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Seth Godin: Gifts, Misunderstood

What really makes something a gift?

Seth Godin
Seth Godin on June 22, 2010.

What’s a gift?

I met a big-shot former Fortune 500 company CEO who explained to me that he used to have three secretaries. One for his calendar, one for his usual work, and one who did nothing but send people gifts.

I think when it’s sent by a corporation and chosen by a secretary, it’s not a gift. It’s a present. Or a favor…

A gift certificate from a rich uncle is a present as well, it’s not really a gift.

A favor is something we do for someone hoping for an equal or greater favor in return. (Hence the phrase, “return the favor.” No one says, “return the gift.”)

A present is something that costs money, sure, and it’s free, but I don’t think it’s a gift.

A gift costs the giver something real. It might be cash (enough that we feel the pinch) but more likely it involves a sacrifice or a risk or an emotional exposure. A true gift is a heartfelt connection, something that changes both the giver and the recipient.

The Gift of the Magi is a great story because each person in the story sacrifices to create a heartfelt gift for the other person. And it’s gifts–gifts that touch us, gifts that change us–that are transforming the way we interact.

One or two readers asked me why my book Linchpin costs money. After all, they ask, if gifts are a cornerstone of the new era, why not give it away free, as a gift?

Free doesn’t make something a gift. Free might be a marketing strategy, free might make a generous present, but free doesn’t automatically make something a gift. Gil Scott Heron’s new album isn’t free, but it’s a gift. He’s exposing himself. Taking a risk. You listen to the album and you feel differently when you’re done… it’s not a product, it’s a very personal statement. Keller Williams approaches his entire craft as a chance to give gifts, but that doesn’t mean he can’t charge for some elements of his work. What it took him to create the music is so much greater than what it cost you to consume it that he is giving gifts without doubt.

The way I understand gifts is that the giver must make a sacrifice, create an uneven exchange, bring himself closer to the recipient, create change and do it all with the right spirit. To do anything less might be smart commerce, but it doesn’t rise to the magical level of the gift. A day’s work for a day’s pay is the win/lose mantra of the industrial era. More modern is to view a day’s work as a chance to generate gifts that last.

Seth Godin is the author of twelve books that have been bestsellers around the world and changed the way people think about marketing, change and work. His latest book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? will shake up the way you think about what you do all day (and how you do it). Republished with kind permission.

Image by MarcinMoga / Lolek

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