When Do You Pay It Back or Pay It Forward?

I was thinking about being transactional: you do this for me, I do this for you. Often, the transaction is about money. When I pay for a thing—a book, a workshop, something that took you time to create—the transaction is a sort of pay-back.

I take classes to learn various things: how to write better, how to manage my business better, how to be a better coach, many kinds of classes. I pay tuition for the learning. Don’t confuse with paying for education with learning. For many of my classmates, the learning is optional.

I don’t think of “paying back” for the classes. I’ve already paid tuition. If I use what I learned, I can pay the knowledge forward.

I’ve already said help doesn’t need to be reciprocal.

I met someone on vacation last week who is learning to code. He has the intellectual curiosity to succeed. I don’t know if he will, but that’s up to him and some lucky breaks.

When we “pay it forward” we offer people those lucky breaks.

I’ve had many of those lucky breaks. I made some of those myself. Some, I recognized and said, “yes.”

One of my big lucky breaks arrived when the middle managers resigned rather than laying a bunch of us off. Because their salaries were so high, a bunch of us could be promoted into their jobs at lower pay. I took that opportunity, that lucky break. I learned a ton doing the management work. I’ve been paying that lucky break back with my writing, teaching, and consulting.

I had a lucky break when I met Jerry Weinberg. I’d seen an announcement of his keynoting at a conference when I started my business and was looking to speak at conferences. I created the opportunity and got a little lucky when the conference took my proposal. Since then, I’ve taken what I learned and paid it forward.

It’s difficult for me to think that my vertigo is a “lucky” break. On the other hand, I’ve learned—and continue to learn—and I pay it (what I learn) forward.

A transactional payment doesn’t involve much emotion or thought. Paying it forward requires emotion, thought, and perseverance.

It’s easier to pay back, to create a transaction. It’s more difficult for me to pay it forward with intention.

The longer I work (and maybe live!), the fewer transactions I want. Sure, I have transactions all the time and they satisfy the needs I have.

What I really want is the human connection. I might not have been mature enough earlier in my life to understand and recognize that’s what I want. But, it is. And, I get that human connection when I pay it forward.

The guy last week? I’m trying to pay it forward. My online workshops? More paying it forward.

There’s no right or wrong answer for this question. To be honest, it’s all contextual. I don’t want much more than a transaction when I go to the grocery store. If I get more, I’m delighted, but I don’t want more.

When I offer you my writing and questions, and especially when you comment, that’s the pay-it-forward I want.

And, that’s the question this week: When do you pay it back and when do you pay it forward?

4 thoughts on “When Do You Pay It Back or Pay It Forward?

  1. Jim Grey

    My favorite pay-it-forwards are the ones that come back to me in some way. The best of them involved the first person I ever hired. I was promoted to my first manager role and I purposed to create just the kind of team I’d want to work in. I got to build the team from scratch. It was a good team and we did good work together. They seemed to enjoy the experience and were quite sad when I got promoted to a different role and was no longer their manager.

    That company didn’t make it through the dot-com bust and we all went our separate ways. Years later that first person I hired called me and said, “There’s a role open here that looks an awful lot like you. If you’re interested, I’ll put in a good word with the VP, because I’d love to work with you again.”

    I was ready for a change so I interviewed, and I got the job. It was a fabulous role for me and I was very successful in it. And the company itself was successful, and the founders took an exit. It was kind of a rough exit and I was late enough to the party that the payout didn’t remotely change my life. But the founders and all the VPs ended up being muckety-mucks in the startup scene here in my town. Those contacts have helped me immeasurably as I’ve moved forward in my career.

    The moral of the story is to treat well the people who work for you!

    1. johanna Post author

      Jim, I love it!! I bet you treated everyone well—not just the people who worked for you, but also the people you worked for. I should write a post about that. I’m still friendly with my past managers (the ones who are still alive :-). Thanks for the idea!

  2. Dan Friedman

    What you say about wanting more of the human connection as you grow really resonates with me, Johanna. As I have pursued my career, the way people treat me has become so much more important to me than the content of our transactions. And it has been crucial (And empowering!) for me over the years to realize that I can have an influence on how much/what kind of connection I can make in any given situation, rather than passively accepting whatever transactional interactions come my way.

    As a manager, I have recognized moments where I get to decide; for example, whether I treat a project team looking for my help with a resource constraint as just a transaction (an annoyance or an escalation), or I take the time to understand the world from their point of view and go out of my way to build a trusting relationship (“pay it forward”). I have even, sometimes, at my best, capitalized on the opportunity to do this when I have had to say no to their request!

    So much of this is about the “how” of the interaction; so much choice lies, I think, in recognizing the humanity of the other person or people. And I find I always have a choice about that–even when I realize after the fact that I haven’t made that choice the way I would want to if I were perfect (and who is?), there is always a next interaction, a next choice to consciously make.

    1. johanna Post author

      Dan, lovely! I also like the fact that you recognize you almost always have a next time and a conscious choice to make then.

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