I recently met this scientist named Rachel, a talented young Ph.D. who’s working on some kind of biodefense program for the U.S. government. Full disclosure: I’m not quite smart enough to understand exactly what she does, and she didn’t seem eager to go into too much detail, which makes me think she’s working on something pretty badass. But when she told me that it was her dream job, I had to ask her how she ended up there, and that’s when she told me a story I can’t stop thinking about.
A couple of years ago, Rachel is sitting in a virology symposium, and she’s listening to a government official explain about how her research connects to biological warfare. The talk is absolutely riveting. Only problem is, the speaker’s PowerPoint is absolutely horrendous. It’s like she’s giving a TED talk using slides made in Microsoft Paint. Still, Rachel was mesmerized.
So after the conference, Rachel goes up to the speaker — let’s call her Elaine — and thanks her for giving such a fascinating talk.
As it happens, Elaine is super nice in addition to being brilliant, and the two of them hit it off. Rachel asks her a couple questions about her research. She asks Rachel about her dissertation. And when Elaine mentions that she’s starving, Rachel recommends a restaurant around the corner, and Elaine invites her to join.
It’s a great conversation. One of those rare moments where you meet someone you really respect, hit it off, and have a ton to talk about.
So at the end of the meal, Rachel takes a chance.
“Listen,” she says. “I feel really lucky to have caught your talk today, and I’ve really loved our conversation. I wanna offer you something, but please don’t feel obligated to take me up on it.”
Okay, says Elaine, intrigued. What is it?
“Well, I couldn’t help but notice that your slides could use a little love. Your talk was absolutely amazing, but the PowerPoint…”
Before she can finish, Elaine is chuckling.
I know, she says. I’m the worst at PowerPoint, she explains. She prefers just talking, and she doesn’t have time to spend making slides, so she just slapped them together. If she could do better, she would, but…
So Rachel offers to work on her presentation for her. Just a small way of saying thank you for the talk.
Are you sure? Elaine asks. Definitely, says Rachel.
So over the next week, Rachel rebuilds Elaine’s presentation — this takes her four, maybe five hours tops — and sends it back. It’s nothing too sophisticated, she just pulls Elaine’s existing content into an elegant template and adds some basic design skills, but it’s a huge step up from where they were before.
That night, Elaine writes her an email. She’s over the moon. She can’t believe Rachel did this for her. This is how she always wanted her deck to look. She can’t wait to give her talk next time. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
And that’s how Elaine and Rachel become friends.
Over the next year and a half, they email every few weeks. Rachel sends Elaine interesting journal articles. Elaine gives Rachel some encouragement when she’s struggling with her research. When Elaine’s daughter comes into town, Rachel takes her out and gives her some fun recommendations. When Rachel books her own symposium talk, Elaine sends her some pointers from her years of speaking.
Along the way, Rachel learns more about Elaine’s organization — which is actually a government-funded biodefense lab — and realizes how many directions her doctorate could take her.
So when Rachel nears the end of her program, she asks Elaine for some advice. She thinks she wants to follow Elaine’s path in biodefense. Does she have any recommendations on labs to check out? Could Elaine use someone like her in her department?
Fast forward six months, and Rachel is now Elaine’s newest staff member in this super sophisticated, undoubtedly badass top-secret government lab slash program, building her career in a field she never could have anticipated, learning from a woman she deeply respects, doing work that truly matters to her.
All because she played around with PowerPoint for a few hours.
The Truth About Value
Every week, I receive letters from listeners asking how to be generous with other people when they’re just starting out.
If they aren’t successful yet — if they don’t have a ton of money and power and fancy connections — can they really create that much value?
If they aren’t established in their careers yet, can they actually build relationships with important people?
The answer, of course, is yes. And understanding how is the difference between unemployment and success, stagnation and growth, isolation and connection.
