The Agenda, Part III: The Need for Contribution


Welcome to Part III of The Agenda. Here is Part I (Ask Why) and here is Part II (The Individual as Hero).


I was depressed like everyone else after 9/11. Having just been in NYC the week before made it especially poignant—I remembered walking around a lower Manhattan that would never be the same after that Tuesday.

I spent that fall thinking about the big questions of life—what am I really here for? Since it’s obvious there is evil in the world, where can I find the good?

At that time I was involved in a church, I gave 10% of my money away as I do now, and I tried to help out people on an individual basis as much as I could. But it just seemed so limited, and I just kept thinking, “Is this it? The world has been turned upside down, the president says we should go shopping, and the church says we should pray. Isn’t there something else we can do?”

Around that time I began looking for a chance to volunteer overseas. Jolie and I had always said that we would do “something,” but we kept putting it off like everyone else does. This time was different, though—I read about a medical charity that needed volunteers to run a hospital ship in Sierra Leone. I was immediately drawn to the idea, and within six months we were living there (more background here). An initial two-year commitment turned into four years, and by the time it was over, I was a very different person.


Failing to properly explore our role in the world around us is a critical omission in much of the conversation about non-conformity and unconventional work. Life planning and entrepreneurial literature (blogs, books, talks) often give the whole concept short attention. “After you get everything you could possibly want,” we sometimes hear, “you should also do something about some kind of cause, because it’s the right thing to do.”

This is the afterthought approach, and a much better approach is to fully integrate the need for contribution with our own dreams and goals. This illustrates today’s core principle: our lives are connected with others, and the more we explore these connections, the better off we ourselves will be.

Instead of thinking about contribution as an afterthought, therefore, consider making these strategies an essential part of your world domination plan:

Drop keys instead of building cages. As explained here, building cages is all about making people feel small, whereas dropping keys is all about helping people find possibility in their lives. It is a deceptively easy paradigm, because most of us exhibit a mixture of cage-building and key-dropping behavior. The goal is to always drop keys, always empower, always choose to build instead of destroy.

Expand the pie. Just as cage-building is a socially acceptable (while wrong) behavior, choosing to view the world in zero-sum terms unnecessarily limits our own growth. It’s much better to create win-win situations where no one has to lose for you to win, and vice versa. Don’t worry about who else is taking the pie. Make a bigger pie! (Read more here.)

Invest in people. I understand that supporting charities and investing in people is not all about writing a check, but I think it includes writing a check as we are able. Thinking about what kind of work we would like to do and how we would like to spend our time is a privileged and unique opportunity. Where much is given, much is required.

For most of my adult life I’ve given at least 10% of my income to organizations working toward reducing poverty in the developing world, especially Africa. (As mentioned in the book, my goal is to give 20%—but I’m not quite there yet.) This investment is like the years I actually spent in Africa—much more of a benefit than a sacrifice. I feel better when I am supporting groups and people who are making the world a better place. I wish I had the courage to give more, so I’m working on it.

If you’re looking for a project to be a part of, you’re invited to partner with me in our Ethiopia Water Project co-managed by my friends at Charity: Water. Details here. I’ll be taking a trip to the project site in late 2011, and will document it for everyone else who’s involved around the world.

Key-dropping, expanding the pie, and investing in people are all expressions of the wider context—how our lives are interconnected, and how we have a core need to contribute instead of just consume. This is why in the original Brief Guide to World Domination, I said that the second most important question in the universe is:

“What can you offer the world that no one else can?”

If you’re not sure of your answer, just start living your life according to the principles above. If you wake up on any given day and don’t know what to do, ask yourself, “How can I make someone else’s life better? What could I do to help?”

Then go and do that. You can figure other things out as you go along.


This has been Part III of the Agenda series. Today I’m in the beautiful city of Minneapolis, where we had a great meetup complete with a jazz band (!) at last night’s Unconventional Book Tour stop. I’ll look forward to seeing the rest of you again soon!


Image: RHS

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  • rob white says:

    It is interesting, Chris that most people never experience prosperity because they never learn to give. Prosperity is all about sowing and reaping… Money offers a fabulous lesson: You cannot worship god (circulation) and mammon (hoarding and greediness) too. Money is to be circulated, and it should be considered that way (and only that way). You must first learn how to give it away (sowing) before you can truly receive abundantly (reaping).

  • jason says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post Chris. I especially appreciated the “make a bigger pie” idea.

    Your idea of looking for a way to help someone else is an effective mood elevator as well.

    Cheers, jw.

