30 Unreciprocated favors

If you’re one of those nitpicky assholes who likes to try to catch people screwing up and then tell them Nyah-nyah, you did this wrong, you probably noticed that I’ve fallen short on my promise to try six 30-day trials during 2011 and were all set to yell at me.

I tried biphasic sleep, the Slow-Carb diet, releasing resistance, quasi-minimalism, fighting email addiction, and… and?

And nothing. And 2011 is almost over.

Well, ha-ha! I did a sixth trial already and just haven’t said anything until now… with eleven days in the year to spare.

Here’s what it was: from mid-November until mid-December (to embrace the holiday spirits of both Thanksgiving and Christmas, I suppose), I did a favor each day for friends… with the requirement that they did nothing for me in return.

A little background

I have a confession to make. I’m a little selfish.

I try not to be, but I’m driven and I have big goals, and one of the ways you maintain drive and make progress on big goals is to keep your eye on the prize — which means watching what YOU do and the results YOU are getting very closely, often to the exclusion of other people’s concerns. I think that the vast majority of achievers are in danger of being overly selfish — without meaning to be or wanting to be — for this very reason.

(In fact, if you’re thinking that I’m wrong and that there are a lot of selfless achievers, I’d argue that they’re selfish too… but in a very specific way. A person who wants to feed a million people has a plan to make it happen, and has to stay focused on that plan just like any other goal. Think there are any great world-changers and philanthropists whose families sometimes felt neglected while said philanthropists were out doing good for others? Think any of those great people were sometimes seen as bullheaded or unyielding? I sure do.)

So sometimes, I’ll be trying to go after something, and I’ll look back too late and I’ll say with regret, “Ooh, I didn’t really even thank that person for helping me.” Or, “That person really cheered me on, but I don’t think I’ve ever cheered them on.”

I’ve even been mad at people who haven’t dropped everything they’re doing to be impressed by something I’ve achieved. How selfish is that, when they had a big thing last month that I didn’t even notice?

So, noticing this trend, I thought about trying to reciprocate more and be a better team player from now on.

But that didn’t feel like enough. The karmic scale was out of balance thanks to all the times I’d inadvertently taken without giving.

For a change, I wanted to do a bunch of stuff for people and get nothing back.

What’s in it for me?

A lot of the people who knew I was doing this experiment nodded their heads with understanding when I told them and said something like, “So it’s a networking thing. You’re strengthening your connections.”

And that would have made sense. I think that keeping your network karmically balanced is a good plan (see how my client Ben Rubin explains it here), but that’s not what I was doing. Doing good turns so that people would “owe me one” is honestly not what I was after… especially since a lot of the people involved weren’t business connections anyway.

That said, there’s a lot here that’s splitting hairs.

After doing 30 favors for people and asking nothing in return, might I expect to have better connections, and might I benefit from said connections later on? Sure. But that’s not why I was doing it.

This is something Seth Godin talks about in his book Linchpin: giving gifts. The linchpin gives gifts of him- or herself, and that creates an economy based on art and generosity. But the linchpin doesn’t give gifts in order to receive. The idea is to give freely, and to receive freely.

So yeah, I suppose I might receive. I kind of hope I don’t, though, because I have enough without these favors coming back to me, and I’d rather not mar the intention of the trial.

How I went about it

The idea was super-simple. I sent the following to a bunch of people who have done generous things for me in the past:

At the beginning of this year, I decided to do six 30-day challenges. To end the year, I want to do one unreciprocated favor for a friend for 30 days.

So, as a friend, I’m asking you to let me do a favor for you… and I specifically ask that you do nothing for me in return regarding this favor.

It can be pretty much anything you’d consider to be a “favor” if you asked someone to do it. I can’t walk your dog or pick up your mail or water your plants while you’re on vacation if I don’t live where you live… but I can look over something you’ve written, connect you with someone else I know, make a testimonial or give you a review, participate in your XYZ, give you my recommendation re: the latest widget, give you advice on something I know well… whatever.

If this seems like a strange request to you, then you don’t know me very well. I’ve done much, much stranger things.

A few wiseasses replied with joke requests, like “no more naked photos of you in my email,” and a few more replied that they didn’t need anything. Some didn’t reply at all, necessitating some creativity (more on that in a minute) and a second round of emails.

I did get a few “Nothing, thanks” replies, but because people could tell that I was seriously trying to do this, I tended to get a variant on the theme: “I don’t know what I need. Let me think about it.”

I even had to talk one person into it. He didn’t feel comfortable receiving without giving, which really proved the point of the whole experiment. This guy ALWAYS cheers for and supports me, and wanted nothing. What the hell?