Because at the end of the day, generosity isn’t about having a ton of money or influence, as most people tend to believe. In fact, money is usually the least meaningful form of value, since it only solves a narrow economic need. And power, while useful, is only truly useful when combined with other important assets like talent, determination, and abundance — which, by the way, are how you build power in the first place.
The best kind of generosity isn’t about giving away the biggest forms of value. It’s about giving away the right forms of value.
What are the right forms of value?
In short, whatever someone needs at this moment.
That could be time. Or company. Or a shoulder to lean on. Or a recommendation for a good doctor. Or a list of travel tips, or a grammar check on a resume, or a quick Excel tutorial, or a conversation about the future, or literally anything under the sun they need help with.
That’s it. That’s all it takes to offer something of value and build a meaningful relationship.
When you find ways of meeting someone’s needs, you automatically create value and deepen the relationship. And the more specific and concrete those acts of service are, the more value you create, and the deeper the relationship gets.
Those acts of service could be relatively big, like helping someone secure warehouse space or offering them a month of strategic consulting.
But more often than not, they’re quite small, like offering to talk someone through a decision or rebuilding someone’s PowerPoint slides.
The thing is, most people overlook these smaller acts. Maybe because they’re not listening for people’s wants and needs. Maybe because they’ve given up on building relationships as an adult. Maybe because they think that small acts of service don’t amount to very much.
Or maybe because they’re not in touch with all the forms of value they have to offer — value available to them at any stage in their lives — value they possess just by being human — which could begin building deep relationships immediately, if they only knew how to offer it.
So what are those forms of value?
The first is an asset we all have no matter what — and often forget.
When you’re in the early stages of your career, time is one of the most abundant resources you have. It’s also one of the most overlooked.
While older people and senior professionals have less of it, younger people and up-and-coming professionals have it in excess. They also value that time differently: An hour to a CEO is worth a great deal, while an hour to an entry-level employee is probably worth much less. This is partly because of the gap in power and responsibility, and partly because the opportunity costs of that hour are so different to each of them.
That creates an interesting arbitrage opportunity, where the same asset — pure time — is valued differently by the two parties. Which makes offering that time a potentially huge source of value, with less cost associated with that generosity.
That’s exactly what Rachel understood.
Elaine couldn’t afford to invest the time to learn PowerPoint, and she had no little interest in designing slides. But Rachel was in a position to offer a few hours of her time (and years of built-in PowerPoint knowledge that Elaine couldn’t acquire).
Because they valued their time and experience differently — and had very different amounts of it — Rachel’s time suddenly became enormously valuable to Elaine, which made that time enormously valuable in the context of their relationship.
And that same principle applies to every industry, function, and scenario.
I’ve heard from a college dropout who spent a few hours a week for six months organizing leads and writing emails for a veteran salesperson at a local company, who in exchange shared the sales secrets he’s developed over twenty years. That dropout is now running a sales division and earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions every year.
I’ve also emailed with an elite wedding consultant who got her start volunteering for an event planner at a hotel in her hometown — literally setting up chairs and wrangling caterers and writing name tags — which brought her into the orbit of the wedding industry. She’s now planning high-end weddings all over the world, doing what she loves and making an absolute killing.
I’ve heard countless stories like these — stories of people donating their time as a way of making someone else’s life easier, and doing good work that accelerated them on their paths.
What amazes me about these people is how simple their insight was. Where most people discounted how valuable their time was to other people, these people took it seriously as a form of value. They understood that the cost difference made their time even “cheaper” to offer, which created even more leverage when it generated a return.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t offer our time later in our careers, too. Even parents, managers, and leaders have 20 minutes here, a Saturday afternoon there. And their time can be even more impactful, because they bring all of their experience to it. This asset only increases in value, even if it also sometimes increases in cost.
So time isn’t just for the young and inexperienced. It’s available to you at any time. But if you feel you have little to offer other people, remember that you always have one asset no matter what: your time. And there’s always someone out there who could use it.
