I feel a tremendous social pressure to be inspired by and motivated to “give back.” And yet, over the years, that is not my operative state. I don’t belong to any community service groups. I haven’t joined any causes. And while I know I “should”, I haven’t gone to the river to pick up trash. Thus, the private shame. There must be something wrong with me.

In the world of business, giving back is the spine of social entrepreneurialism. While I am a champion of building values and real to life, positive principles into business, the compunction to be a social entrepreneur, to give back, whether or not I’ve gained, feels forced.

Even the gratitude movement gives me pause. I can be grateful for what I have, who I know, and what I do…. I am grateful for the birds and the bees and the trees. Do

I need to be ashamed if I don’t have a gratitude “practice”?

Gratitude and giving back are often connected. I can’t figure out if this shame is a New Age, California, pseudo-Buddhist, religious dogma, or possibly a provincial, Christian religious doctrine. I wonder, am I logical or cynical?

Recently I began reading Adam Grant’s book Give and Take. If you haven’t read it, add it to your must list. Grant, a social economist, divides people into Givers, Takers and Matchers and then dissects the levels of success each statistically create in their life and how they do it. It’s an awesome study. But here’s the rub, I don’t know what I am. As he describes and tells stories of people in each group, I identify with them all. Dang!

I don’t think that anyone can read this book without wanting to be a giver. If you decide you are an obvious giver, are you simply being delusional? Even if Grant came to the conclusion that givers aren’t successful in their lives, I don’t know about you, but I’d still feel ashamed about not being a giver. Because giving just sounds better, right?

Then, last week while flipping through my social feeds I saw this quote:

“If you are giving back, then you took too much.”

I didn’t catch the author, but I practically jumped with glee. That’s it! Instantly, my shame melted and I gained the clarity I needed to understand that there is a black lining to social entrepreneurialism, Rotary Clubs, and The Gates Foundation. This is a semantic issue.

Our moms taught us this social norm. When we took our friends’ toys our mothers would scold, “Give it back!” And that is the culturally acceptable shaming principle. Giving back is returning what may not be ours, or when our share isn’t equitable. And if you don’t? “Shame on you!”

But, as intelligent adults who operate fairly, do we need to feel ashamed if “giving back” isn’t meaningful or motivating to us?

The Personal Interests, Attitudes, and Values assessment that I often interpret for leaders and their teams is called a Motivations Assessment. This model was developed in 1928 by German Psychologist Dr. Eduard Spranger, and then developed in the 1980s as an assessment tool by Bill Bonnstetter.

Spranger identified six primary motivations:

1. Theoretical—A passion to discover, learn, and analyze; a search for knowledge.

2. Utilitarian—A passion to gain return on investment of time, resources, and money.

3. Aesthetic—A passion to add balance and harmony in one’s own life, create beauty and art, and protect our natural resources.

4. Individualistic—A passion to achieve power and position to influence others.

5. Traditional—A passion to pursue the higher meaning in life through a defined system of living.


6. Social—A passion to change the world for the better and to assist others.

By using this assessment, we discover that these motivations come in a variety of combinations. We tend to experience a pull for whichever two are highest for us. In other words, the highest motivations will trump the others. Each combination and intensity is personally unique. That means that the motivation to assist others and give in a traditional way is only a peak motivation for some people.

People who have a strong Social motivation, are the drumbeat of giving. If assisting others is the generally accepted way to give, that means that there are plenty of us for whom giving isn’t a peak motivator. And this fact should not shame us.

That leads me to my point:

It is OK to learn and share your knowledge.

It is OK to be successful and enjoy your bounty.

It is OK to surround yourself with beauty and spread appreciation.

It is OK to rise in influence and impact others.

It is OK to make the world a better place.

And…it is OK not to.

If assisting others is the generally accepted way to give, that means that there are plenty of us for whom giving isn’t a peak motivator. And this fact should not shame us.

It is amazing to appreciate the differences in people and the variety of experiences we bring to the world. Let’s not assume that everyone should be striving to give or “give back,” but acknowledge that, in fact, we have a rainbow of possible choices to give in our own unique way.

Let’s eliminate “give back” shame and rather celebrate our uniqueness—who we authentically are motivated to be—and realize that some of us are motivated by giving back, but others, not so much.

Join me as I raise a glass and toast “To the end of shame… Viva la Difference.”

Ruth Schwartz

Ruth Schwartz is the author of "The Key to the Golden Handcuffs". She is a high performance business consultant and leadership coach. Connect with Ruth to participate in the conversation. Google+, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube .

    1 Response to "I Have Give Back Shame"

    • Lauren

      Ruth, thank you for the provocative post! I enjoyed reading it. My sense is that we, as people, are constantly finding conceptual ways of making meaning of our lives. “Giving back’ to me is a catch all phrase that means as we strive to be the best of our unique self, we inadvertently — or perhaps purposely depending on who you are – wind up positively influencing or ‘giving’ to others. For me, it is about awakening to the full potential of who you are (or we are or I am) and striving to live into that potential. That gift that you give yourself, to be your authentic, fearless self, does in some form or fashion (regardless of what your original motivation is) manifest in some giving back. I’ll take it one more step and say that the best gift a person can give is a full, authentic, and integral expression of their unique self…. No shame. Just persistent striving to be a full, authentic, and integral expression of one’s unique self. Thanks again. Love the unique part of you that dares to speak the ‘unspeakable.’ It how conversations become real.

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