I wasn't always a kind person.
The two years following my release into the wild from my undergrad at NYU were the Dark Ages of my future Wikipedia page (New York City, 2013). My insecurities about unemployment (a blended BA in music, design, and pre-med is hard to use for the conventional job hunt) and lack of relatable mentors manifested in unhealthy relationships, addictions, and most notably, abusively critical inner dialogue. As my early twenties granted me increasing amounts of self-awareness, I began to recognize the individual ingredients that came together to fuel this habit of mind:
1. The fear of believing in myself
2. The need to feel important
3. Relentless creativity
Stunted by a fear-fueled unwillingness to put in the personal creative work I knew I needed to do, my mind couldn't find anything to appreciate about myself. Since my sense of value then couldn't come from achievements, the surplus and unused creativity had nothing to do but generate stories about why those around me were lesser than me-- it was value by comparison.
He's definitely not going anywhere in life with that kind of delusional self-confidence.
Thank god my face doesn't look like that.
That poor girl is never getting married.
My mind became very skillful at identifying flaws and reasons to hate or avoid. This mental habit, often then applied to myself, resulted in a probably-not-too-uncommon vicious cycle that had me spiraling into deeper and deeper spells of depression, self-loathing, and motivation poverty.
It was my gradual meta-awareness of this problem that prompted an active effort to exercise my creativity toward positivity. I thought about it like going to the gym. I figured if I could change my body from pre-pubescently scrawny to fitness-magazine athletic like I had over the last several years, then maybe I could affect dramatic change to my psychological fitness through persistently applied effort. These efforts took the form of compliments toward others, even if they often felt forced.
Dude. Nice fucking mustache!
Love the sweater.
Someone has great taste in morning pick-me-ups (to girl sipping on a Starbucks Latte).
While it's hard to provide a quantitative measure of the impact this sole behavior commitment had on my life since then, I can say with warm confidence that the difference between my inner dialogue in 2013 and that of today is night and day. Back then, I had a hard time swallowing my pride to conjure up even simple compliments. Today my mind overflows with genuine appreciation for specific and nuanced quirks about those I engage with, even if it's just for a single, short conversation. I'm an unquestionably happier, more confident, and kinder person, and that simple decision was undoubtedly a key step in getting here.
The Heart Ninja Project
One of the ideas that had-- while born out of that mindset-- gathered dust in my mental procrastination cabinet was a campaign to deliver random, genuine compliments to commuting strangers in New York City via memorably designed cards. I found myself drawn to the idea of employing my design experience to challenge both my mental habits and social anxieties and make peoples' days while I was at it. However the same fear that I aimed to extinguish with this project prevented me from taking any steps beyond merely discussing the idea in theory.
Three years later, equipped with a dramatically evolved hue of self-value, as well as the free time afforded to me by my return to the world of funemployment, I jumped on an opportunity to bring the project to life during a visit to Korea, where I teamed up with classmates at INQ (a humanities school that takes a radically different approach to education through experiential learning in topics of psychology, self-analysis, and philosophy).
Language Barrier, Schlmanguage Schbarrier.
Since I was cripplingly tone-deaf to Korea's pop culture, slang, and even taste in typography, I relied heavily on my classmates' help on copy and font choice. The white side opens with a header that translates to: "Are you okay? That must've been a fright," a reference to a scene from a Korean drama that recently went viral due to the actor's cardboard-caliber emotional performance.
The centerpiece of the colored side of the card is a playfully-designed "You," in non-formal form, which, while would normally be considered rude when directed at a stranger, felt just safe enough to pass as the tonal spice that would leave an impression on the receiver. The bottom section translates roughly to: "INGREDIENTS: 100% Additive-Free," and "Re-Usable / Recyclable. Feel free to pass this on," an idea I salvaged while reading the label of a juice box I was sipping on during the design process.
The Strike Commences!
We decided to set a date and hand the cards out together on a Friday afternoon. With my classmates taking care of the giving, my hands were free to document the project with my stalker zoom lens. As I watched, the givers seemed to traverse through a pattern of emotional phases:
- Excitement at the prospect of the idea
- Slight apprehension upon arrival to the actual situation of approaching strangers
- Wavering between rationalizations/excuses and going for it
- Newfound buzz once fear was conquered
- Repeat cycle (usually with less friction over time)
Reactions on the receiving end couldn't have been better by my expectations. While there were of course many who received the cards with suspicion or apathy, there were plenty who reacted in bent-over laughter and open-mouthed smiles. We even saw one recipient hand his card to another stranger, while another one hunted us down and asked if we had any spares.
The test run was a wild success.
It's been a couple weeks since then, but I continue to receive messages from my classmates telling me how the experience provided momentum that carried over. Some of them are continuing to give out the cards they didn't use. One told me she was able to speak up in a moment that she normally wouldn't have. It turns out that even a single afternoon of giving in this fashion has lasting effects.
The Key Takeaways:
While I'm aware of the irony that recording and documenting the results of this project are, in a way, in direct conflict with the principle of giving without expecting credit, I decided that taking that principle too seriously stifled my larger mission of influencing positive change wherever I can.
Let me unpack that a little.
After thinking up the Heart Ninja brand, I got a little carried away by this ideal of altruism. I wanted to see if I could execute the project without any credit, profit, or benefit to myself. However in the process of trying to design a completely altruistic act, whether through omission of any website url on the card (notice its absence on the English designs) or by refusing to consider publicity or sharing strategies, I quickly arrived at the realization that there was simply no way to design an act of kindness that didn't at the very least guarantee the benefit of me witnessing my action and appreciating myself more for it. And it was this realization that snapped me back into focus into what this card project was all about.
When I was going through my dark times, I was fortunate enough to wander down a line of thinking that brought me to the hypothesis that giving was the answer to feeling lack. This is very counterintuitive. And even if one decides to pursue what they think is the right set of actions to confirm that hypothesis, it's easy to fall into the trap of focusing on taking, without realizing one's focus is there.
For example, in obsessing over designing an altruistic act, I was suppressing the larger influential value of the project in favor of an ironically selfish fixation on being an altruistic person. Rather than focusing on how the project could give, I was focusing on how to get the status of altruism. While extremely subtle, there is an unquestionably solid line between the two states of mind and the decisions they produce.
Once I redirected my focus towards others (who can this benefit and how?), the decision to include a web url to house my backstory and document a trial run came easily, and I began to see the larger value of sharing this idea and the story behind it.
There are two distinctions I want to identify here:
1. There's a difference between giving to be known as a giver and giving to give.
2. There's a difference between showing off to profit and documenting to inspire.
Both distinctions are rooted in whether we're focused on ourselves or on others.
While The Heart Ninja Project is, at the macro level, a self-focused, personal development project, the individual actions and decisions that made up the cohesive whole were focused on giving to others. It was through designing the logistics with this focus, as well as a genuine appreciation toward the targets of the givers that the participants were able to uncover sides of themselves that were often delightfully surprising. It appears to me that this reality is designed in such a way that genuine giving comes with a guaranteed reward (so long as you're not focused on the reward while you do so).
The title of this page was a question: "How does giving without expectation affect the giver?"
While I don't think I've lived a generous enough life to know the answer, I think this project has dropped me off at the entrance of discovering it. I don't know if the value of the project was quantitatively worth the money and time I invested into it. I don't really know if the effects that my classmates reported will last. I don't know how much confirmation bias goes into my sense of fulfillment and excitement about my perceived success of the experiment.
All I know is that this made me want to keep giving.
And that's what I intend to do.