I had to remind a lot of people, too. Hey, remember this email? What can I help you with? And after sending a few emails like that (not to the same people, though. I didn’t want to be a pest) I started trying to be creative and suggest things I could do for them until we came to something that felt right.

What I did

I didn’t explicitly say whether or not these favors would be confidential, but I figure it’s better safe than sorry. So with the exception of a few public cases, I won’t say who requested what.

But that said, here’s the kinds of things I ended up doing:

  • Telling others about their good stuff
  • Giving advice (I gave a lot of advice)
  • Reviewing people’s writing or projects and giving testimonials to people who’ve done good work for me
  • Reading/looking through people’s stuff and giving my opinion
  • Various personal tasks for the non-businessy people on my list
  • Brainstorming with them
  • Creating something amusing. One person wanted a funny photo and one wanted a funny video. I can tell you about one of these because he shared it on Twitter; Tony Clark asked me to draw him a picture of Lumpy Space Princess and Lady Rainicorn from the cartoon Adventure Time. OMG the resulting artwork was a masterpiece.
  • I also decided to do a favor for my email list as a whole, because those are the clients and friends who make my business possible. So I did a no-strings-attached and zero-promotion Q&A call for them, and told them to ask me anything.
  • One person said that he had all he could want, so he asked me to do something for someone else without that person knowing it was me.
  • Two people hemmed and hawed but couldn’t really come up with anything, so I told them I’d make a donation to a charity I knew they supported.
  • I did some technical fix-it jobs.
  • Sonia Simone’s request was for me to record a Third Tribe seminar. I couldn’t believe this didn’t qualify as her doing me a favor.

That last one was interesting, and really brought the issue of reciprocation and synergy back to the fore. How could I not benefit from a Third Tribe seminar? But Sonia needed the content as much as I could use the exposure, proving that some of the best arrangements really do benefit everyone.

What happened

Nothing, and that was the point.

Have I seen any effect from the favors I did? No. I don’t want effects. People have asked me how it went, and my answer has been, “Well, I did the favors.” Sometimes I add “It was interesting” or “It felt good,” but that’s not the answer people are looking for. They want to hear what I got out of it.

When I did the biphasic sleep trial, I could point to something that affected my life: Interesting, but not for me. When I did Slow Carb, the same was true: It was close to a good fit, and it eased me into Paleo — and Paleo is a game-changer.

But this? What did it do? What has occurred? Nothing.

Well, nothing tangible. Maybe it’s realigned the karmic scales, and maybe it will improve my friendships. Maybe it’s shifted my perspective, and maybe it’ll make me more aware of reciprocity in the future. And I guess that’s not nothing.

Happy holidays, everyone. May you give as freely as you receive, and appreciate the joy of both.


  1. Jess says:

    I believe our friendship has grown stronger as a result of my favor.

    We’s like Shay with a gauge and Vanilla with a nine…

    • alice3372 says:

       Kroatisches Küstenpatent

      I also firmly believe that ‘reciprocation’ can simply be ‘the feel-good feeling’ of giving. Life is a series of moments, we all die sometime (as your recent articles point out), and anything you can do to make your moments happier… is highly recommended

  2. Heather says:

    This is good.

    I’ve been using the concept of unlimited generosity as a spiritual practice, but most often you can’t just wait for people in need to cross your path. Your post reminds me of the importance of going out to find the folks who would benefit by whatever you have to offer!


  3. I love this, Johnny, and I’ve made this a “30-year trial”, I live my life on the principle that “I give unless or until it starts to feel wrong.”, this has resulted in a LOT of giving in my life.

    Did I get results?

    Not in a traditional sense, and in fact, many people judged me as a ‘foolish investor’ or someone who ‘wastes my efforts on people who don’t appreciate it’ — but that only happens when you don’t understand what you’re doing.

    ‘wasting efforts’ only happens when you’re not consciously practicing unreciprocated favours.

    I also firmly believe that ‘reciprocation’ can simply be ‘the feel-good feeling’ of giving. Life is a series of moments, we all die sometime (as your recent articles point out), and anything you can do to make your moments happier… is highly recommended 🙂

  4. Shanna Mann says:

    re: the guy who felt uncomfortable asking for anything– two of the biggest supporters in my life are entirely unambitious. They really do not care at all about achieving anything, so the only ‘support’ I’ve ever been able to give them is to spend quality time with them — one of the hardest things to do, as I’m sure you’ll attest, when it feels like time not spent on your goals is ‘lost’. But I greatly value them and their support, and I make a VERY concerted effort to remain well-rounded for their sakes.

    • Johnny says:

      Ha, the guy I’m thinking of is really ambitious, and very accomplished. Just hesitant to take help!