Another powerful resource most people overlook is emotional support. Simply being there for somebody — whether it’s talking through a problem on the phone, visiting someone in the hospital, or just listening as someone expresses their concern or excitement — is one of the most meaningful assets we can provide.
As Simone Weil famously said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” And because it’s so rare and pure, it’s incredibly valuable.
The best part? Anyone can offer it.
You don’t have to be experienced, licensed or trained to offer someone this form of emotional support. You don’t need to be a therapist, a best friend or a wise elder. All you have to do is be willing and available.
Of course, there’s a difference between mere presence and true support. Just showing up — while important — is only half the equation.
The more important half is being present, connecting, and actively participating in the exchange taking place. That’s where real value gets created, and that’s where a true relationship forms.
What does emotional support actually look like in practice?
Well, it’ll look different depending on the people and scenario, but any good act of support will include a few key skills.
But it’s also about more general mindsets.
Being kind. Being patient. Being empathic. Being willing to reflect someone’s experience back to them, and help them see themselves in a way they might not have been able to do on their own. These are all deeply important experiences, and we are all wired to feel and offer them to other people.
But most of us overlook these opportunities. Why?
In short, because we often think that other people — especially people who are further along than we are in life — don’t need this particular asset. We assume that they have emotional support in spades. That they wouldn’t want to receive emotional support from someone younger, newer, less experienced. That they must have a therapist, a partner, or a friend group to work through their experiences. And maybe they do. But oftentimes they don’t — or could always use a little more. And if the situation presents itself, you can bet they need that connection at precisely this moment — and that you are the exact person who can offer it to them.
Which I actually find really exciting.
It means that no matter how different we are in status or position, we’re all connected by the need to share, understand, and be vulnerable with another person.
And because we’re all connected by those basic human needs, we can offer emotional support no matter how young or old, experienced or inexperienced we are. People who do form deeper relationships just by making themselves available for this kind of connection. And those relationships usually last much longer, because they’re built on a foundation of rapport, trust, and intimacy — the lifeblood of truly meaningful connections.
Knowledge and Expertise
When Rachel offered to help Elaine with her slides, she was actually offering a few different forms of value packaged together. She was offering her time. She was offering her kindness. But she was also offering her expertise, both in the science and the software.
We often discount the skills we possess, assuming that everyone has them, or could have them, or that they’re not as useful as they are. But as long as they’re greater than someone else’s, they are valuable, which means they are excellent assets to be generous with.
You see this a lot with technology. A student’s basic familiarity with WordPress is a lifesaver to an older professor. An analyst’s facility with Excel becomes a superpower to a hands-off manager. An employee’s experience with Instagram is a gift to a small business owner.
For those who were raised with a particular technology, this kind of expertise seems unremarkable. But to someone who doesn’t have experience with it — or the time or desire to learn it — it can become a massive source of value.
But this asset isn’t just about technology. We can offer so many different forms of expertise.
Industry or sector-specific knowledge, for example.
Whether you run a small eBay clothing store or lead customer experience for Nike, you know more about selling apparel than most people. That experience can become a major source of value in the form of industry analysis, anecdotal experience, organizational knowledge, and industry relationships. As long as you know something about a field that someone else doesn’t, it’s a potential source of value.
And that source of value is available to you at every stage of your career.
Even interns, junior employees, hobbyists, and students can share this expertise with others, by speaking to their observations, creating research documents or drawing parallels between their experience and someone else’s.
In many cases, these people have even more to offer, because they have a certain perspective that more established professionals don’t. An intern, for example, can soak up a ton of knowledge just by hanging around the bullpen of a company for a summer, while a student can gather original data on a topic or company under the guise of class research.
Another powerful form of value is personal experience.
If you’ve ever dealt with a particular problem or question before, you’re in a unique position to share that firsthand expertise with someone else. That could take the form of a case study about a certain initiative, an informal coaching session on a job interview you went through, or a personal story about what you learned from a challenging situation.
