People who spend their money on the slim chance to win millions are derogatorily referred to as gamblers. “These people have a problem and need to get help,” but I understand the satisfying feeling of spontaneous and beneficial discovery. Or in their case, discovering their bank account several times larger than it was mere seconds ago. These people aren’t really addicted to spending their money. They’re addicted to serendipity. And sure, some extra money is a pretty shallow victory. But with a more altruistic goal in place, serendipity tends to be a pretty satisfying experience. It’s the reason I’ve gambled upwards of 100+ hours of free time in the past six months to helping strangers improve themselves and their lives. It can be difficult for people to understand why I go out of my way to help others, but that’s only because they are looking at the short-term benefits. In reality, I find a wealth of benefits that come from listening to other people’s struggles and then helping find ways to solve them.
There are obvious benefits. I liken the experience to having hundreds of mentors each willing to share their own unique case studies. As someone who is working towards becoming a successful entrepreneur in a region that doesn’t cultivate this activity as well as other areas, it requires significantly more effort be connected and involved with other entrepreneurs. There’s no denying the benefits of having a support network like that available to you, however, this sort of exposure lets me experience (at least second-hand) challenges others are having before I run into them. It allows me to provide perspective on a problem that they’ve been facing for weeks but are too close to see the forest from the trees. Additionally, analyzing new ideas and working with other entrepreneurs toward a solution keeps me sharp and provides plenty of mental fodder for my brain to digest between help sessions. It’s win-win all around.
Then, there’s the serendipity. I get notes and tweets from people who appreciate my efforts. It’s important not to overlook the weight that karma holds in entrepreneurship. And by clearly broadcasting my character in a way that doesn’t try so hard to attract attention, I’m able to open a natural dialogue with individuals with whom I might not normally associate or have access. No one will be concerned that I’m trying to take advantage of them and will actually want to try to help me even though I never directly asked for it. (This makes requests such as “Please take a 2-minute survey to help me validate my startup” an easy one to make.)
As much as your philanthropy helps you in building soft-experience*, you will make leaps and bounds in credibility within your industry. By generating interest and showing that you fulfill a need for others (particularly when performed in public forums), the interactions you cultivate will become the social proof for your own personal brand. Past personal struggles are a great vehicle for demonstrating social proof for your brand. Individuals who can share their “rise from the ashes” story have a unique opportunity to demonstrate their abilities under pressure and illustrate their character in a light that is natural yet engaging and exciting. However, there are few people who have a story that is a compelling testament to their character. Even though conflict and struggle is not easily created (at least not the honest variety), there are ways you can create opportunities for yourself to shine instead of waiting for something to fall in your lap. So with these philanthropic opportunities (that I create for myself), I am able to paint my “manufactured” heroism in a light that is honest and occasionally compelling!
While I have no real agenda with this blog post (aside from the thinly veiled attempt to plug my survey), I’d say the major take-away from this is that you should give of your free time willingly. You don’t have to be participating in open help sessions or organizing community events. Some contribute to open source projects or offer their professional services for deep discounts. But if you aren’t investing it in ways that directly benefit you, why not spend it in ways that will indirectly benefit you? Who knows, you might find the serendipity gained from helping other random strangers can be extremely gratifying and strangely addicting. What sort of crazy ways do you manufacture your own serendipity?
* Soft-experience in the sense that they are not directly your own, but it does not mean that you won’t benefit and grow from them in some way.
Mike Greenberg is a software developer from South Florida. Occasionally, his finger-peckings are attention-worthy. The rest of the time, he’s just intentionally distracting you from something he doesn’t want you to see.