Giving Without the Expectation of Return

Well, it’s official. Yesterday I signed the contract to resume writing at Get Rich Slowly. I’ll be supplying a minimum of two articles per month, though I hope to write more. In return, I’ll be paid nothing.

To some, this seems crazy. To others, it seems like I’m being a sucker. To me, it sounds like fun. Often my favorite projects are the ones done solely for passion, the ones where there’s no expectation of an immediate payoff or return.

No Immediate Payoff

Last January, I had a phone conversation with Seth Godin. I was excited to pitch him on the idea joining us at World Domination Summit as a speaker this year.

“Why should I do this?” he asked.

I explained that it was a chance to share his message with 3000 receptive influencers. He was unconvinced. (In retrospect, I understand. Unlike many of our speakers, Seth already has a huge platform. While I still think he’d benefit from speaking at WDS, he’d get less from it than other speakers might.)

Seth had another objection. “You’re asking me to do this for free,” he said. “Would you do this for free?”

“Yes. I did it for free last year,” I said.

“And how much are you paid to help organize the conference?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“See, I don’t get that,” he said. “Why would you do that? I understand why Chris does it. There’s a payoff for him, even if it’s not financial. He’s gathering his tribe. But what’s in it for you?”

I had no answer. There’s not anything in WDS for me — except that I love the event, and it makes me happy to help connect amazing speakers with a receptive audience. I get true joy from facilitating collaboration. It sounds hokey, but it’s true.

Ultimately, Seth didn’t speak at WDS, and I get it. He believes free speaking gigs undermine his industry, making it more difficult for him to find quality paid speaking gigs. He needs a concrete return on his investment of time. That makes perfect sense.

But I’m still willing to work on WDS — and other projects — without the expectation that I’ll receive anything in return.

Note: Before this conversation, I didn’t really “get” Seth Godin. He sounds a little mercenary from this anecdote, but that’s not the impression I got at all. Instead, I was impressed from the first moment by how sharp his mind was and how insightful his questions were. We spent twenty minutes on the phone, and in those twenty minutes I learned a lot, especially about business. Since then, I’ve read as much as I can by him. I “get” Seth Godin now. He’s a smart, smart man.

Connecting and Collaborating

For much of the past two years, much of my work has been built around giving without the expectation of return.

As I’ve mentioned before, I meet with folks several times each week. I receive lots of email from readers and colleagues and complete strangers who want to have lunch or coffee. I agree to meet as many people as possible.

These meetings have become my real work. I spend an hour or two at a time talking about whatever my companion finds important. Last week over dinner, for instance, I discussed soccer and careers and ice cream with a fellow financial blogger. The next day, I met a reader for tea and we talked about games, about getting out of debt, and about starting a business. And the following day, I spoke with two folks by phone, exploring topics like fear and rejection and knowing when to quit.

I have no agenda for these meetings, and often nothing comes of them. But that’s okay. Other times, I get a great idea. Or my companion gets a great idea. And sometimes, I’m able to provide an introduction that could lead to a cool collaboration. (“Ramit Sethi, meet Jia Jiang. Jia Jiang, meet Ramit Sethi.”)

These meetings make me happy. I feel like I’m doing something good in the world. Plus, who knows? Maybe someday all of this connecting and collaborating will lead to the Next Big Thing.

Ulterior Motives

My return to Get Rich Slowly isn’t completely altruistic, I’ll confess. There’ll be no immediate monetary benefit, but I’m hopeful that there might be future positives that come from it.

Last week, Kim asked me to make a list of all the crazy plans that have been running through my head. “You have so many business ideas,” she said. “It’s hard to keep track of them all.”

I spent an hour jotting down the different things I’d like to do, like write another book (or three), start a new business, open a store that sells financial advice, and so on. When the list was finished, I was surprised to see that in order to pursue many of the ideas — especially those that matter most to me — it would helpful to write at Get Rich Slowly again. That sealed the deal. (Though, really, I was planning to return anyhow.)

