Resolution Review #9: An Economy of Giving

"Groundhog by Pearson Scott Foreman" It’s time again for my monthly Groundhog Day Resolutions Review, when I analyze how I’m progressing on my yearly goals. The last month was quite a change of pace, however, as it was dedicated to travel and ended up being a break from my 2015 goals! I’m back in the States now after 24 days away from home. I had a good time, faced some very old personal demons, and have come to a new understanding of my Groundhog Day Resolutions thanks to a timely reading of Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking.

Warning: this entry talks about social anxiety and empathy, and is highly personal; it may be difficult to follow if you are not crazy in the same way I am :-)

Travel to Taiwan in Context

Earlier this year I had to have dental surgery to remove a rotten #19 tooth. This is a pretty important chewing tooth, and faced with the option of replacing it with either a bridge, dentures, or a dental implant, I decided to go for the implant. It’s the more expensive option, but is probably the best choice if one wants to enjoy food into their twilight years. I LOVE FOOD, so the choice was pretty clear to me.

So, back in February, the decayed tooth was extracted by a local dental surgeon. Badly infected tissue and bone was removed along with the tooth, and new bone graft material (made from sterilized cadaver bone!) was stuffed into the gaping hole in my jaw. After three months of healing, the #19 site would be ready for tapping with a dental implant, which is metal socket that’s screwed into the jaw. After the socket hole heals, an artificial tooth gets plugged in!

When mentioning the procedure to my Dad, he reminded me that his brother is a dentist who specializes in implants from a company called Bicon; he likes them so much that he is the official Taiwan importer of the system. Why not come to Taiwan, Dad suggested, and let Uncle do the implant? The money saved could go to the plane ticket, and it would be a great opportunity to spend some time in Taiwan and get reacquainted with the island. This seemed like a good idea to me, so I told my dentist that this was the plan and booked a flight for mid-October.

A Quick Recap of my Goals

I’m still documenting the trip on my Taiwan Travel 2015 page if you’re interested in the specifics of the trip. For this Groundhog Day Resolutions (GHD) Review, I’m going to talk about the personal development insights that resulted from facing old childhood anxieties. First, let’s start with a recap of my GHD goals.

In a nutshell, my 2015 goals are about being happy as I learn how to make money while pursuing my creative interests. I’ve been pursuing these same goals for years, never having actually cracked the creative independence nut, so I tweak the formula every year. This year the formula was adjusted to worry less about time (it’s distracting and therefore unproductive), dumping unloved material possessions (thanks Marie Kondo!), developing the stationery business (for passive income!), getting healthy (for long life and increased energy to work), and solving my motivation problem.

The Taiwan trip wasn’t related directly to any of the above goals. In my mind, the trip was more about connecting with family and an unfamiliar culture while testing my ability to work anywhere as a digital nomad. As a single freelancer working from home, one of my biggest personal challenges is having a social connection with people. I often don’t see people for days at a time; after so many years of working in creative isolation, I’ve started to go a little stir-crazy from the lack of daily social discourse. Visiting Dad and reconnecting with relatives I haven’t seen in a long time is part of my overall strategy to have more meaningful personal connections. I wasn’t exactly sure how it would go, but I figured the experience would teach me a few things.

Lesson 1: I still have personal demons

I had been looking forward to the Taiwan Trip with a mix of anxiety and excitement. The anxiety comes from childhood memories of being trapped in a place where I didn’t understand the language. I also didn’t know what the expectations were of me, and sensed I was messing up all the time. I was a pretty sensitive and shy kid when I was 9, the age at which my family moved to Taiwan from the United States. Having experienced the casual racism that comes from being one of the only Asian kids around in 1970s rural New Jersey, moving to Taiwan heightened my sense of being an outsider, stuck between cultures and beloved by neither. This planted a feeling that I’m not wanted, my presence grudgingly tolerated by the people around me, and it still lingers in me to this day. I learned to cope by creating my own sense of value independent of what other people thought, becoming as personally competent and self-reliant as I could; it’s not surprising that this contributed to a tendency towards social isolation. Eventually I realized how damaging my attitude was, and made an effort toward community outreach, joined some positive-minded organizations, and got involved with more projects that were “bigger than myself”. I was feeling pretty good about this until I planned my trip to Taiwan. All the old feelings came back, quietly, undermining my desire to go.

It turned out that my fears were unfounded, and thanks to an observation of my dad as he bought some fruit from a street vendor I saw a way to diminish my anxiety. The first takeaway was that Dad didn’t seem bothered by how other people thought of him; he was entirely comfortable if someone thought he wasn’t Taiwanese.

This led me to wonder why did this issue bother me so much? There were three behavioral patterns that I thought were relevant:

  • I have a lot of social anxiety My biggest fear about being in Taiwan was that people would assume I was “like them” and react poorly when they discovered I couldn’t speak Taiwanese or Mandarin. Coincidentally, there is this video of a Taiwanese local berating a foreigner that describes the kind of reaction I was worried about. This social anxiety diminishes when I’m in the USA because I can actually talk to people, but it’s taken me a long time to overcome it. It all snapped back to square one when I arrived in Taiwan.