  • Sean M Kelly says:

    This is a great article Chris. It is in giving that we receive. Funnily enough after Sept 11 I asked myself how can I help? A few days later I got an email about a Peace Pilgrimage to Bosnia Herzegovina and Italy. Without even finishing reading the email I knew I must go, not because of what I could get but what I could give. It was one of the first times in my life actually that I went with no agenda of learning anything, I just wanted to give whatever I could. Well this trip was an absolute life changer. As the war just started in Afghanistan (Oct 2001) and the propaganda was that it was a “Christian/Muslim” war, myself and about 20 others negotiated our way into a Mosque on the Muslim section of Mostar in Bosnia and sung a Muslim Prayer for Peace! The whole experience was unbelievable and the man in charge of the Mosque which had just been rebuilt after the Balkans conflict was moved to tears as many of us were. We must remember there are many ways to give. Sean

  • Hannah says:

    It’s always mind-bending to meet someone in person for the first time that you’ve been reading/ hearing about for years – and you were no exception. The passion with which you move through the world was so inspiring to experience in person. Thank you for your don’t-take-no-for-an-answer courageousness.

    Some of us don’t get to those important answers until some personal tragedy has struck. Even though I always asked the questions, my answer came only after having cancer. Go figure. It’s only by taking a series of bigger and bigger risks – and being willing to lose almost everything but my soul – did I get to the place I am now. The future is looking very bright.

  • Julia says:

    Thanks for the visit to Madison. I was lucky enough to be there.

  • Valerie says:

    This is a great article! You get it right in all of the places I think the church gets it wrong. From what I have found most church-goers either do nothing or what they do is so overtly religious it turns everyone else off.

    I have been following your blog for a while & it has really made me think about my place in the world. Thanks for all of your hard work!

  • Robin says:

    I’ll be interested in seeing pictures of what Charity: Water has accomplished! That’s one of the places we support with our charity funds.

  • Hannah R. says:

    Your comments reminded me of a weekend radio program in which a minister, who had done a tour of service in Iraq, talked about being asked to serve another term as Padre. He really didn’t want to go, but was given no choice. Turned out his life was changed by the mission, along with lives of many GIs who came under his influence in life-and-death situations. He impressed me as a person who now has a lot more experience from which to help others as well as a keener sense of his present and future roles in the world. I guess we can’t predict in advance what opportunities are growth opportunities, but just need to practice staying open to the call. The reward lies in seeing your contribution after the fact.

  • Tim Metzner says:

    I was at Tahoe Tech Talk last week and Chris Sacca made a very similar point several times; he urged everyone to do something now rather than waiting until we acquire a bunch of wealth or get settled. Everyone can give something, whether it’s time and talents, money, or both.

    I think people often fail to realize just how much they’ll be getting back in return for their efforts; it may be cliche, but it’s often true that volunteering ends up feeling like you are getting more than you are giving.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  • ami says:

    I love the suggestion: If you wake up on any given day and don’t know what to do, ask yourself, “How can I make someone else’s life better? What could I do to help?” What a wonderful way to live your life. What a challenge. If we all lived each day by meditating on these questions and constructing our answers with care, what sort of world could we build? thanks.

  • Christina says:

    Chris, when I read Cages vs. Keys I interpreted it differently. I saw the “building cages” concept to be about locking others into a rigid definition of who you see them to be e.g. “He’s a loser” or “She’s pretentious” and defining that person by your interpretation.

    And “dropping keys” to me is about unlocking those definitions and allowing our impressions of others to be open, flexible, changeable, charitable and curious.

  • Christy - Ordinary Traveler says:

    Droppin keys instead of building cages… Love it! I think our society is taught to believe that keeping others down is the only way we can succeed. If only more people followed the belief of ‘helping others will help you succeed.’ Thanks for the info on the Ethiopia Water Project. I’m always looking for good charities where I know the money is actually going to the cause.

  • Lauren says:

    Fantastic and very timely reminder about not building cages. I’d read that original post months ago, but when I read it again just now, Tricia Herbert’s comment really struck a chord:

    “My first response to this title – I know many of those small men! And then I wanted to forward this post to them. In the next breath, I realized that it was also me. By wanting to point it out to them, thereby securing them a little tighter into their own locked cages. What a great post on reminding us to keep on doing what we love, and to drop keys for those in cages, but not to insist that they use them.”

    Very humbling and thought-provoking…

  • Molly Gordon says:

    A few thoughts with the micro-business in mind.

    1. You don’t have to wait until you have more to donate time or money. 5 or 10% of whatever you have is a beginning. It doesn’t get easier to donate that much when you earn more; in fact, it can get harder. So start the habit now.

    2. If your work is a contribution in itself, pay attention to the business side. You can’t help others if you’re not thriving. You can’t reach the people you want to serve if you aren’t visible. And you can’t be an attractive model to others unless you demonstrate that decent human beings can profit and do good in the world.

