Updated on 09.26.10

The Value of the Golden Rule

Trent Hamm

Brian writes in:

You write in all the time about the “value of building community.” I think that’s pointless. If you want to succeed, you should just look at each situation, ask yourself how you can get the most out of it, and move on from there.

Here’s the problem with that scenario: every time you do that, you negatively impact future interactions, not just with that person, but with others as well. Your reputation becomes a negative one, and it begins to precede you, not just in your workplace, but in your entire field. It impacts you negatively in a social environment as well. That kind of philosophy only works if you’re truly a loner and anticipate spending your life not staying in the same place or the same social group or with the same company for long.

My motivation for helping others is usually pretty altruistic. We know the challenges that everyday life can give you (trust me, you learn that pretty quickly with three young kids if you haven’t already learned it), and we know that it often makes life so much better if you can have someone with a helping hand there every once in a while. It’s often so easy to do it, too – watching the neighbor’s children as they play in the yard for half an hour as they make a quick run to the store, listening to someone that’s having a problem (and not interjecting your own thoughts unless they ask), letting your friends know of a going-out-of-business sale if you know they’re shopping for a particular item, proofreading a report that a friend has written, and on and on and on.

The value of building a community today is simple: it builds up a positive reputation that precedes you and creates a large collection of “weak ties” that can help you every time you need it.

I like to describe it to investment-minded people as such: a positive action towards someone else today is an investment in the future. That investment pays off in the form of someone who values you and is willing to help you in the future when you need it. Yes, it’s a risky investment – not all interactions pay off. However, you essentially have an unlimited amount of positivity to invest. That means even if some of your interactions don’t pay off, you can still keep investing and investing and investing – and eventually they will pay off.

What do I mean by “pay off”? All I can do is give you examples from my own life.

I spent about a year building a strong relationship with a professor when I was in college. At the end of that year, that professor got my foot in the door at a wonderful research lab.

In that research lab, I worked hard and diligently for years and built relationships with everyone in that lab. At the end of that period, even though I was graduating into the awful job market of the early ’00s, the manager of that lab went far out of his way to find an excellent job for me to walk right into after college.

When I started The Simple Dollar, the first thing I did was send the URL to a bunch of people in my social network. Wonderfully, many of them shared (and promoted) the link themselves without even being asked, which did wonders for promoting the site in the early days and really helped to launch it.

When we had our first child, we were piled under so many baby shower gifts that we didn’t have to buy diapers for months and had many of the needs of the child very, very well taken care of.

Whenever we’re making a purchasing decision of any kind, we have a list of people that we contact for advice. Almost every time, someone comes back at us with some piece of information that’s incredibly valuable – an employee discount, a note about a going-out-of-business sale, or something like that.

The list goes on and on. Why did these things happen? My wife and I have both always put a great deal of value in treating others as we would like to be treated and often stepping out of our way to help others and support them when they need it.

If you want any further proof that this idea works, look at the prevalence of the “golden rule” in every major world religion (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). There’s a reason that it’s repeated over and over and over again, even as religions disagree on practically everything else – it simply works as a strong positive for growth of personal relationships (which in turn is, of course, a strong positive for evangelical growth).

Another thought: I believe that asking for help from your social network on occasion actually helps strengthen it. Most people want to help, particularly if you’ve been willing to help them in the past. Plus, such requests almost always create more of a give-and-take sense in the relationship rather than a one-sided give-give-give – it makes both people feel equal in the relationship and strengthens it as they see that they have the ability to help you.

If you spend your life just taking the most you can and running away, you’re missing out on all of this. Yes, you’re probably banking a little more in the very short term, but in the long term, the losses of such an attitude are tremendous.

Try out the golden rule for a while, and see where it gets you.

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  1. SophG says:

    So really you agree with Brian, you just take a longer term view?

  2. Greg says:

    Both of you have pretty flawed conclusions.

    Brian’s opinion is that building a community is pointless. This is obviously false.

    Your opinion is that building a community is “altruistic”.

    It has nothing to do with altruism. Building a community is many times the best way to approach whatever situation you find yourself in since you can take advantage of others to help you solve your problems. (As you mention regarding “weak social ties”)

    By building a “community” you can manipulate said community to act in a favorable manner that you can then capitalize upon.

