world where people who wants to be an artist, a creator and do things that matter can pursue that path in a more sustainable way.

I do not present the “gift economy” as an absolute solution. I offer it, instead, as something that can be embraced more widely in our current system to help us operate in a more humane way.

As our economy increasingly pivots to one that not only enables, but requires remarkable experiences and connection, we need new models and mindsets to appreciate and encourage these behaviors. I hope that a broader embrace of the gift mindset can be one of these models.

Seth Godin is one of the best examples and champions of the gift economy. He sees incredible potential to not only unlock our creative spirits through a gift economy, but to bind us at a deeper level to each other:

The magic of the gift system is that the gift is voluntary, not part of a contract. The gift binds the recipient to the giver, and both of them to the community. A contract isolates individuals, with money as the connector. The gift binds them instead.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

Leave a Comment