  • Karen says:

    In the last year or so, I’ve become much more charity-minded. While there were a number of factors that contributed to it, two of the biggest were feeling the need to make my life more meaningful and a family member’s illness. I felt that to make my life more meaningful, I needed to give more of myself to my community. I became a Big Sister in my community, as well as joining a number of committees. I have enjoyed hearing about your experiences and aspire to your level of generosity!

  • Trixie Rioux says:

    Thanks for sharing this creative idea about key and cage and pie.

  • Brooke says:

    Timely post for me, since I’ve been researching up and down, back and forth, to attempt to start a non-profit to improve science/math education in the rural (less access to universities and resources) US. More critical thinking skills, fewer people on the streets etc. I can totally relate to wanting–no, *needing*–to help others in an epic way. It’s a burning desire for me.
    (Having said that… anyone who has thoughts/ideas or wants to help out organizing–not looking for $$–contact me!)

  • Melody Watson says:

    Thank you, Chris. This series is really staying with me after I read, coming to mind later when I’m going about my business. You especially caught my attention with your recommendation that we not think about contribution as an afterthought.

    It’s true that it genuinely feels good to help others. That feeling is often not the only reward, but perhaps many of the more generous givers have decided that sometimes the good feelings that result ARE enough of a reward.

  • Prime says:

    Your post just corresponds with my belief that no single profession is entirely noble. I’m a journalist and I know a lot of my colleagues think that our job is so precious, that it’s the only job that will allow us to do some public service. As far as I’m concerned, you can be of service to anyone, you can take part in changing the world. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a journalist, corporate yuppie, problogger or NGO worker.

  • Sylvester says:

    Chris, I have benefited immensely from your write-ups and your activities generally, though I have never written to you.

    I live in Lagos. I guess my country Nigeria has lost it (in some sense) because everyone is thinking of what to ‘take’ instead of what to give. The culture some of us are trying to inculcate in our children today is that our country (and ultimately the world) will be a better place for all if we all think of what to give to make it better.

    Thank you very much, Chris, for bringing that message home.

  • Ridlon Kiphart says:

    Over the past year, my wife and I have worked to establish a non profit foundation for charitable work. The timing was awful but we realized the timing was never going to be “right” so we just committed and jumped into the deep end with both feet. We’ve had some excellent mentors during the process. If you are thinking about something like this, we would be happy to share our knowledge/experience. Go out and make a difference today.

  • Bill says:

    Nice, thoughtful post Chris, thanks for sharing. One of the great thing about living an unconventional life is that you can give more of your time if you are not limited to just two weeks vacation or something.

    I hope to one day soon be able to spend part of every year volunteering for different causes. It is something I have always wanted to get involved with and just need to start.

    We should all try to make bigger pies!

  • Brett says:

    Awesome post, Chris. I’ve always thought that the best way to live was to find a way to do something that matters – that is, positively affect your life and those of others as well.

    I’d also like to add that you can invest in people in more than one way. By investing your trust and time into someone’s life, you can dramatically change them by teaching them something or even just by being an example to follow.

  • Deborah Wall says:

    I sometimes get lost in the building cages because of my own fears, especially in my role as a mother, so your post has reminded me to offer my son keys that will help him be his biggest self in the world instead of building him a cage to keep him safe.

  • Brett Holt says:

    Ian MacKaye from the infamous punk bands Minor Threat and Fugazi once said, “Don’t wait for the opportunity, make the opportunity”.

    It’s this philosophy that has driven me to serve in the Peace Corps, play in a touring punk band, spend four years on the wildfire lines throughout the West coast, volunteer at local gardens, spend a summer on the Yosemite National Park Search and Rescue team, host foreign exchange students, live in multiple cities/states, and much more.

    I offer my family, community, and the world a person who seeks to helps others rather that sit and wait, questions while remaining an active listener, and is open to new ideas. It is the accumulation of these experiences and, most importantly, the lessons learned that I, and only I, can offer the world.

  • Gary Wilson says:

    Sometimes giving is as close as home. I try to help my family as much as possible too because they are all people that I know. It is surprising the many different ways in which I can help them and most of it does not involve money. I really sense that giving is a joy. Thanks for your writings on the practical side of giving Chris.

  • jason walton says:

    Brett Holt’s MacKaye reference triggered a memory that in my twenties I used the mantra “Make your own fun.” I forgot about that. It worked when things seemed like they were getting dull.

    When I’m feeling stuck the saying “The world isn’t here for you, you are here for the world.” is a helpful reminder to myself that I’d like to share as well.

    Cheers – jw

  • Heather says:

    This post came at just the right time for me. I’ve been feeling the need to contribute, knowing that there is more out there for me to do than what I’ve been doing. Great post and great series!

  • Doug Armey says:

    Thanks for this reminder. The joy of contribution is truly fulfilling. I linked to this in my post “Surprised by Abundance.” Keep up the great posts. They’re appreciated.

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