Building on Habits – the Habit of Generosity

John Middleton
August 14, 2019

Last week I shared a blog about habits and coworking inspired by James Clear’s “Atomic Habits”… a couple keys to remember:

  1. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems
  2. Atomic Habits are those habits small enough to remove barriers to starting.

An atomic habit is not one event. In the same way atoms are the smallest building blocks of the universe, atomic habits represent the amount of simplification you need in order to take action on a task or goal. Because they are simple building blocks they are easy steps to take and combine easily with enough flexibility to build competence (and confidence) over time. A habit of generosity pairs a mindset that you have enough to give with actions aligned to that generous intent.

gen·er·ous- (of a person) showing a readiness to give more of something, as money or time, than is strictly necessary or expected./ˈjen(ə)rəs/ (adjective) – syn (Lavish, giving, bountiful, plentiful, overflowing, inexhaustible, prolific)

Generosity as a habit is about establishing an overriding pattern of actions match our intent to be more consistently generous. It starts with getting solid about the mindset so that the action becomes easier to take. We often decide to do something and then don’t take the action, creating a little cognitive dissonance that we either try to shake off with distraction or that pushes us to take action. A consistent simple pattern of generous action also reinforces our thinking so that our ideas go from just good conceptual ideas to something substantial that others can see and experience and respond to. Our subconscious default is geared toward survival, so act generously we want find ways to shift control of our behaviors away from impulse reaction into the higher reasoning mind.

Over time, generous patterns establish not only strong neural pathways in us but also dependable systems of simple action that make decisions and taking action less stressful. Others gain confidence and respond with gratitude. When you do one thing out of generosity, there is a chance that others will look on it with suspicion, but behave that way consistently and it develops a substantive pattern of behavior others can see and engage with.

If you have ever seen the way a flowing water can carve its way through stone, habits can have a similar effect on your goals when repeated consistently over time.

Photo by Alec Herrera from Pexels

We might be tempted to think that generosity comes from having a lot to start with, but that has not been my experience. People who have the least are often more ready to lend a hand because they know the impact that a little help can make. If you’ve ever been around generous people, you know generosity is a concscious choice, an attitude, and a readiness to act. As a culture of generosity grows and becomes substantial, a culture and community of generostity can develop that flows freely in and out from person to person creating a whole ecosystem of support and generosity.

Last year I traveled to Haiti, one of the most economically depressed countries in the world. As we drove from the airport, I saw nothing but poverty and hardship. I expected to meet people beaten down bay hardship and circumstance, but the Hatian people I met were some of the kindest and most resilient people I have ever met.  They surprised me with their sense of community and simple enjoyment of life. Of course I met some stingy and harsh people (someone took my phone when I wasn’t looking). But guess what, the ones with the least seeemed the most ready to lead with generousity. These people stood out and challenged me in my own generosity, they were leaders in that way, setting a standard I wanted to aim for. It was unexpected and engaging. I remember their words, their faces and their friendship. All of this was that much more precious because it seemed like they had so little to give and yet they always seemed to be a step ahead of me, they weren’t waiting, they were looking for chances to give rather than being strategic and self focused. That is the thing about generosity that stands out, it seems like giving or receiving more than would be reasonable, expected or prudent. It is lavish. Something simple can become something special when it is given in a generous way.

If we make a bazillion dollars but then find, as we look back, that we burned bridges, harmed others and trampled our beliefs because our highest level value was profitability rather than kindness and generosity, then we may find that the results were ultimately unsatisfying. If this doesn’t resonate with you, that’s ok. Generosity has room enough for disagreements.

A habit of generosity may seem like a catch 22 because we may not always feel generous. So if we rely on feeling generous or feeling like we have enough to be generous, it’s hard to act consistently. However, developing a strategy that facilitates acting generously takes some of the work out of getting into the mood of being generous or reacting against feeling unprepared to meet a need. I heard a story from Bob Goff, that he carry’s around $100 bill to give as a tip. He just decides when he wants to over tip someone and he looks forward to finding an opportunity to give the unexpected tip. The thought and preparation makes it fun and he gets more enjoyment out of giving it away because he’s made it easy and fun. If we don’t ever establish a plan for how and when we can act generously, we remain locked in Sisyphean struggle against our subconscious survival mindset, but if we plan for it, we are freed up to look for opportunities to act instead of looking for excuses not to.