Plus, I’ll admit: I’ve met a lot of cool financial bloggers over the past year (bloggers like Paula, Joe, MMM, and Kathleen), and I’m excited about interacting with them on a daily basis. Again, it’s a chance for connecting and collaborating. It sounds like fun!

I believe that a lot of good can come when you give without the expectation of return. You produce good in other people’s lives. Often, you receive unexpected benefits. But most of all, you make the world a better place.

Note: Some might wonder how this will affect my writing here at More Than Money. The answer is: It won’t. I’ll still be writing here about my favorite non-financial topics. I have lots more to say in coming months about overcoming fear, traveling the world, and discovering happiness in everyday life.

Expertise and Expectations: Thoughts on Success — and What Comes After

wds2013-0783-IMG_8762One of my favorite parts about working on the World Domination Summit is getting to know the speakers.

This year, for instance, I fostered friendships with radio journalist Tess Vigeland and blogger/entrepreneur Jia Jiang. Earlier this month, both spoke from the WDS main stage. Tess shared her story of leaping without a safety net; Jia talked about his project to actively seek out (and learn from) rejection. (Update: The video of Jia’s WDS talk is now available!)

Today, I spoke with both Tess and Jia by phone. Jia and I mostly talked about business. And soccer. And collaboration. My conversation with Tess was more personal. She and I have remarkably similar experiences with (and reactions to) success and life. Her counsel this morning was both insightful and helpful.

The Impostor Syndrome

Last week, Tess chatted with Carl Richards (the brains behind Behavior Gap). They discussed how strange it feels to be thought an expert when you only feel like a normal person. Carl told her about the impostor syndrome, the psychological phenomenon in which you’re unable to accept your success and accomplishments. While the rest of the world may tell you how well you’re doing, you don’t think you’ve done anything noteworthy. You feel like a fraud or a phony.

This reaction is surprisingly common among the successful people I’ve spoken with in recent years. The crazy thing is that in every case that somebody has confessed to me that they feel this way, I’ve been able to see that they’re wrong, that they are worthy of the accolades they receive.

Despite this, I still feel like I don’t deserve the recognition that I receive. Just yesterday, I met with a long-time Get Rich Slowly reader. “I want to thank you, J.D.,” this man said to me over hot tea and hummus. “You changed my life. You helped me get out of debt and save money. As a result, I was able to spend a year-and-a-half doing my own thing. Thanks.”

I accepted my companion’s approbation, but the whole time I was thinking, “Dude, it wasn’t me. It was you. You did all of this. I don’t have any special knowledge. I’m no expert.”

And that’s the thing: I’m not an expert. I’m not a financial guru. If I’m an expert at anything, it’s at conveying complex topics in simple terms so that they’re understandable to everyday people. I’m an expert at telling my own story and sharing the lessons I learn from it. But perhaps my greatest skill is self-awareness — and helping others to become self-aware.

Great Expectations

Tess is having a tough time enjoying her success. Right now, she’s terrified. The reaction to her talk at WDS was so overwhelmingly positive, and so many good things came out of it (job offers, a book deal, and so on), that she feels like whatever she does next cannot hope to measure up to what she just accomplished. She feels like nothing will be as successful as that speech. She feels like she’s reached the high point of her career.

Note: There’s no audio or video of Tess’s talk yet — soon! — but you can read a transcript at her website.

I’m in a similar position. I achieved success with Get Rich Slowly. Now, I’m ready to try other things. I have many opportunities. I’m a fortunate man because I can pick and choose what I want to try next. Yet I’m reluctant to commit to anything because I feel like I won’t be able to measure up to what I’ve done before. The perfectionist in me prevents me from being decisive.

“Sometimes I just want to walk up to Starbucks and take a job as a barrista,” I told Tess on our call today.

“Right. I get it,” she said. “Because then nobody will expect anything of you.”

“Exactly!” I said. “I can work a simple job, do it well, and come home at the end of the day with nothing to worry about but making coffee in the morning.”