  • I have imposter syndrome when it comes to being Taiwanese. This may seem related to the above social anxiety, but it’s subtly different. In Taiwan, I look like I’m a local more or less, but I’m not. I actually am an imposter, in a sense! Coupled with the social anxiety, it made me less adventurous.

  • I am super-sensitive to feelings I perceive from others. Perhaps this comes from trying to compensate for my lack of ability to communicate in Chinese or Taiwanese; reading emotions and facial expressions is how I got by, while quietly accepting the sense that I was failing to be a fully-functioning member of society. Ugh.

Having identified these patterns, I realized that none of them was a compelling REASON to be bothered. Why be bothered at all by a few confused stares and silent judgement? Does that really stop me from being me, or doing what I want? Why do I care what people think about me? All I know is that I do care, and I can’t help it. Perhaps there was some way to shift the power in my favor, or at least not give in to negative feelings.

Which leads me to Amanda Palmer.

2. Amanda Palmer and the Economics of Giving

Musician Amanda Palmer wrote a book called The Art of Asking some time ago. I’m not familiar with her music or the work of her celebrated husband Neil Gaiman, but I was aware that she had had a successful kickstarter that brought her over a million dollars. This had been followed by Internet backlash about her “taking advantage” of the generosity of people despite having this big chunk of money. Being in the business myself of trying to make money from my creative work, I’ve personally had difficulty asking for anything, so I figured I should read her book. I was mentally prepared for a book about how she methodically reprogrammed herself to be able to ask for help without shame, rah rah!

It turns out that The Art of Asking, as I’ve interpreted it, is not like that at all. At the heart of it is the story of an artist who, like me, cared an awful lot about what people thought of her and discovered a way to make small-but-meaningful connections that accumulate over a lifetime without compromising her own nature to pursue genuine relationships. Her philosophy as I understand it is based on the act of giving and receiving within that context, creating a great big ball of trust that drives tremendous good will within her fan community. She’s part of it in a hands-on way, and that makes a huge difference. The Art of Asking is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a long time, appealing to my love of stories about how people connect and also connecting the dots for my own work:

  1. I had been thinking about “creative independence” as a transaction, exchanging “what I do” for “money”. This had never sat well with me, though. I have a desire to give stuff away, and feel considerable anxiety about it. In fact, the reason that I have been focusing on product rather than consulting is because it’s much easier to say, “if you like it, buy it. If not, that’s OK.” It seemed cleaner. Palmer’s approach goes further, emphasizing the nature of giving because she wants to give, trusting that it will somehow come back because she puts the effort in.

  2. I have never liked thinking about “the marketplace” as a numbers game. Conventional business thinking is largely about abstracting people into a statistical model that can be manipulated to produce revenue. The connection is strictly monetary, based on perceived usefulness of my goods and its negotiable market value. I wanted more of a connection, personally, but had stopped short because I thought that it was “not good business thinking”.

  3. I like giving people stuff that they like. I had re-cast this desire to give people stuff as a “marketing strategy” based on a “freemium model”; by giving people a taste of what I do, I could attract the people who REALLY liked what I was doing without the barrier of price. It’s a good strategy that works for a lot of products, but the real reason I had thought of it in this was was to not feel “dumb” about business. Really, though, I just want people to get something they like and find some path to happiness through it.

The typical advice that an artist receives is to think less about “connection” and more about “exchange” so they can make some money and not be a kind of leach on society. I have an artistic temperament despite my skillset being largely technical, and so monetary exchange isn’t the first thing on my mind. What’s important to me, fundamentally, is finding truth and authentic connection between people, dreams, and ideas; it’s what Palmer called connecting the dots. What I found really interesting about Palmer’s approach was that her business model is sort of like everyone can be friends if they like the same stuff, backed by the trust that washes over everyone through the act of giving and receiving. The act of trust is initiated by asking, and it opens up a myriad of possibilities that result in greater participation. I think the model works because the asking is made possible through massive amounts of giving between everyone. Palmer, as the artist, is at the center of this: her songs are pay-what-you-like, she coordinates gatherings between fans, and shares what she’s given freely in kind. She’s also seems quite savvy about giving people the opportunity to participate in something greater than themselves, and people gladly give what they can in such circumstances. It’s possible because Palmer has, in her role as the center of this giving universe, earned the trust of a positive-minded self-selected community of like-minded people.

The book is a lot more than what I’m describing here, so go grab it for yourself! I must admit that I’ve never been part of the Dresden Dolls fan community or liked Palmer’s music. However, being a fan of other nerdly pursuits, I sense the underlying truth. There is a LOT of room for sharing and generosity, just because people want to be part of something wonderful, empowering, and positive. I’ve seen it at work in the online MMORPG roleplaying community, in tech charity events like GiveCamp, and in the willingness of people to volunteer time and money for community causes.

3. Social Anxiety and Empath Powers

After reading The Art of Asking, I happened to stumble upon an article correlating social anxiety to being am empath. Having identified social anxiety as a component of my Taiwan Travel Fear, I was curious how this might possibly relate to empathy. Wasn’t I just being self-centered in my fears? What did empathy have to do with it?

