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Creative Work and the Art of Giving Gifts

The Gift by Lewis Hyde

Which comes first, the fruits of your talent, or the willingness to generously and selflessly share it with others?

According to Lewis Hyde, it’s a virtuous cycle. The creative gift you’ve been given is not to use for your own purposes, it’s to be given away to others, who will carry on the cycle of gift-giving that will eventually return to you.

I was inspired by Ryan Holiday’s post this week about the benefits of keeping a library of (physical) books, because it’s something I’ve done for a few decades now and find myself returning to often for inspiration and re-calibration. As I was perusing my library this morning, my fingers ran across my well-worn, and heavily written-in copy of The Gift by Lewis Hyde. Now a contemporary classic, the book is an argument for the necessary nature of gift-giving in artistry, and also contains undertones of warning (explicit or not) about the dangers of selfish artistry.

In the “cult of celebrity” that we’ve created, the desire for attention for work has trumped the desire to create and contribute value. If something has fewer likes, views, or shares then it’s deemed as less valuable than something with viral appeal. As such, many have taken to shapeshifting according to whatever will achieve more social credibility. However, as Hyde says, celebrity should never be confused with essence.

“An abiding sense of gratitude moves a person to labor in service of his daemon. The opposite is properly called narcissism. The narcissist feels his gifts come from himself. He works to display himself, not to suffer change… The celebrity trades on his gifts, he does not sacrifice to them. And without that sacrifice, without the return gift, the spirit cannot be set free. In an age of narcissism the centers of culture are populated with larvae and lemurs, the spooks of unfulfilled genii.”

It’s a sobering thing to realize that your gifts are not from yourself, nor do they exist for purposes of self-fulfillment or personal pleasure. This is the trap we can easily fall into when we chase the elusive ideal of “freedom” or “choice”. Freedom spent only on one’s self is needlessly wasted.

As you consider the gift that you have to offer – the expression that is uniquely yours, and yours alone to give away – consider this: the impact of a gift given away in freedom is vast, while a gift spent on the giver quickly fades.

What gift will you offer to others today through your work?


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I'm Todd Henry.

I'm Todd Henry.

I write books, speak internationally on productivity, creativity, leadership, and passion for work, and help people and teams generate brilliant ideas. More

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I write books, speak internationally on productivity, creativity, leadership, and passion for work, and help people and teams generate brilliant ideas.

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