People tend to discount this form of value too, probably because their personal experience is so close to home — a very common cognitive bias, even among high performers.
But the moment that personal experience can help someone else navigate their own, it becomes immensely useful. And it’s all the more useful the more personal it is.
And this isn’t just about work.
Personal experience can become valuable in every area of life — in helping someone resolve family drama, survive heartache, make major life decisions, and so on. That’s how being generous with your expertise connects up with being generous with your time and emotional support. When you combine all three, you create an immensely powerful asset that anyone can offer at any stage in their life — and that is always in demand.
But this form of value isn’t just about knowledge you already have. It’s also about knowledge you’re able to acquire.
Let’s imagine that the ad agency you just joined is chasing a new client. You’re not an account manager, you’re not even familiar with the product in question, but your boss really wants to land this account, and needs some intel to make it happen.
You could count yourself out since this is not your world and way above your pay grade. Or you could embrace your inner detective, and try to hunt for something — anything — that might be useful for the team.
Maybe you Google the company and find out the names of the executive team. Maybe you look up their social accounts, and see what kinds of links, ideas, and jobs they’ve been posting. Maybe you discover that your former colleague went to school with one of them, and you IM her to gather some more intel. Maybe you discover that they just brought on a new marketing executive whose goal is to reach a new customer segment with a campaign that your agency has experience in. Maybe you find a white paper that executive wrote, and highlight the sections that your boss could work into his pitch.
Suddenly, with just a little legwork, you’ve pieced together a body of knowledge that could help your boss land the client and have a major impact on your agency. You didn’t have that knowledge before — there was no reason for you to possess it yet — but with a little resourcefulness, you were able to acquire it.
That kind of resourcefulness is one of the most powerful forms of value around. And it’s all the more useful because it’s not tied to any one type of expertise. It’s more of a mindset than a skill — a willingness to roll up your sleeves, take initiative, and use your determination and creativity to generate information when it’s needed most.
And the best part? Resourcefulness applies to any goal, problem or situation. It’s a lens on the world you can take with you wherever you go. And that lens is only becoming more powerful.
Because life is about the unknown, the new, and the ambiguous. We rarely have the exact piece of information someone needs, the precise industry experience to fill a role, the literal solution to a problem. Life is spontaneous and complex, and it’s always surprising us. It demands knowledge and ideas that are not obvious, that combine insights from different fields and scenarios. It requires us to be curious, creative, and persistent. It requires us to use every resource available — to become full of those resources — to be resourceful.
That’s where this quality really kicks in. The ability to find a solution right when it’s needed, even if you don’t have the authority or experience, is an insanely valuable asset. The willingness to pitch in to achieve a goal, even if you weren’t asked or expected to, is a major differentiator. In a start-up or other early-stage environment — where the learning curve is high, challenges are endless and conditions are volatile — it’s probably the most important asset.
In fact, the degree of resourcefulness in a founder is probably the strongest variable in success. It’s also the quality that allows newbies to become experts, students to become teachers, interns to become employees, and employees to become managers. It’s one of the building blocks of influence, expertise, and authority.
So as you navigate your life and career, make a practice of embracing your resourcefulness.
Can you be the person who figures out the server issue at the office, even if you’re not the IT guy?
Can you create a spreadsheet of the top vendors in your field and rank them according to price and quality?
Can you hunt down old case studies about your industry to help your boss write her white paper?
Can you schedule a couple informal interviews with industry experts on behalf of your mentor?
Can you spend a couple hours pulling together some research on a topic you’ve never explored before?
The more you commit to being resourceful, the easier it becomes. Your knowledge compounds. Your creativity multiplies. You see the dividends of your initiative, and invest them in more and more projects. You cultivate the resourcefulness mindset, and the mindset begins to view every situation as an opportunity to create value — an exciting and virtuous cycle that builds strong relationships with anyone who comes in contact with it.