“But at the same time, you know there’s more you can do, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “I have this desire to do great things, to continue helping people. And I have ideas of how I can do that while making a little money at the same time.”

“It’s that goddamn ambition,” Tess said — and we both laughed because it’s true.

The bottom line: We’re afraid of failing to live up to the expectations of others, but we’re also afraid of failing to live up to our own expectations. That’s quite a trap. How does one escape it?


Tess and I also talked about those strange situations where you’re able to meet your own expectations but unable to meet the expectations of others. I’m experiencing this in my own life right now, and I don’t like it. It’s new to me. (Usually, if I’m doing a poor job, I know it and so do people around me. If I’m doing well, that’s obvious too. But to be told I’m doing poorly when I think I’m doing well? That’s a new one!)

During her presentation at WDS, Tess talked about being trapped by a good thing. In her case, she was working at her dream job — but her dream job wasn’t as fulfilling as she’d hoped. In fact, in some very real ways, it was bringing her down. After a lot of deliberation, she realized she had to quit.

It’s time to leave when you have too much self-respect to stay,” Tess said on stage in front of nearly 3000 people. That’s an important message, one that resonates with me right now.


“Sometimes something will slowly chip away at your sense of self-worth,” Tess told me today. “It’ll chip away at your sense of value so much that even you begin to believe it, to accept that you’re not as good as you know you are. But you have to remember that you’re better than that. Life is too short to be treated like shit. Nobody deserves that. Don’t hang out with people who don’t treat you the way you deserve to be treated.”

In the end, Tess told me something I already knew: “Sometimes you have to know when to quit.”

What’s Next?

One reason it’s difficult to quit something (even when that something is a net negative) is that we’re wired to be afraid of uncertainty. We’d rather stick with the devil we know than the devil we don’t. That’s how women get trapped in abusive relationships and workers find themselves stuck in jobs that are unfulfilling or unprofitable.

Like anyone, I’m apprehensive about the unknown. It makes me nervous to leap without a net. But the thing is, I have a net. I’m lucky, and I know it. If needed, I can take a long time to discover what life holds for me. I have the luxury of being selective about which course of action to take.

“You need to listen to your gut,” Tess told me. “Do what it tells you to do.”

She’s right.

After my conversation with Tess was over, I thought about my own talk last year at WDS. In that talk, I shared a lesson I’d learned from Derek Sivers.

Sivers says you should either be so excited by something that it makes you say “HELL YEAH!” — or you should say “no” to it. When you say “no” to the things that don’t excite you, you leave lots of room in your life to passionately pursue the few things that make you go HELL YEAH! If you want to be happy, if you want to become a better person, then focus first on the parts of your life that are most important to you. Make these your priorities. Once you’ve scheduled these things, fit the other, less important things in — if you can.

For the past few months, I’ve been exploring possible courses of action. I’ve been trying to decide what’s next for me. I need to follow my own advice — which is to follow Sivers’ advice. I need to look at all of the possibilities, and then only pursue those that make me say “HELL YEAH!”

Which direction will this take me? I don’t know, but I don’t need to know either. I’m ready to embrace the uncertainty!

Poems for People Who Don’t Like Poetry?

When I was younger, I wanted to be a poet. In high school, I wrote poetry all the time. Some of it was actually okay — in a sophomoric kind of way. Most of the time, it was about what you’d expect from a nerdy high-school boy. Still, I managed to get some poems published, and even saw a few paychecks because of it.

I haven’t written much poetry since college, though. The impulse vanished. About once every couple of years, I’ll dash something off, but mostly I’m non-poetic. Here’s a little bit that I wrote on September 11, 2001. I like it.

In the twilight
the colors bleed and fade —
what once was red, or blue, or green,
is now black. Or white.

The approaching darkness
casts long shadows, cloaking
all that once danced in light,
consuming warmth, producing fright.

Though I don’t write much myself anymore, I appreciate good poetry. Here are a few of my favorites:

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Summer Storm
by Dana Gioia

We stood on the rented patio
While the party went on inside.
You knew the groom from college.
I was a friend of the bride.

