Giving the gift is the thing

Decry the commercialism and bemoan the perils of mindless consumption, but the holiday season’s focus on gift-giving offers its own kind of gift.

It’s a joy to be surprised and delighted by a gift someone has given me. But it’s a greater joy to be the one offering the surprise and delight.

You can look at your gift list as a burdensome chore. Or you can see it as an opportunity to try to connect with your family and friends in a meaningful way. A mindful gift-giver will attempt to see through the eyes of those they’re giving to. 

What does my nephew love? What would inspire my wife, and how can I delight my kids? Instead of just going through the motions and checking off the gift list with whatever, make the effort to understand the people on your list just a little better. Inhabit their imagination for a moment. Ask good questions, directly or indirectly. Be a bit of a sleuth in pursuing clues that will unlock a bit of the mystery of your recipients’ wiring — their yearnings and inclinations and even their worries. 

It’s easy to fall into the pattern of giving just exactly what has been asked for, or, worse, what you want them to have. The golden rule will let you down here. Don’t give to others what you like given to you. Instead, give in a way that uniquely delights the recipient, a way that might even disappoint if you were the recipient. I was that guy that, because I love books, would give books, even to people who I knew never read, hoping that my gift would be the one to change everything. I could see the disappointment as they were realizing the wrapped present in their hands was another book from me. 

I’m not saying this mindful approach to gift-giving isn’t hard. It is. And I usually fall short or miss the mark completely. (Occasionally, though, magic happens.) But the attempt is worthwhile and is a challenging way to connect you a little more closely to those who matter most in your life. 

The game is afoot. Giving the gift — the gift of your presence and attention and thoughtfulness — is the thing.

What is the best gift you’ve ever received?

I enjoyed this feature on Quartz about the best gifts people have received. It’s not exactly a gift guide. It’s a collection of stories about gifts that have staying power and are worth remembering and talking about long after they’ve been given.

I immediately thought about what my answer would be if asked about the best gift I’ve received. Getting set up with the woman who became my wife was the ultimate gift. (Thanks, Gloria, for sending me her name and contact information on the back of that photo. Best gift ever.) And, of course, my two daughters continue to give us joy every day.

But if I’m considering just tangible gifts, I immediately think of the camera my parents gave me when I was in ninth grade. They ran a camera shop and portrait studio, and I worked there myself occassionally. I joined the high school yearbook staff and wanted to be a photographer on the staff, but I didn’t have a good camera.

In my dad’s shop I would play with the 35 mm SLRs that were in the display case, and as Christmas approached my dream was to get the Nikon FM. I knew it was the best, but it was so expensive. My parents were facing lean times as they were trying to keep their store in business. I was sure the best camera I could hope for was the much less expensive Pentax K1000. But I was still dreaming of the Nikon.

On Christmas morning I picked a present under the tree with my name on it, and my heart sunk. From working in their shop I could tell that the box I was holding was a match for the Pentax’s camera case. I was resigned to getting the Pentax. 

It was indeed the box for the Pentax camera case, but inside was another present altogether. Socks, I think. My mom had just repurposed a discarded case box from the store.  

The next present I opened… the Nikon. This was my Red Rider BB gun moment. I was so happy. I can still recall the feel of the Nikon in my hands, the smell of the metal and plastic, wearing the strap around my neck, and eagerly taking pictures (on film, of course) of almost anything remotely interesting on that glorious Christmas morning.

That camera was a beautiful thing. It was this sophisticated and solid device made for grown-ups, professionals even, and I was honored my parents thought me worthy of it. I used it for years and still have it, though it is now a nostalgic relic of a lost era of film photography.

It’s probably that camera and that Christmas memory that cemented my already burgeoning love for cutting edge gadgets and great things in general. 

And it’s the feeling of that moment that I hope to occassionally spark for my wife and kids and other family members as I search for gifts for them.

What are the best gifts you’ve received? 

As you search for gifts for others, are you content to just go through the motions and check gifts off your to-do list? Or do you want to go on a quest to find a gift that surprises and delights and makes a memory worth talking about even years later?


Our family code


My wife surprised me with this beautiful gift on Christmas morning – our family charge, hand-lettered by a talented friend. (Thanks, Candice!)

