Friday, December 07, 2007

Gifts of Time and Money

(News-Herald, December 6) One of the thorny issues of the Christmas season is the business of gifting, the large-scale dispersal and redistribution of whatever we have that passes for wealth. It’s a pretty shaky proposition to start with the birth of the baby Jesus, the Creator of All manifest in frail human form, and then draw a line from there to a mad dash to buy home appliances, jewelry, toys, and the latest dvd’s.

The conventional answer is to enshrine gift-giving as a tradition begun by the magi bringing their gifts to the manger. It’s a nice thought, even if it does give short shrift to the shepherd who showed up with full hearts but empty hands.

I’m not lobbying against gift-giving. It’s an honorable tradition, and it gives us the opportunity to reflect on something at the core of honorable, devout and ethical behavior. And that’s the simple matter of acting on what we believe.

People, whether as individuals, or as parts of organizations or governments, usually have their stated priorities and their real priorities, and they don’t always match. To find out the real priorities, simply watch how someone spends two resources—time and money.

Time and money are the resources that matter because they are absolutely limited. You only get so much of both, and that in turn means that every expenditure of time or money is a choice. The hour I spend talking to you is an hour I don’t spend doing something else; the dollar I spend on a chocolate cupcake can’t be spent on fresh twinkies.

People try to identify priorities with talk, but talk is cheap. It costs you nothing. One common trait of the presidencies of Slick Willie and George Junior is grasping that if they said what people wanted to hear, many folks will not pay any attention to what actually happened.

Most working folks have experienced the Pep Talk. This talk (apparently taught in Manager School) involves some boss standing in front of a room full of widget twiddlers. “Widget twiddlers,” he says earnestly, “are the heart and soul of this organization. What you do is so very important, and we just couldn’t function without you.”

Managers, here’s a clue. If you can’t right now think of ten real, substantive things that you’ve done in the last year that could be used as evidence of your commitment to widget twiddling, you should just shut up, because nobody in the room will believe your motivational words. On the other hand, if you can name ten things, you probably don’t need to talk about your commitment, because your people already know.

Here’s your management lesson for the day. If the only way people will know what you value is that you tell them, don’t bother. A) Nobody will believe you because B) it isn’t true.

If you are telling folks you’re all about your home life, but you’re rarely at home, you’re not very believable. If you tell your kids they come first, but you spend all your money on Beanie Babies, while the kids make do with one pair of jeans and a t-shirt each, your kids likely suspect that they aren’t number one.

What we say we “can’t afford” is always a clear marker of our real priorities. We can always find money for the things that Really Matter; we can always find reasons not to pay for what doesn’t.

Sometimes priorities are real. There are people in this world who really can’t afford cable tv because they really need to buy food instead. And there are people who have to sacrifice most of the hours in their week to make that money. But most of us are neither that poor nor that busy. We just make a lot of choices in a hurry, without thinking much about what we’re choosing.

But every year as Christmas rolls around, we become deliberate gifters. We choose who to give to, how much, and how carefully to choose. And that’s a part of the holiday we can learn from.

If we consider keeping local workers and businesses worth supporting, we can choose to spend our money here at home. If there are people and organizations and events that matter to us, we can choose to spend our time on them.

And it doesn’t stop on December 26. Every day we trade away bits of money. Every day we give away twenty-four of our precious hours. We can toss them away impulsively and support priorities that we don’t even realize we’ve chosen, or we can choose to give them in ways that we truly value, like carefully selected seasonal gifts. That would be Christmas every day.

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