Give to Get: The Potlatch Principle

Given the avalanche of books, literature, and blog articles that have been produced on the subject of “networking” over the past decade, it can be tough to find something new to contribute to the discussion, at times!  By now, most professionals (especially those in transition) have heard the same key networking themes dogmatically repeated dozens, if not hundreds, of times during their search:

1)  60-80% of all jobs come through the “hidden” job market of  networking and personal contacts;
2)  Social networking websites (e.g. Facebook, Biznik, LinkedIn) are now indispensable tools in the networking arsenal; and
3)  Your networking shouldn’t be 100% one-sided; you should practice a “give to get” philosophy for best results

It’s around the third point above, however, that I wanted to add a few thoughts that I haven’t seen talked about much in the networking literature to date.  As an avid fan of history, and sociology, I’m always on the lookout (to a fault, probably) for connections between supposedly “new” job hunting principles and other aspects of civilization that have been around for hundreds or thousands of years.  To me, finding these connections is not just fun, but helps me get a better grasp on why certain principles work, how long they’ve worked, and how best to explain them to other people who may not be as familiar with them on a day-to-day basis.

So on that note, let’s talk for a second about the idea that we can all get more of what we want out of life by focusing on giving things to others, versus getting things ourselves.  Frankly, I think most of us would agree that this notion makes sense.  Nobody likes being used, after all, and I’m sure all of us have had the experience of having been asked for a big favor by somebody who then disappears without a word of thanks, a thoughtful follow-up note, or a single gesture of reciprocity.  When this happens, too, I’m sure we all tend to kick ourselves and promise that we’ll never lift a finger to help the ingrate in question again, right?  I mean, I don’t know about you, but I certainly have a “mental blacklist” (thankfully a very short one!) of people from the past to whom I gave, and gave, and gave, and didn’t ever really seem to “get back” from.  So to avoid becoming one of these people, myself, I consciously focus on trying to help other people and reciprocate as much as possible, knowing that these efforts are mostly likely to keep the door open for future favors.

As for the origins of this whole two-way networking notion, one could certainly argue that Dale Carnegie was the first person who brought the “give to get” concept to the masses in his 1936 classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”  Since then, numerous authors have slapped their own spin on the same concept and re-branded it.  For example, there are variations on the theme found in both Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” as well as Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” books.  You’ll also find a metaphysical twist on the principle running throughout all of the “Law of Attraction” titles that have come out in recent years.  Every few decades, like clockwork, somebody seems to resuscitate this pearl of interpersonal wisdom, package it for the next generation, and sell a few million dollars’ worth of books and self-help videos.

My belief, however, is that there’s a community out there that’s got even Mr. Carnegie beat in terms of espousing the “give to get” concept in an organized way.  Who might that be?  Growing up in Juneau, Alaska, we spent a fair amount of time in school studying the history of the local Native tribes, and I remember being taught that these communities routinely held a special type of party called a “potlatch” where the hosts would (among other rites) make a point of giving away lavish gifts to all of their guests, almost to the point of impoverishment.  The more valuable the gifts given, the greater the esteem and respect would be accorded to the hosts.  To cite the relevant Wikipedia entry on the subject, in a Potlatch culture “the status of any given family is raised not by who has the most resources, but by who distributes the most resources.”

So when it comes to the idea that giving freely to other people is the best route to achieving success, both among one’s network and among the community at large, I think the Pacific Northwest tribes get the prize for fleshing this idea out first in formalized fashion.  In fact, I’ll confess that whenever I hear the “give to get” guideline cited by various networking experts out there, I automatically translate the concept into “The Potlatch Principle” in my head, since this label helps me both understand it, as well as remember and practice it in my own business ventures.

Pretty esoteric stuff, I realize, and I wouldn’t be surprised a bit if some of you immediately start forwarding me some literature proving that the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, or some other ancient civilization was routinely preaching/practicing the two-way networking schtick even earlier!  As I mentioned, though, it’s hard to find anything terribly original to add to the sea of networking advice out there, so I thought I’d dust off my keyboard today and give it my best shot… 🙂


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