    It’s a very “nice” and politically correct notion that the reason for communities is “altruism”, however it’s arguably the most effective survival strategy in a hostile environment.

  3. Trent,

    As Gary Vaynerchuk rightly said “Legacy Is Greater Then Currency”, you must decide how each decision will affect the long term perception people will have of you.

    Relationships are the only things that matters in the big picture, without them, we will get no-where in life.

  4. Diane says:

    Not to mention the fact that if you act in ways that are like a jerk, you will surround yourself with people who are just the same. Nice, genuine people won’t want to be around someone like this. You will get a reputation as a user, and people will talk and think badly of you. So you will be missing out on a lot of potentially great relationships and friendships.

  5. valleycat1 says:

    Some people enjoy and benefit from larger communities, while others get exhausted by extensive amounts of interactions. I don’t cut myself off from other people & have made some effort lately to enlarge my circle of friends, but beyond a point it’s too draining to my psyche – & no, I’m not involved with a lot of extremely demanding or negative people – I just prefer being alone to being in a group of people.

  6. Marsha says:

    Trent said he usually takes an altruistic view himself; he was explaining how he tries to convince investment-minded people how the golden rule can ultimately be profitable.

    I think though that the golden rule only works in the long run if you do things for others simply because it’s the right thing to do. Don’t expect your goodness to ever be repaid; if you do, you’re very likely to be disappointed.

    Liking the person I see in the mirror is much more important to me than a few more dollars in the bank.

  7. Malva says:

    Building community shouldn’t be confused with expanding your circle of friends and maintaining all those friendships. My community is neighbours, coworkers and acquaintances, the kind of people i don’t necessarily spend much time socializing with.

    But they know they can ask for help and we know we can to.

  8. There’s an old saying, “Beware of people who don’t have any old friends”.

    People who use others or are just in it for themselves, never have meaningful relationships. I feel genuinely sorry for these kind of people, because they will never be happy, no matter what they have or accomplish.

    People who try to get ahead at any cost, never realize that there is a huge cost. That cost is a lonely life of suspicion and inadequacy.

  9. Diane says:

    I used to be a manager for a large Pacific Northwest-based retailer renowned for their customer service. In those days they used a style called “Management by Objective”. Each manager listed the traits that were most important to their department. Employee reviews were then based on how well they reached the department objectives. Of course, HR vetted the lists before publication. When I put “Golden Rule” on my list, HR challenged it, saying that it had “religious connotations”. I pointed out that every culture had a version of the Golden Rule; If HR could show me one culture that didn’t, I’d remove it. I’m happy to report it stayed permanently at the top of my list.

  10. JJ says:

    There’s a (probably apocryphal) story about Abraham Lincoln. While talking with a friend, Lincoln said that he always acted out of pure self-interest. Then they passed a beggar who had no shoes, and Lincoln gave his shoes to the beggar. “I don’t understand,” said his friend. “That was an act of charity, not self-interest.” “Of course I was acting in my own self-interest,” Lincoln replied. “If I hadn’t done that, my conscience would have bothered me all day!”

  11. Doug says:

    I think Zig Ziglar said the following: “You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.”

    That philosophy is not one of greed, but one of goodwill. People respond to those who are kind and trustworthy. Trent’s absolutely correct: If you never have to interact repeatedly with a person, Brian’s philosophy will take you far. But for everyone else, Brian’s philosophy means that you have severely limited your future options, as word gets around about the kind of person you are. Coworkers will know that Brian doesn’t do favors that don’t benefit him, word will go around to other people who haven’t even worked with him. Social calendars will become full as Brian’s reputation precedes him and people come to realize that a game night without Brian is better for everyone. Women don’t generally appreciate Brian’s sort of behavior, although I’m sure that there are enough young women who think that kind of attitude is becoming. Sooner or later, the forty-something guy dating the college girl becomes outright creepy.

  12. SophG says:

    Yes JJ that is my point exactly!

  13. LeahGG says:

    having close friends who have common goals saves me a fortune in cash. A few close friends will almost always call if they’re in a store where there’s a good sale.