When you meet generous people, they seem to have energy and resources to spare. I think it is because they make preparation, they set aside time and they make it easy to let go of resources because they are have become convinced of the value of giving. When you are with them you get a boost just being around them.

I have worked in traditional public and private company jobs since college. It has offered me financial security and stability, but I have still been left with the sense that I am often trading security for impact. Whether that is true or not, I don’t know, but the bulk of my time is spent working on someone else’s agenda and priority. I try to piece together time to focus on my own impact with my family and the community in the time I can glean around the edges of my work. But I would like to do more. Work and finances meet practical needs but when I come across people who need help in our community, in my travels or read about people in the news who are still struggling in significant ways (poverty, slavery, abuse, neglect, discrimination, social injustice, displacement, violence, just to name a few) I want to do more. When faced with the weight of the problems around me, I tend to respond in one of two ways (sometimes alternating between them).

  1. Overwhelm – The weight and scope of how to help in the face of such challenges and make a lasting impact can paralyze us into inaction (or regret about that we don’t have eough to offer).
  2. Action – Fueled by a commitment to do what we can with the resources we have now.

I started OpenSpace because I wanted to find ways to spend more of my time, more consistently contributing to solutions and relief. But I also knew I couldn’t tackle the big problems on my own. I had experienced how hard it was to work alone. I constantly ran into things I didn’t know how to do and so I would bog down and end up defaulting back to working more hours in my day job because there was always more work to be done than could be completed in a day. I didn’t know how I would do it, but I knew I needed to take some steps to work differently or I would stay stuck. I still I had no experience running a business but as a project manager, I did have experience leveraging systems and productivity toward a goal. Coworking communities bring together resources and thinking through relationships and trust, which allows for a more human experience in a business world where getting access to resources can feel dehumanizing. So I took a step and chose a way to start with the resources I had at the time.

Big goals can make you feel small. There could always use more resources, we could always be more prepared, educated, equipped, etc. Sometimes it’s just time to start. Starting can look like finding a collaborator, an encourager, overcoming your self-doubts. It could mean that you find someone with the practical skills or investment capital you need to overcome real technical or financial hurdles. Take the smallest big step you can toward your goal, make it risky enough to be a little scary but not so risky that it doesn’t excite and energize you to keep going. Don’t focus on all the other stuff that will have to happen, just focus on your current capability and take the biggest step you can.

If you are looking to solve difficult or seemingly impossible problems, you need a mindset and a habit of generosity and a community of generous people equipped with all kinds of skills and talents. When we opened the Rockwall Openspace in Nov 2017, there was no guarantee that my partners and I were ready to run a coworking space, that we had the exact right location, the right marketing/pricing strategy. But we made a decision that it was time to start. Sometimes it’s just time to start, you probably won’t feel ready.

We want to be the kind of business that lowers barriers to doing generous work. We want to facilitate work that serves others with a sense of purpose and community. If you are a company or a non-profit solving problems for the most vulnerable people, here in our community or around the world, and you are looking for a collaborative environment to build those solutions, we want to support and encourage you. So, for the remainder of the summer (until September 30th) we are offering a limited number of full time or part time desks at a special pricing for businesses who devote a portion of their services to (or who’s businesses are already)  solving problems in these areas like these:

  • Prison Mentoring and Aftercare
  • Food Supply Sustainability (Local Organic Food)
  • Food Security and Poverty alleviation
  • Foster Youth support & mentoring
  • Waste reduction recycling
  • Conflict resolution
  • Interfaith dialogue
  • Human Trafficking & Immigration Support
  • Homelessness

Please contact us and ask about special summer pricing for social entrepreneurs and non-profits. Call (972)898-9237 or send inquiries to We have 4 slots available.
Here are a couple of groups I’ve been inspired by. I hope they inspire you as well:

John Middleton