We hugged the brownstone wall behind us
To keep our dress clothes dry
And watched the sudden summer storm
Floodlit against the sky.

The rain was like a waterfall
Of brilliant beaded light,
Cool and silent as the stars
The storm hid from the night.

To my surprise, you took my arm —
A gesture you didn’t explain —
And we spoke in whispers, as if we two
Might imitate the rain.

Then suddenly the storm receded
As swiftly as it came.
The doors behind us opened up.
The hostess called your name.

I watched you merge into the group,
Aloof and yet polite.
We didn’t speak another word
Except to say goodnight.

Why does that evening’s memory
Return with this night’s storm —
A party twenty years ago,
Its disappointments warm?

There are so many might have beens,
What ifs that won’t stay buried,
Other cities, other jobs,
Strangers we might have married.

And memory insists on pining
For places it never went,
As if life would be happier
Just by being different.

The Sunlight on the Garden
by Louis MacNeice

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold;
When all is told,
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth comples, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

I’m particularly impressed by folks who make good use of meter, rhythm, and rhyme. It’s harder to work within these contraints than outside of them. Besides, I don’t find much difference between modern free verse and flowery essays. (I’ll readily admit this could be a shortcoming on my part.)

When Kim and I started dating fifteen months ago, I mentioned my fondness for poetry. “I’m not sure I like poetry,” she said. “A lot of times, I just don’t get it. Plus, I don’t like being told what things mean.”

“Some of it’s good,” I told her.

“You should share it with me,” she said. But I never did.

Last weekend, I found some time to read her a handful of poems. She liked a few, but others simply reinforced her opinion. “I don’t get it,” she said after a couple of opaque poems. From her perspective, it was as if the poets didn’t want to be understood, an observation I find interesting (and, quite possibly, accurate).

So, I’m coming to you for advice. Can you recommend some poems for people who don’t like poetry? Did you used to be a poetry hater? Are you still? What poems changed your mind? What poets do you appreciate? How does somebody who finds poetry frustrating learn to love it?

Backstage at World Domination Summit 2013

Yes, I know I haven’t updated this site in almost a month. To be honest, I haven’t done much of anything for the past few weeks — except work on this year’s World Domination Summit.

Last weekend, we brought nearly 3000 people to Portland to talk about community, service, and adventure. A million-dollar production like this takes a lot of work. More than you can possibly imagine. And so, I’ve been too busy to do anything else.

The hard work is now finished, though, and the conference is over. Our last official meeting about WDS 2013 will take place this evening. From what we can tell, it was a wild success. Beyond our wildest dreams, in fact. (Yes, there were some glitches. But the good stuff far outweighed the glitches.)

There are lost of attendee photos floating around the interwebs, but few from backstage. As I do every year, I carried my camera with me constantly so that I could document things from behind the scenes. Here are a few of my favorite moments from WDS 2013.

Let's get this party started! #wds2013
World Domination Summit…on the marquee of Portland’s best theater for almost a week!

Let's get this party started! #wds2013
Loading the trucks to take stuff to the venues.

Preparing to kick off the World Float, the first official event of WDS 2013.

We set a world record by creating a 620-person floating human chain.

Our media crew was on hand to document the event. So was the local news.

Meanwhile, our volunteers were working hard to prepare for registration at Director Park.

At the main venue, the tech crew was building the set and working with speakers and their slides.

Chris G. and Don Miller conferring on stage during rehearsal.

On Friday evening, we held our opening party at the Oregon Zoo.

Entertainment was provided by March Fourth, a combination marching band and circus act.

As always, my role on the planning team this year was to recruit and co-ordinate speakers. It’s a job I enjoy. It’s fun to create a cohesive arc from ten different presenters.

Every year, I work with a secret sub-theme as we put together the line-up. Last year, the secret them was: “Change yourself, change the world.” This year’s secret them was: “Live your life as a story.” As event organizer Chris Guillebeau and I chose speakers, I looked for folks like Nancy Duarte, people whose messages are clearly about story. I also looked for people with compelling stories to tell. And, when our line-up was set, I asked speakers to consider how their talks might be integrated into this unofficial theme.

