The voluntary, uncompensated gifts of time, talent, and treasures that professionals offer to their colleagues are among the more wonderful social norms among engineers. Or course, it’s not only engineers who do this, and maybe other professions are much better at it than we are. However, I feel in my heart that we do our share.
And, in fact, I would guess that the present audience here, that reflects a high IEEE affiliation, is better than most. Gifting has become a tradition at some of the pattern conferences around the world. There’s something about the sense of identity and purpose conveyed by a professional group, be it a club or a swarm, that switches on the giving gene.
On a practical level it’s hard to find the time to turn the great ideas that society has given you into the gift of a journal article or of a short talk at your local professional chapter of the Klystron Generator Society. Fear plays a role here, as we know our professional time has value—value that our jobs traditionally convert into money that puts food on the table for those we love. And that’s a real practicality. But to cling to that perspective alone is unbalanced and short-sighted. Going beyond the job perspective to the career perspective looks beyond this month’s budget to the long-term good of not only your family, but the profession, and humanity as a whole.
A potential paradox lurks here. One can argue that, in the end, there is no altruism. One can clearly benefit from public appearances, and when I give my time to the local Ruby programming group or to the opening of a nerd café in my greater neighborhood, I am aware that I also gain publicity. This sometimes gives me pause to reflect. It’s both important, and difficult, to keep one’s motivations clear. Codes of professional ethics and dialog with your colleagues can shed light on this issue and perhaps modulate your feelings. Understand why you do what you do.
That said, it is crucial to realize that giving does not have to be a zero-sum game. In fact, it is this balance between giving and receiving that can offset the survival fear rooted in the relationships between one’s talents and one’s survival. If everyone wins in the long term by the giving of your time or talent, that’s better than a gift of sacrifice. Sacrifice and grief are sometimes useful tools in righting an untoward situation, as one finds with hansei in Japanese culture. But the notion that gift has value without someone having to suffer is a trap of Western culture that we can trace back to Aristotle, and which has been amplified in the predominate belief system mores of the Western hemisphere. A gift should be cause for celebration, both for the giver and the receiver.
On the other side, be a gracious recipient if you receive a gift. It’s more blessed to give than to receive, but it’s also blessed to receive graciously. Jerry Weinberg says that gratitude is the most powerful of human emotions. It can be difficult for you to receive a gift if its offering makes you feel beholding to the giver. That causes you to put the giver in a negative light: to view them as manipulative. Get over it. It’s likely that feeling isn’t as much about your benefactor as about you, and about how you feel the world works. That’s food for thought.
It’s about priorities. Put some gifting on your backlog, and tap into the joy of giving.