Drive and Passion
To be resourceful, you have to care. And if you care, then you have to have some degree of passion for the problem you’re being resourceful about. That passion — that drive — is itself a form of value, and another powerful asset we can offer to other people.
Why exactly are passion and drive so valuable?
First, because genuine passion signals that you take another person’s goal as seriously as your own.
If you’ve ever been around someone who’s passionate about you and what you’re trying to achieve, then you know how powerful that sensation is. You understand how it validates your excitement, motivates your behavior and gives you the fuel to keep going. It creates solidarity, accountability, and a shared sense of purpose. Working with a passionate person isn’t just more fun and exciting. It’s an entirely different experience — a sense of connection orders of magnitude beyond working with someone who’s neutral or negative.
Second, because passion is infectious.
It can ignite other people’s enthusiasm, keep morale high when the road gets tough, and recruit other people to your goal. If you’ve ever come into contact with someone who’s genuinely stoked about what they’re doing, you know the impact they have on mood and morale. Their excitement taps into your excitement, and that energy often moves through an entire project or or organization. Passion, in addition to being a useful tool, is also inherently attractive and empathic. It’s a quality we’re wired to gravitate to.
Third, drive compounds every other form of generosity.
The unwillingness to give up, the commitment to follow through, the tenacity that keeps you working away at a problem over the long term — these are qualities that make the most of every other form of value we’ve been discussing. When you apply passion to the other forms of generosity, your return on investment will multiply.
For example, if you passionately hunt down the research your mentor needs, the quality of that research will almost certainly get stronger. If you’re driven to help someone reach a key insight in their personal life, you’ll spend the time offering them the exact kind of support they truly need in that moment.
Passion is fuel on the fire of your generosity, and drive is the determination to keep that fire burning for longer.
And like the other forms of value, we can choose to be more passionate. We can cultivate drive. It’s a feeling that comes more naturally to some people more than others, but it’s available to all of us. We simply have to choose to get excited. We have to decide to be determined.
The best part, of course, is that passion and drive are free. They don’t require experience and training. You can’t acquire them in business school or art class. There’s no price tag on excitement and grit. They’re as available and abundant to you as time is. You just have to choose to cultivate them, and find ways to apply them to everything you do.
Starting with What You Have: Simple Generosity in Practice
The biggest roadblock to embracing a generosity mindset is the belief that you have nothing to be generous with.
When you overlook the incredible assets you already have — or the assets immediately available to you — you miss the opportunity to create value for the people in your life right now, and to deploy those assets in a way that creates meaningful relationships for the future.
You also remain stuck in that debilitating “once” mentality — the mentality that says, “Once I have money, I’ll be able to invest in fancy networking events,” “Once I know a ton of people, I’ll be able to introduce them,” or “Once I actually know what I’m doing, I’ll be able to advise other people,” “Once I’m in a position of authority, my peers will take me seriously.”
Of course, it’s true that you’ll have more assets down the line. But it’s also true that you will never acquire those assets unless you begin deploying the assets you have right now.
Being generous with what you have today is how you acquire more value to be generous with tomorrow. It’s really as simple as that.
So as you go about your life, cultivate a new awareness of what you have to offer — even and especially if it’s small.
The more obvious the assets you have to give, the better. The extra hour you have to dedicate to your colleague once a week, the phone call you could make to a struggling friend, the experience you have navigating some random bureaucracy, the willingness to do a little digging to help your peer write a cover letter — these simple acts of service are exactly the kind of value that create meaningful impacts, as long as someone needs them at this moment.
You don’t have to be an uber-powerful CEO or a world-renowned psychologist to be generous with your network, your insights, your time. You only have to be human. You only have to be yourself. And when you embrace all of yourself — your time, your expertise, your resourcefulness, your passion — you find that you have more than enough to offer other people, even if it feels like you have very little.
But the process begins by taking your existing capital seriously right now. That’s where true generosity begins, and where the relationships that will change your life get formed.
[Featured image by Riccardo Annandale]