In 2008, an ancient idea, which we now call the Gift Culture (GC), blossomed in my heart.
Before we move ahead, let me introduce myself — I’m Vinod Sreedhar, a Mumbai-based facilitator working on helping people deepen their self awareness — the inner world — through my personal growth workshops, and helping them become earth-friendly — the outer world — through my organisation, Journeys With Meaning.
At its core, Gift Culture is the belief that abundance must not be hoarded. It must flow
unhindered through people and through communities for it to be everywhere, like the wind. Disillusioned with the transactional nature of the conventional model (CM), this idea interested me immediately.
Our current culture emphasises profiting from every interaction and measures this in monetary terms. The Gift Culture, instead, emphasises supportive relationships, peace of mind, spiritual value, and ecological balance. Our current culture also requires written contracts to hold others accountable. The Gift Culture only asks for trust, and the belief that we would be taken care of by someone else’s sharing of their gifts.
Steeped in the transactional nature of my work earlier, I played mind-games with my clients. If I wanted to earn Rs.30,000/- as my profit, I would quote the project cost as Rs.50,000/-. The client, playing his own game, would ask for a discount and would promise higher-paying work later in the year, as a carrot. We were both lying to each other. And we both knew this. This became so normalised that I was spending more time lying about my work, as compared to doing the actual work itself. Feeling trapped, I decided it was worth adopting the Gift Culture as a brief experiment to see how (or whether) it would change me.
My experiment began in early 2008. What I had thought would be a brief experiment, turned into a full-fledged affair with it. As my equation with money was causing me the most stress, I started by offering my work for free. Any work that I did for people, was offered as a gift, and I would only ask them to cover material costs. And if they liked what I did for them and wanted to support me, they could do with money or in kind. I composed music for advertisements, facilitated workshops and learning journeys, and did graphic design work for organisations — each of these as a gift. And I found people were quite generous with their support.
These four years of Gift Culture that I practiced and experienced, have brought home to me some key insights.
The first lesson I learned was to trust others. When offered a new project, I would assume they had my best interests at heart — that they would find a way to support me even if they didn’t have money. Coming from a ‘put-myself-first’ culture, this was a radical departure. It was difficult initially, but a perspective shift helped me ease into a more trusting space.
What was this shift?
As a student of ecology, I knew that ‘everything is interconnected’ — that all the systems and processes that kept this planet working, happened together in a seamless dance of cause and effect called Nature. And as we know, Nature has no centre. Every element in it is simultaneously the centre and one of the interwoven strands in the web of life.
This interdependence of myriad elements has been the core operating system of Earth over its billions of years of existence. What we see today, is what has worked. As Daniel Quinn says in his book, My Ishmael, “The community of life that we see here at any given time isn’t just a random collection. It’s a collection of successes. It’s the remainder that is left over when the failures have disappeared.”
These ‘successes’ in Nature are the elements that have learned an important lesson — they contribute to the larger family — Nature — that they are a part of. Every single day, they share what they have, and they take only what they need. This is a form of paying-it-forward. For example, the honeybee pollinates flowers and disperses seeds without even realising it, while taking what it needs from flowers. That’s the brilliance of Nature — its processes have evolved like this, so that there is no taking without giving. All elements have been given ways to share their gifts with their community, unconsciously. Life-giving resources are, therefore, always available for all life forms on this beautiful planet of abundance.
When I applied this lens to society, I realised everything was interconnected here too. It’s simple — the more we contribute our gifts, there’s more available for everyone to enjoy. Take a skill like graphic design, for example. If I was really good at this, I could offer it to people who can afford to pay me and to those who cannot. Our existing culture encourages me to avoid offering it for free, as there are people willing to pay for it. However, when I share it for free to those who cannot afford it and only ask them to pay it forward to others, I’m initiating a growing circle of gifts, each different from the other. And I become part of that circle where the gift that I have shared, comes back to me in another form on another day… perhaps in a form that I need.
On the other hand, the more we take without contributing, the less there is for everyone. When I refuse to share my skill with those who cannot afford it, I’m keeping them from expressing their full potential. I’m preventing them from making progress unless they can pay for it with artificial resources like money. Money is not always a resource we have by default, unlike the honeybee’s natural ability to pollinate plants. By making this artificial resource the key motivator — something that most people do not naturally have already — I’m stopping them from sharing their gifts with the world. I’m destroying the circle of pay-it-forward that is the bedrock of Nature. And can we really argue with Nature’s most important process? After all, it has existed way longer than we have on the planet. All this idea requires is the trust that people around us will also contribute more than they take… an idea that all animals, except our civilization, share.
But the most important insight I had, was to not practice Gift Culture on my own. This might sound like a paradox, but think about it. Just like in Nature, abundance cannot be achieved alone. Abundance is the outcome of community. It cannot sustain itself if only some members of that community contribute — it requires everyone to contribute, so that there is a constant flow of gifts and resources from one to the other.
My realisation was that Gift Culture is a meta idea — like Nature — that will work only when we take responsibility not just for our individual lives, but also for the collective — when we realize we are all connected with and interdependent on each other. It will work when more and more people start trusting others, and develop the belief that they will be taken care of.
Imagine a society where everyone recognises the importance of looking simultaneously at their own lives and that of the larger community that supports them. What would our daily lives look like then? If we are able to shift our perspective daily, from the local to the global, it would be so much easier to see that our gifts and talents need to be shared rather than withheld.
To achieve this, we need to create more platforms where people can practice sharing their gifts a little bit at a time. Incremental changes help as we can learn from our experiences and make the necessary tweaks as required. Thankfully, we have some wonderful examples to learn from.
Couchsurfing (https://www.couchsurfing.com/) is a web-based platform where travelers stay at other people’s houses across the globe for free. The Freecycle Network (https://
www.freecycle.org/) is another excellent example — members use it locally to give away things they no longer need and to ask for things they may need, that other members may have. This helps useful items find a new home without any exchange of money. At TimeRepublik (https:// timerepublik.com/), users get paid in time for sharing their skills. Do something for someone, get paid in TimeCoins (measures the hours you’ve given for free), and use these TimeCoins to have others do something for you for free for the same amount of time. And every day, there are more such initiatives coming up across the world.
Gift Culture can be shared with children from a very young age. We develop our belief systems early on from what we see and experience. If children are exposed to the sharing economy, will they not learn to share their gifts and talents with their family, friends, and their local community? Will they not develop the ability to look at the world through a local and a global lens?
If we seek to experience a more compassionate world, it is imperative that we share with our children the reality of our abundant world and how it really works. The more they learn to see the bigger picture — the interconnectedness of all life — the more easily they will be able to open up their gifts and talents to the world.
Vinod Sreedhar is a facilitator, musician, and alternative life-styler. He is the founder of Journeys With Meaning, a social enterprise offering earth-friendly journeys featuring India’s most inspiring environmental & social solutions.