Quit Calculating What You’ll Get

We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.  —Winston Churchill

O ur days are filled with assessments on the relative value of things and actions. We look for “good deals” in virtually every aspect of our lives: buying groceries, negotiating with new employees, working out, entertainment, etc. For nearly every purchase, exchange, or exertion, we are running a mental calculation to answer the question: “Is this worth it?” This focus on value is useful and necessary – without it, it becomes nearly impossible to steward our resources with even moderate effectiveness.

Given the usefulness of our approach to these mental calculations of worth, it is natural that we apply the technique to other, less obvious facets of our world. One such facet is human interactions. On the surface, the usefulness continues. Given the volume of human contact we experience in any given day, it seems quite natural that we would make value judgments on the importance, usefulness, or value of the time we spend with any given person. We all want to avoid the time and energy vampires running rampant, don’t we?

Alas, there now appears a downside to our cleverly efficient calculations. Though it is true that we need to protect ourselves from those who might waste or abuse our time, the side effect of applying our value equation to human beings is that we begin to commoditize personal interactions. Sure, there is a certain efficiency in this commoditization: we maintain our schedule, reduce waste, eliminate distractions, and generally maintain the control we desire along with the practicability of an intelligently managed day. However, there is a not-so-subtle danger to commoditizing our human interactions.

…there is a not-so-subtle danger to commoditizing our human interactions. 

When we attach value to our human transactions, it puts us in the mode of perpetually calculating what we’ll get. Like many good habits or strengths, the initial usefulness of our skill at assessment tips into the territory of a weakness when applied to extremes. Why? Let’s take networking as an example. If you only network with people who you determine can purchase your product or service directly, you will cut yourself off from the mass benefits of making downstream connections – the true buyer is typically one or two levels beyond the initial contact. A similar argument might be made for talking to someone wanting to sell you a product in which you are not currently interested – you lose the opportunity to learn something you may not currently know or a connection with other potential benefits.

The examples above are valid and practical but represent the same problem: in both cases, we continue to calculate what we’ll get in current or downstream interactions. Useful, yes, but we are still commoditzing the interactions. The real problem with these calculations is that they separate us from something bigger and more profound, our humanity. You see, we are called to be the light, the example. Human interaction gives us the opportunity to make an impact, foster change, touch someone, and move another to something more. We are built for it.

Human interaction gives us the opportunity to make an impact, foster change, touch someone, and move another to something more. 

When we continually calculate what we’ll get, we close our self off from a part of our humanity and our greater calling. We miss the opportunity to move, and to be moved, in new and unexpected ways. Opening ourselves to the broader possibilities in interactions with others puts our frame of mind in an expansive, receptive, and generous mode. It enables us to see beyond the transaction and into the deeper waters of compassion, empathy, and vulnerability. Here, we find the good and the beautiful of our humanity and the greater opportunities that lie beyond.

Too esoteric for you? Try it. I’m not suggesting you follow Jim Carey’s entertaining example in the movie, “Yes Man.” It is not necessary to throw common sense out the window. However, I am challenging you to quit calculating what you’ll get just a little bit in your day. Approach those around you with a bit more altruism and you’ll find a new level of satisfaction and fulfillment.  You’ll also find your generosity returned in unexpected ways. When we let go of that return, even just a little, we get closer to the true center of our humanity and the highest purpose to which we can aspire.


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