Thursday, April 12, 2012

Paying it Forward, And Why You Shouldn't

I have been thinking about this one a lot. The idea of paying it forward is a good idea. So why would I suggest that you not do this? It is not that I don't think you should do random acts of kindness, I simply want us to look at the underlying issue of why we are doing the random acts of kindness. And of course, I will be relating this to writing ;)

The idea of paying it forward is the principle of doing something kind to someone in hopes that they will do something kind to someone else and so on and so forth and eventually it will come back to you. The danger with doing this is that you can get caught up in a numbers game of "I have done all these good things, so why is no one doing it for me?" Very psychologically damaging, I can assure you!

In my experience, the more you do for others, the less others do for you. I can only sit back and imagine the logic behind it, because I was raised to do for others. I don't have the experience to really understand why people operate this way, I only know that I have watched it happen. My guess is that people must think "Look at Joan always volunteering and helping out! She is amazing, like a super mom or something." And what superhero ever needs help, right? (As a super hero junkie, I scoff at this mentality. As a super mom, it makes me want to cry!)

My other guess is that people figure if you have all this time to be doing for others, then surely you have already taken care of you and yours right? Not in my house! Sadly, it is easier for me to do for others than for my own. Everyone needs help sometimes, even if they are taking time to help others.

My jaded guess is that most people are just selfish. Most people don't do for others unless they can see some kind of reward for them in the end. (My optimistic self is yelling at me that I am wrong! Most people are like me and enjoy helping others!!) That is why the paying forward principle doesn't work.

So how does this apply to writing? We are a community and as such, there are a lot of us out there trying to help one another. We offer free advice, we help read and improve each others' work, we share marketing tactics, have crying sessions about how tough our industry is, have follow backs on twitter, re-tweet each others' messages about books for sale, give our books away to a LOT of people. On the surface we look like an awesome community of paying it forward.

But then you get into threads and forums where authors are complaining about other authors not scratching each others' backs. Where authors sign up for a follow back, follow you and then sneakily un-follow you right after you followed them. These guys are in it for the numbers, they are takers, they ask for help, but never give it. They get angry when you give them critiques.

Then there are a lot who are not so brutal, but who don't do much more. They follow you, but don't re-tweet. They will ask for help, but rarely offer it. When they do "give tips" it is a sales pith for their book on marketing or whatever.

And if you are keeping track of all the good your giving and what little you are getting, then it becomes disheartening. You become resentful and angry, or you just give up doing good. What are you getting out of it, really?

I was raised to do good deeds just because it was the right thing to do. I was raised to make time to do a little good. Don't overwhelm yourself with good works to the point where you get burned out. Don't throw yourself into good deed hell where you are missing something, or someone, because you are always volunteering. But don't do it to get something out of it. That is self-promotion, not a good deed.

And when you are not expecting a return, then you can't get angry when you don't get it. But when you do get it, that return feels so much better because you weren't expecting it.

Here are some personal examples I have experienced in this when it comes to our fellow writers:

There is this guy on twitter. He asked me if I would read his story and give him a critique. I had just finished up with another person's project that took me WAY longer than I had expected and was feeling a little burnt out. I told him I would try and make time for it, but I would have to charge for editing or whatever other service. He said he'd be happy for a quick read. A MONTH LATER I finally got the story back to him (I had only been reading it while waiting in car line for my boys.) The story was a very rough draft and I gave him some general notes to get it to the next level. He didn't respond, so I figured I had really pissed him off.

Then all of a sudden someone is re-tweeting all of my book promos. Yup, he appreciated what I did for him. Two months later and he is still doing it! We've talked a bit back and forth about his book, and I am actually excited to see where this dude goes. He has the right mind set. He took my tips to heart and he showed gratitude for what I did for him. Did he have to? Nope, no skin off my nose. But it feels good I am much more likely to help the next guy or gal because the experience left me with a positive feeling. (A warm thank you would have achieved the same effect, but helping my promotions is awesome too!)

I love follow back threads on Linkedin and other writer sites. I don't follow people as a numbers game so much, as I like to connect with other authors and see what everyone is doing. The big name authors aren't fun to follow because they probably have bots posting for them, but us laymen working our way up are constantly talking about things we experience and I like to learn from others' experiences!

I frequently re-tweet books that I think look interesting, or that I add to my wish list. (I also participate in WLC's tweet teams on occasion, though I haven't found that it does me much good in sales.) Well, I hit this group of folks (can't really remember who all they are now) who I had re-tweeted because I actually found their stuff interesting and they re-tweeted me back! Now a couple of them obviously were doing it as a courtesy and didn't take a lot of time (since one re-tweeted a comment I made to someone else which would have made no sense to anyone not following that comment thread!) But a couple sent messages after telling me that they thought my book looked nice and couldn't wait to read it! I got a warm fuzzy feeling from that.

And if you know me, you know I'm not really a warm fuzzy feeling person! But if I had been expecting it all this time, then what little that I did get wouldn't have meant so much. I would have been thinking something like "I've re-tweeted for 270 other authors and only five have re-tweeted me back? Screw this!" (Actually, I probably would have stopped long before I hit those five if it was just a numbers game.)

So the point of this ramble is, rather than pay it forward, do good just because. Or if you need some cosmic motivation, look at Karma, and hope that somewhere somehow it will eventually catch up with you.

Don't do good to get something. Do it because it is the right, kind, and generous thing to do. But if you do get some good back, be grateful and share that gratitude with the one who did it!

Love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below!

Until next time,
Keep writing!


  1. So true...I have been in a volunteer position for 15 years and just got recognized 2xs in the past 2 months. If I was doing it for the recognition I would have quit long ago! The recognition was nice but it is more about giving service for love!

  2. Congratulations on those recognitions!

  3. I agree with you! And for the record I so enjoyed reading this. The title intrigued me and I'm so glad you went in the direction you went in. Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Thanks for the comments Jayne! I'm glad you enjoyed it! A little play on titles is always kind of fun! When my mom saw it, she said "I know I taught you better than that!" and I had to actually talk her into reading it!