The term “empath” has connotations of science fiction and fantasy. A lot of the online material I found has a kind of New Age / Spiritual slant to it, but that doesn’t undermine the idea of a “person who is sensitive to the emotions of others”; I recognized several Empath traits in myself:

  • Extremely sensitive to other people’s feelings, taking them as their own or dwelling on them more so than other people
  • Can tell when people are not saying what they are really thinking
  • Intuitive, pattern-seeking
  • Always looking out for the underdog
  • Has a need for solitude
  • Finds it impossible to do things that aren’t enjoyable, hates routine
  • Strives for the truth
  • Always looking for answers/knowledge

Relating the above to the topic at hand, I can say with certainty that my social anxiety stems from how I think other people are feeling about me. I’m not sure I can really “read” other people’s emotions, but I do spend an awful lot of time interpreting underlying intent. I am also often confused when people say one thing when they are thinking something else; this just seems wrong to me. In more practical terms as a designer, I’ve applied my preoccupation with how people feel toward extracting intent, motivation, expectation, and desire at the start of a project; these are after all the underlying factors that one must glean to create useful metrics for success. Wasn’t this obvious? Perhaps it was not.

Reflecting more deeply, I think I really am preoccupied about how people feel, and I tend to dwell on it. If I am the source of negative feeling, I’m quite distraught. If I am the source of positive feeling, I’m ecstatic! I’ve often wondered if my reaction was perhaps too overblown, particularly because my own ability to self-motivate seems dependent on the energy of other people; functionally speaking, perhaps that is how I am an empath: I think a lot about other people’s feelings and it is, for whatever reason, at the VERY TOP of consciousness. It would be cool if I could read minds or blast people with psychic powers, but I’ll settle for calling a functional empath: a person who feels based on the feelings of others, and has developed the ability to read emotion with high sensitivity.

A Soup of Social Anxiety, Desire to Give, and Applied Empathic Powers

In the past, I think I was afraid I was not wanted. In fact, I was pretty sure that I wasn’t wanted in a social context, largely a burden or dead social weight. I quietly thought that I was not the equal of other people, and perceived of having limited value outside of having the ability to fix people’s computers. I felt imagined disgust and pity. These were not good feelings, and yet I internalized them. With my empathic “powers”, I read tolerance from people as thoughts that there must be something wrong with me, even from people who supported me. I felt their quiet judgment and assessment of my shortcomings lurking beneath their acceptance.

Today, I know that those unspoken judgements MIGHT have been there, but I also know that they’re not nearly as absolute or permanent as I imagined. Sure, people might think it’s odd that I can’t speak Chinese despite having lived in Taiwan for many years, but it’s momentary and they really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I have been blessed with excellent friends. I also know that I have many positive qualities and abilities, and have demonstrably learned to rely on my own strengths . My empathic powers have also grown, harnessed productively in service of design and communication. I can see people extremely clearly for who they are and what they desire, and this makes me a great negotiator and teacher. My empathic nature grants me a tremendously detailed and powerful theory of mind, which further helps my ability to communicate and anticipate need. My self worth is my own, not subject to the whims of others. Value is, of course, relative, but I don’t need to fix the rate of exchange to other people’s priorities ahead of my own.

So what is there to be afraid of, really? Social anxiety, begone! This is largely a solved problem, I think, and not worth worrying about.

But that said, what do I really want?

I think the whole point of being creatively self-sustaining is to be happy, and I define my sense of happiness when everyone around me is also happy. This is the end game I want to perpetuate, empowering myself and sharing what I know with others so we can all be happy as we productively seek the fulfillment of our desires within a positive community context. That’s the dream, really. If I’m an empath on any level, to be surrounded by happy people is the only way I can also be happy.

The Amended Business Model

Achieving this kind of happiness under my own steam requires the combination of my goals with the insights from The Art of Asking. Let me take a stab at consolidation; here’s what I think underlies my creative giving engine:

  • The Pursuit of Excellence
  • Spinning uncertainty into certainty
  • Creating tangible results every day
  • Maximizing sharing through giving and receiving
  • Sharing as much as possible with as many as possible

Doing more of all that, continuously, is how I think I might give myself a good kick in the pants. What has held me back from really performing on this level, I think, has been the lingering social anxiety and old feelings of worthlessness I’ve described above. As an adult, I know that other people may not like what I do, but that’s not a real threat. As they say, “haters gonna hate”. The counter is to to keep making what you want, putting that into the world, and gathering your tribe closer. At a certain point, all that giving and sharing should generate a sustainable model that is not based on cold-hearted impersonal transactions. While it’s perhaps not the most efficient way to skim revenue from a market demographic, I’d rather strive to create in this way. I’ve got plenty to say, still. I know this approach probably sounds nebulous, but practically speaking I don’t think it’s a bad risk to try out for 2016. I’ve already got another two-year contract booked to fall back on.

I’ve got just one more GHR Review coming on December 12, and that will wrap up the year until February 2, 2016. Let’s see how much I can put into practice before the holiday break!