What Does 'Pay It Forward' Mean? 7 alternative ideas
“The point is not to pay back kindness, but to pass it on” — Julia Alvarez
7 ways to pay it forward
I love the idea of ‘paying it forward’; the concept that we respond to being treated with kindness and generosity by doing the same for someone else.
It’s one of those values that is ingrained into the third sector, into community groups, and into the personalities of those people who seem to radiate goodness.
It’s the shining light within everyone I look up to. There’s no doubt it comes naturally to some people, but to others it takes a little work.
“The point is not to pay back kindness, but to pass it on” — Julia Alvarez
When I ask the people that I work with what their motivation is, why they work so hard to do what they think is right, they tell me that they feel a sense of duty to help other people going through an experience that they have been through. It’s this sense of duty that compels them to do something; to take action.
It’s these values of kindness and compassion that so often provide the guiding light when you’re working towards creating something, or fixing a problem, or sharing your story in a way that helps others.
These are the stories that keep me going too; that inspire and motivate me.
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When we think about paying it forward, the advice is often to ‘do the same for someone else’. I agree with that, but I feel there’s more to paying it forward which draws more from our own personal experience of the world. If we’ve learnt how to cope with something, or realised we were strong enough to survive something, it might not be so much about passing on that experience, but rather that our experience, particularly our struggles and hardships, underpin that kindness and compassion that we can take with us as we navigate the road ahead.
Here are 7 alternative thoughts about paying it forward
1. Give, give, and give some more
Here’s the short version:
Whether you can give time, money, skills or expertise, do that.
But let’s look into this a little deeper.
Can you give some time?
Giving your time can be anything from volunteering for a few hours each week at a local community group to doing a one-off favour for someone.
It’s easy to think we don’t have enough time for anything else, to add anything extra and optional to our plates, but finding even a few minutes here and there to help out where you’re needed can make all the difference; both to ourselves and the person, people or group we’re helping out.
You might prefer to schedule in some ‘giving time’ each week or month, helping out at a specific place or event, but if that feels too much just start by looking at what you already do; chances are you’re already giving your time. Think about those family members, friends or neighbours whose lives you make a little easier just by being helpful.
See my earlier post - ‘You’re already doing enough’.
Can you give some money?
Again, this might be a regular arrangement, such as a monthly donation to a charity; a small amount of money that comes out of your account each month that you hardly notice. Or it might be putting your name down on a friend’s sponsorship form, or putting some spare change in the charity tin at the supermarket. It all adds up and it all counts.
For the last ten years of running my own businesses, I have committed to donating a percentage of profits each month or year to a chosen charity. The majority of my work is in the charity sector, so this feels like the right thing to do, and it feels really aligned to my values of working ethically. I’ve also recently started to give 1% of my personal income each month to a local charity that I want to support. Using a percentage works well if you’re self-employed or do casual work and your income is different each month. Now, every month when I calculate my total income from my various roles, I work out what 1% of that total is them make an online donation that same day.
Can you give some skills or expertise?
You might be able to bake fabulous brownies for the school fair. You might know how to fix a neighbour’s leaky tap. You might stop and help someone who’s broken down to jump start their car. You might be able to give someone a character reference for a job. These small acts of kindness are priceless.
2. How can I help?
If you’ve seen the popular NBC drama, New Amsterdam. Doctor Max Goodwin is tasked with fixing the system at America’s oldest public hospital, New Amsterdam. He does this by breaking all the rules and generally going renegade. But he seems to achieve almost everything by starting out every conversation he has with people by asking, ‘how can I help?’. At first this sounds genuine and empathetic but after a while it gets a bit, well, cheesy. Nevertheless, it reminded me that we hardly ever ask other people, ‘how can I help?’ instead we assume the people closest to us will let us know when they need us and what it is they need.
Try asking, ‘how can I help?’ and see if you can provide something at a time when someone may not feel able to ask for help themselves.
3. Do a skills assessment
Do you know what you’re naturally good at?
The chances are you have a good idea what your strengths and weaknesses are. This information can be useful when working as part of a team, or thinking about changing career.
But it can also help to work out where you can be of most use. If you’ve ever felt helpless, or you want to do something to make a situation better but just don’t know where to start, reflecting on what you do best can really help to give you some direction.
There are lots of skills assessments and personality tests out there.
The ones I like to use and recommend to people are:
4. Watch what you say
There are two parts to this.
