The Value of the Golden Rule

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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