We came up with these four reminders – “Spread love; Live now; Be true; & Shine!” – when our girls were toddlers, and they can recite them on cue. We even had t-shirts made when they were little with a family logo on the front and one of each of the four pillars of our code on the back. (Yes, we can get away with being that kind of family without our kids rolling their eyes at us for a little while longer.)

I don’t know if having such a family code of conduct has any measurable impact on our behavior. But I know I need to be reminded regularly of the kind of person I hope to be. If these reminders can guide a response in a key moment for my kids, it’s worth the effort, and the potential cheesiness, to try to imprint and hardwire in our most prized values.

A Dave Grohl Christmas: The gift of surprise and delight

Most gift-giving gatherings this time of year have a bit of an absurd quality to them. Family members make wish lists for each other of exactly what they want, and there’s an implied understanding that you need to stick with the list. But, then, what’s the point? You could avoid the hassle and all just buy yourself what you want, right? (Or save your money and just have great conversations.)

“What do you want for Christmas?” you’re asked. “Surprise and delight would be nice”, I want to say.

But surprise and delight is hard. Which is why most gift-giving moments feel more like an obligation as we stay safe and simply get what everyone asks for. The fear of the clunker gift is real, but it’s a risk worth taking to keep hope alive for moments of genuine surprise and delight. Caution is the devil, right? That caution may keep you from being the one giving unwanted gifts, but it will also keep you from doing something remarkable, like offering genuine surprise and delight.

Our 13-year-old nephew is 13 in the best way anyone can be 13. He’s smart and kind, but he’s kind of cool, too. At family gatherings he tends to disappear and avoid the awkwardness of close quarters with all the relatives as best he can. (I did that, too, when I was a teenager. Okay, I still do that now sometimes.) You’ve got to work to get him to talk at meals, and he’s not quick to smile. You’ve got to earn the smile.

But he loves playing guitar and lights up when he’s talking about music. He’s taught himself how to play, and he’s pretty good. He’s become really focused on all things guitar, playing in seemingly every spare moment and regularly listening to cool music. (We share an appreciation of John Mayer, and I’ve earned a cool point or two just from that.)

His hero, though, is Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters. Grohl is the man. My wife and I found this out while talking with him at Thanksgiving. We were curious and wanted to know what gets him excited, what he’s into.

Well, when it came time to find a Christmas gift for him, we didn’t even check his wish list. I started wondering what a 13-year-old guitar-playing Dave Grohl fan might enjoy. After some online searches, we stumbled across a print of a great Dave Grohl quote. We bought it and framed it and wrapped it for our nephew’s gift.

At our family Christmas gathering last week, we were going around the circle watching each person open a gift. When my nephew’s turn came, my wife and I watched eagerly as he unwrapped our present. He held up the print and began reading the quote, with a bit of a quizzical, “What is this?” kind of expression on his face, as if he was bracing himself to summon a polite response to a random, cheesy, unwished-for gift. Then, when he read to the bottom of the quote and saw “Dave Grohl”, his expression transformed, and his face lit up with what clearly was surprise and delight.

He smiled at us and said something about Grohl being a hero. He kept that unforced grin for a moment, and we knew we had done it. Success! Surprise and delight. And we were as delighted at the giving of a thoughtful gift as he was in receiving it. Probably more so.

It could have bombed and left us and him wishing we had just gotten him a DVD or an iTunes card. But it was the moment of the season for us so far.

Trying to put yourself inside someone else and divine what might delight is hard work and has low-percentage success. Most people don’t know what would delight themselves, even. Henry Ford famously said that if he asked people what they wanted they would have said “A faster horse.”

Apple is the behemoth it is now for its market-defying commitment to create products that trump conventional wisdom and delight in their details. They do not poll customers or rely on market consultants to determine what to make next. They don’t ask for a “wish list” from the market. They aim for awesome. What would delight them to make? And what would put smiles on the faces of their customers?

Whether it’s in giving gifts to family and friends or creating products and experiences in your work, aiming for surprise and delight will pay off and reward the effort required. Or not. You could crash and burn.

But aim for awesome, people. And cheer on those who forsake their caution in the attempt to create a remarkable moment and give a gift worth talking about.

And rock on, Dave Grohl.

The Dave Grohl print that won Christmas