When to keep quiet
As I often say to my children, as was said to me, ‘if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!'
Which to be clear isn’t the same as saying don’t speak your mind, or stand up for yourself, but just to be aware that a thoughtless comment can stick with someone for a long, long time. So, if it’s not kind or necessary to say it, maybe keep it inside your head.
When to speak up
There’s also deliberately saying something supportive or encouraging, even if you don’t fully understand someone else’s ambition or motivation.
Usually, we don’t need each other to fully understand our points of view, or what drives us to chase after our dreams. More often than not we just need someone to believe in us, to give a little encouragement, to cheer us on.
If a friend is telling you about an idea or a goal or something else that’s clearly really important to them and they’re uncontrollably excited about, don’t look for the reasons it won’t work or tell them it will be tough. Even if you don’t quite ‘get it’ simply say something supportive like, ‘go for it’ or ‘you’ll be great’ – that’s all they’re really looking for.
5. Be a role model
If you ever had the feeling growing up that there wasn’t anyone like you doing what you aspired to do, remember that you now get the opportunity to be that for someone else.
This is not about being famous or successful or the best at anything. It’s simply about representation. It’s about demonstrating, ‘if I can do it, you can do it.’
This may be about your job or your work, it may be about your family or your lifestyle, it may be about gender or race or sexual orientation or social background. It might be about your achievements, or your opinions, your standpoints or your politics. But it could just as easily be about your values, your approach to life, how you treat people and respond to difficult situations.
You don’t have to be in the public eye to be a role model. Whether you’re at work or out shopping or socialising. Whether you’re travelling somewhere or attending an event. Whether you’re chatting to a friend in a café or commenting online.
You might be surprised who’s looking up to you.
What do you want them to see?
6. What do people often ask your advice on?
I heard this from George Kao, who got it from Paul Hawken.
“Go where you’re respected” - Paul Hawken
If you’ve ever tried to start a business in a new sector or learn a new skill from scratch as an adult, you’ll know what it feels like to be out of your depth or uncomfortable in a new situation for a while.
I have this tendency to start a new hobby, become obsessed with it, tell everyone it’s the best thing in the world, then decide it would be a good idea to turn that new passion into a business.
Sometimes that works. Sometimes that level of excitement is exactly what you need to make a success out of something and to keep yourself motivated. Other times it fizzles out, you reach the extent of your knowledge on the subject and you run out of steam. Or you realise there are lots of other people, with way more knowledge and experience than you, already doing the same thing, only better.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t start new hobbies, businesses, or anything else for that matter, but if you’re looking to actually make an impact, to make a positive difference with other people, then the advice to go where you’re respected is the advice I would recommend following.
Another way to think about this is to ask, ‘what do people often ask for your advice on?’
If a friend or acquaintance, or someone walking through the office begins a conversation with you by asking, ‘can I just pick your brains?’ what are they usually wanting to talk to you about?
I fought this for a long time, determined to follow my passion rather than my expertise, and then I took some time to answer this question honestly. Almost without exception, the thing people stop me and ask me about (on the school run, at the gym, out shopping, by text message, in general conversation at an event, i.e. everywhere, all the time!) is how to get something funded.
How do I set up this group so I can get it funded?
Do you know who might pay for the repairs to the community centre roof?
Any ideas how we can raise money for the music festival this year?
My business is failing, where can I find the money to keep going?
Once I accepted that this topic, this little niche was where I was respected and just went with it, everything else became easier. It stopped feeling like I was walking into the wind, and more like I was being carried along by a gentle breeze.
What do people often ask your advice on, and what could that mean for you?
7. Take a deep breath and let it go
Sometimes it’s not about doing something, taking action, but instead about not doing something, not reacting.
If you’re a driver you’ll know there are plenty of people who will cut you off, forget to indicate, beep at an elderly pedestrian, throw their arms about because they’re in a rush and it’s your fault the speed limit is 30mph. You can let it get to you every time, or you can let it go.
When someone says something hurtful, or completely misses the point you’d tried to make, or they say no when you ask for a favour even though you do a million things for them, let it go.
If your partner hasn’t got around to calling the roofer like you asked them to do six months ago, and now there’s a damp patch on your bedroom ceiling, book the roofer yourself then let it go.
So much of life is about not reacting. If it’s not life-changing, or it’s not urgent, or it’s not going to matter in 12 months’ time, just remind yourself that your blood pressure, your stress levels and your mental health are far more important, take a deep breath and let it go.