The doors open at WDS 2013
On Saturday morning, doors opened for the main event. It took 48 minutes to fill the house.

WDS 2013 Attendees listen intently to a speaker
The audience was completely engaged with the speakers.

Jolie Guillebeau helps Superman (aka Darren Rowse) prepare for his entrance at WDS 2013
Problogger Darren Rowse shared his childhood dream to become Superman.
Backstage, Jolie Guillebeau helped him make that dream come true.

Bob from Bob’s Red Mill spoke about putting people before profit. [photo by Amrosa Studios]

Backstage at WDS 2013 during Jia Jiang's talk
At the tech station stage-right as Jia Jiang talks about learning from rejection.

Improv performer Gary Hirsch turned the audience into a rock band.

Journalist Tess Vigeland told her raw, personal story on stage. Here, she steels herself for her talk.

Tess took to the audience to ask some questions. Here she’s surprised by Carol Wain.

Steve Schalchlin was joined on-stage by the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus.

We wanted to end the weekend with a champagne sendoff. We settled for sparkling cider instead.

Among the glitches this year was the fact we underestimated demand for workshops. Our attendees put together a lot of amazing unofficial events over the course of the weekend, and we thought they’d draw more folks. We were wrong. As a result, workshops were overcrowded and we had to turn people away.

This year, I partnered with Leo from Zen Habits to create a workshop on overcoming fear and building confidence. We had a great time planning it, and thought we were well-prepared for our 150-person venue. We printed 200 handouts just to be safe. But when far more than 200 folks showed up to hear us (we think there were about 250), we had to improvise on the spot. We did the best we could given the situation, but we had to scrap much of our planned presentation.

Here I am improvising (literally!) during our workshop. [photo by Amrosa Studios]

After the conference was over, we held a massive dance party in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square. As he has every year, DJ Prashant taught attendees Bollywood dancing.

See the guy on the ground in front of the stage? That’s me… [photo by Amrosa Studios]

…the photo I was snapping in the scene above. DJ Prashant teaching the crowd to dance.

Toni Anderson and Andrea Deckard have smooth moves.

My favorite story from backstage this weekend: When the event was over, as the after-party started, I hosted a dinner for the speakers. I was joined by WDS planning team member (and friend) Tyler Tervooren. After dinner, we walked to the dance party. Unfortunately, Tyler had lost his nametag, which was required to enter the square.

“But I’m one of the organizers,” Tyler said.

“It doesn’t matter,” the woman guarding the entry said.

“Really?” I said. “I can vouch for him. He’s been planning this for months.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Tyler seemed stumped for a moment, but I could see the gears working in his head. “How about this?” he said at last, as he fished in his pocket. “This piece of paper is the event-use permit for this party. It’s the document I had to sign with the city to rent this park. That’s my signature. Here’s my driver license to verify it.”

The woman laughed. “Okay,” she said. “You can go in.”

Tyler, producing the party permit in order to get in…

The best part of World Domination Summit is meeting the attendees. The people who come to this event are amazing. Unfortunately, I have less time to do that each year. This year, I managed to have dinner with attendees on Saturday night. I also spent most of Monday and Tuesday meeting with folks too. (I particularly enjoyed dinner on Monday night. Kim and I joined speakers Tess Vigeland and Jia Jiang as well as some close blogging colleagues. We had a great meal and a great conversation.)

Dinner with speaker Jia Jiang and some of my friends who attended WDS 2013

Now, I’m tired. Producing WDS 2013 took a lot out of me this year, physically and mentally and emotionally. I’m drained. It’s been two or three months since I’ve had time to work on my own projects. (As I mentioned already, it’s been an entire month since I had time to even update this site.) I love World Domination Summit, and I’d love to be a part of it in the future. But I’m not sure it’s worth the sacrifices I’ve had to make. After all, you have to dominate your own life before you can dominate the world.