    We exchange clothes, children’s clothes, children’s items. We lend each other children’s items that get minimal usage, switch strollers if someone needs a lighter one for a specific trip or day, etc.

    By working with friends, we can buy less and drive less (or take less public transit) and have access to more.

  14. Mrs Embers says:

    That was an actual comment? I thought people with that attitude only existed as bad guys on TV, or heroes-to-be who are about to get a rude awakening. You do a better job talking to people like that than I would. I think my first response would be, “what is WRONG with you?!”

  15. Rachel says:

    I can particularly relate to the need to tap your community from time to time to keep things among equals. I have had friends who go out of their way to help me, but won’t let me do anything for them. I don’t feel like I’m using them, because I’m genuinely offering to give back, but sooner or later, I do back off, because I feel like they consider me beneath them, perhaps they consider me a charity case, or that I have nothing to offer that they could possibly want.

    On a tangent to this, when you are in a true charity situation, turning it into a give and take can take a lot of the embarrassment out of it for the recipient, and might be the best way to maintain the relationship.

  16. getagrip says:

    The attitude I see in Brian’s comment is more one of everything is business 24/7 if you want to succeed. The thought being “I have limited time and resources, where do I get the most bang for my buck for making me money”. The thought process is along the lines of: Gee, I got invited to a dinner, who will be there and what wheels can a I grease or contacts can I develop. Hmm, a buddy asked me to go skiing, maybe I should invite that guy from the bank who said he liked to ski because I’m going to need a loan soon. This charity auction might be fun, but it will be more fun if I make sure these other folks are going so I can pitch my new business plan while we’re there.

    In this world, the only social network being worked is where you are trying to optimize all aspects of your life so that every encounter can be morphed into a business opportunity. People like this can be friendly and they aren’t necessarily “bad”. But since everything is about business, nothing is really personnal, friendships only really last as long as the business connection does, and it kills relationships with friends and family. But hey, to each their own.

  17. Matt Jabs says:

    It’s easy to focus entirely on yourself, but when you do you run the risk of disregarding others and treating them as if they, and their concerns, are unimportant. A lot of people do this throughout each day. The problem with this attitude, as Trent points out, is that is spawns mostly negativity.

    Going out of our way for someone else, regardless of scope, is one of the best ways to bring a smile not only to the face of others… but also to your own. It is also the best way to build the support system Trent commonly makes mention of.

  18. Ajtacka says:

    This made me think of 2 (possibly irrelevant) things:
    First, an email newsletter I subscribe to, called heoric stories (add .com for the website). It’s reader stories about good things people have done, big and small. It reminds me that not everyone is a selfish git – unfortunately, sometimes that reminder is needed!

    Second, late this morning I saw an injured bat lying on the footpath. I thought about what to do, including leaving it to the mercy of the cold and the neighbourhood dogs. But we found an organisation that looks after injured bats and took it to them. I mention this because I was having a really bad day. After the short time it took to do something good, my day improved immeasurably. If I hadn’t done that ‘good’ thing, my day would still be awful or even worse. So sometimes Trent’s and Brian’s views do coincide – assuming Brian has a conscience and listens to it.

  19. Annie Jones says:

    I am like valleycat1 in that I simply prefer to be alone most of the time. Frequent or lengthy interaction with others drains my energy quickly.

    That is not the same, though, as Brian’s notion of only interacting with others to see how to “get the most out of it”. When I do interact with others, the interactions are genuine.

    I am uncomfortable with the idea of being around someone for the sole purpose of getting their help immediate or future help with something. Sometimes to a fault, I’d rather do it myself than ask for help.

  20. reulte says:

    Brian – Do you really want to live in place where everyone knows that you’ll screw them over for your own benefit every time? You are building the community that you live in and it isn’t one that you can escape for long simply by re-locating.

  21. Paula P. says:

    Wow, Brian. My parents sort of lived that way and they never seemed to have anyone around to lean on. I didn’t know it at the time, but that made life more difficult for my sister and me, too. Helping others was a burden not to be taken on.

    I guess if you have enough money and can buy all the help you need, not having to help others is a lonely luxury you can get away with.

    On the other hand, why are we here except to make the lives of others better?

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