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Pay it forward

  • 7th Aug, 2006 at 11:18 PM

I met wlach today for a spot of coffee. He was in the neighbourhood and rang me up. How could I refuse?

As we were chatting, the topic of reciprocity came up. You know, where I do you a favour and then you return it some day? Paying someone back for a good turn (or a bad one) is something that's rather ingrained in our culture. And it's fairly reliable, if you can account for each transaction. Tit-for-tat is one of the most successful exchange strategies out there. Just ask bramcohen.

But it doesn't fully capitalize on the network effect. You can only tap into the network of people for who owe you a favour. But those people might not be poised to help you. Instead, I advocate another model.

On Saturday, I found a camera case sitting on a bench along St-Denis. Inside was a digital camera and a wallet. Using my well-developed deductive skills, I ascertained the identity of the owner, whom I shall call X. Using my well-developed "stalking" skills, I got in contact with X who came by and picked up the bag. X was very, very thankful. In return, I asked that X offer random, spontaneous help to people who seemed deserving.

With any luck, my deed will pop into mind the next time X wants to brush off someone or walk past something. After all, everybody is really busy. When I first came across this concept, I had no idea that it had a name. But some people have called it paying it forward. Which is a rather apt name. Ironically, this concept only became popular after a large, multinational conglomerate made a film about it.

I figure that since the world of people that I know is very small, and that I'm well connected with others, it's only a matter of time before my little quantum of niceness gets back to me. If I keep on pumping niceness into the system, and others do the same, my small efforts will multiply. After all, the amount of good I can do is limited to how much time I have and the people I know. But my network of friends is much, much larger.

The only problem is that of leeches. People who only take and don't give to the system. That's where being judgemental comes in. When you notice that some folks never seem to help their friends, or to help you, then you have to fall back to tit-for-tat. And spread the news that this person is a leech, so that your friends do the same. This quickly shuts down the drain on your collective kindness, while still allowing you to be a decent human being.

Of course, I paid for wlach's coffee. He's a good friend, after all.


8th Aug, 2006 05:20 (UTC)
I have reason to believe the name may have its roots in the science fiction community, actually. I have a friend, James Stevens-Arce, who had a number of short stories published in the 70s and 80s, and finally sold his first novel a couple of years ago. Back when Jim was starting out, he got a lot of useful advice from other writers he met, and asked one of them what he could do to pay back the favour. "Don't pay it back," was the response. "Pay it forward."

Jim told me this story a couple of years ago at a WorldCon after I thanked him for introducing me to an editor. He also said the putative coiner of the phrase is Robert Heinlein.
8th Aug, 2006 13:56 (UTC)
Huh. That ethic would make a lot of sense, coming from that community. But I'd be a bit skeptical about the RAH reference. That smells of urban legend.