The Gift of Nothing

Black Friday came and went with a whisper this year. Tell that to the habitual rioters and shamers, they still came out in force. The pundits are blaming the dull roar on an unprecedented “tidal shift” of shopping to mobile e-Commerce. We’ll find out if they’re right shortly – today is Cyber Monday. Tell me something. Are we, the people who find schadenfreude in watching Black Friday mass-tramplings on YouTube, somehow better than the mob because we’re doing our shopping online? Are we superior because we’re camped out on Firefox instead of warming our hands over a propane stove on a sidewalk?

I love gifting. Finding the perfect way to show appreciation for loved ones, colleagues, and hosts is an ancient and noble game. I’m just not sure that we —Western society — are doing it right anymore. Today I want to talk about some of the less visible but more durably pernicious effects of our gifting culture: Genericity, Waste, and Desensitization.

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Thanks, I guess?

Gifting is simple. It should be mutual, it should demonstrate a knowledge of interests, and it should be appropriately sized. Within that framework we encounter dozens of pitfalls which result almost entirely from a faulty gifting premise. The gift can’t be mutual if the relationship isn’t well defined and practiced. The gift can’t be specific if you have insufficient closeness to your counterpart. The gift can’t be appropriately sized if it is intended to compensate for unrelated shortcomings.

All of these hazards are amplified through concentrated-shopping events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Opportunities to seek specificity are constrained, over-buying leads to waste, and that same over-buying de-sensitizes us and our children to the true pleasure of giving and receiving thoughtful gifts.

The mega-sales are the final form of a retail organism primed to take advantage of every inch of consumerism it’s given. Now, as more people start to think twice about their relationship to “things,” it’s fighting back. Instead of our needs driving the purchasing, the activity of shopping is sitting in the left seat. The danger is that we become content and start filling the funnel from the pointy side — no longer buying with specificity, seeing quantity as a salve for the resulting genericity.

The bad behavior of our recipients, be they adults (unceremonious re-gifting) or children (failure to display societally appropriate levels of visible appreciation) is the direct result of this ailing system. You can’t get mad at Jen for instantly giving away your scented beach candle. If your gift was sufficiently specific, it wouldn’t have happened. You can’t get mad when the kids’ eyes glaze over between presents 14 and 15. The quantity of presents has literally exceeded their attention span. In what world is that healthy? Instead of shouting at them to go hug Uncle Sal and tell him how much they love the plastic toy du jour that’s headed for a despondent life of permanently clogging up a heating register after a single use, perhaps a paradigm shift is in order.

4 Steps to Course-Correct Your Gifting

Much of what we’ve discussed today is societal. But that doesn’t mean you’re condemned to a life of mediocre consumerist conformity. Here are a few ways to change course and build a better gifting culture in your community:

  1. Buy the right thing, not the right time. This is simple. Participating in a sale does not trump buying the right thing for the right person. Shop throughout the year, and keep their treasure safe in a gift box until the calendar rolls around. Keep a list of all the people you gift for, and don’t let this be an excuse to expand that list unnecessarily. Breaking the “mutuality” covenant is selfish in this direction as well.
  2. Be honest about the WHY. Why does this gift look the way it does? Did it speak to me for this recipient, or did it crawl back up the wrong end of the funnel? Is it present in such quantity because that’s the appropriate size as determined by mutuality, or because I have let this relationship down throughout the year? Gifting is a bad way to keep a relationship alive. It won’t bring back the experiences you’ve missed, and it’s a bad salve for insult. Say what you need to say in the card — not by supersizing the gift.
  3. Think about the Hitchhikers. There comes a time at every birthday or holiday party where the pile of wrapping paper, cardboard, and packaging reaches an uncomfortable height. It’s hard to separate the joy of gifting from the reality of how these items come into our lives. Luckily, the plight of retail and factory workers is getting more airtime today than it did in years past. We’re more cognizant of our immense carbon footprint now, too. What helps me get around this guilt is gifting items that are durable, and which can grow with the recipient. An axe given this year splits wood just as well next year. The plastic car game? I’ve never seen one of those make it more than a week.
  4. Build towards the kids’ future. What if the entire purpose of the gift-giving exchange was different? What if, instead of simply checking the box for “bought Anthony a gift” as expediently as possible, we tried to build something durable towards his future? Even if he’ll like the plastic tchotchke, and it’ll spike our dopamine and make us feel like we played our proper role in the family gifting tradition, is it the best use of time, natural resources, and a learning opportunity? What would the world look like if a portion of these generic gifts were transitioned to non-consumerist alternatives? Could it become acceptable to donate to a college fund? What does it look like to gift experiences as the main dish, as opposed to an afterthought? How can we use the holidays to fight back against entitlement instead of reinforcing it?

Cool Thing of the Week:

WAKING UP meditation app

At the risk of getting about 1500 unsubscribes from the rather large corps of Readers who primarily allow me into their inboxes for the CTOW, I’d like to be so bold as to demonstrate a modicum of internal consistency in this Letter. So this week, the CTOW isn’t … a T … at all.

There are plenty of differences in the ways hyper-successful people live their lives. One of the few >50% commonalities is a daily meditation practice. While it’s entirely possible to develop and maintain a practice with nothing more than 20 minutes of free time and a comfortable seat, many people find apps to be a helpful onramp. In the pantheon of meditation apps, WAKING UP handily unseats less sophisticated competitors like Headspace or Calm. My handsome, successful, and generally even-tempered cousin Brandon swears by it, and he lives in San Francisco. I like how [neuroscientist] Sam Harris’ relentless pragmatism infuses the whole content ecosystem with a sense of real grounding — too often sacrificed in favor of woowoo in other apps.

Get /Giphy With it:

Useful JPEG to send to colleagues:

Mandatory Self-Promotion

After years building startups in NYC, and a stint helping McKinsey & Co. develop their startup accelerator, I’m now leading the charge @ Brandt & Co., a boutique consultancy serving investors and founders in the early-stage ecosystem.

If you like the Urbach Letter, the best way to give back is emailing me copious atta-boys to print out and stick on my fridge.

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