Quick and Satisfying Way to Leverage Your Value to Others

Adam6cCo-author Adam Rifkin

“No gesture is too small when done with gratitude,” wrote Oprah Winfrey. After a decade of research for his best selling book, Give and Take, Wharton professor of management, Adam Grant said this powerfully simple practice was his favorite idea. It won’t cost you anything but five-minute interactions that can be life-changing. Column co-author, Rifkin invented it after observing several individuals here in Silicon Valley who are successful, sought-after and happy. We call this deceptively simple giving practice The Five-Minute Favor.Adam Grantwn

As both Grant and Porter Gale, author of Your Network is Your Net Worth point out, you are ultimately happier and more successful when you give without expecting a quid pro quo. You are paying it forward. Since behavior is contagious to the third degree, as Connected co-authors James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis discovered, you aren’t simply helping others, in high-impact, five focused minutes of giving. You are also supporting the emotional spread of this practice. And we all know how we love behaviors that can leverage our value and can spread.

Rifkin discovered the deceptively simple concept of the five-minute favor by watching and benefiting from masters of the art such as Rajeev Motwani, Brett Bullington, Omar Ahmad, Craig Johnson, Jeff Barr, and Kevin Compton. When he was a new entrepreneur fresh out of Caltech, many people helped him without expecting a quid pro quo.

At first he was puzzled by why these brilliant, busy, successful people would have any interest in helping an unknown stranger from whom most of them would never directly benefit. His mentors were CONSTANTLY doing small favors through phone, email, and in the coffee shops of Palo Alto. And this was happening to others like him. Why would these geniuses and millionaires do something that would be considered a waste of time by many?

It took years of observation to conclude that the five-minute favor was a big reason for Silicon Valley’s competitive advantage. Entrepreneurial engineers and their associated professional colleagues come here from all over the world to start great things. We didn’t have as many of the traditional structures and ways of living through which people became friends and colleagues elsewhere, such as geographic stability, family ties, religious organizations or alumni associations. We do have more now but the practice of giving, even to strangers, introduced through people we know, became widespread as it is vital to the DNA of a community of start-ups, and re-starts. Give back and forth is vital to growing, finding the right teams, getting vital feedback and more.

Rifkin learned that favors in Silicon Valley can be extremely relevant because the skill sets and experiences are so specific. A drink could buy you advice on your API from Jeffrey McManus, who had evangelized among developers for Ebay, Yahoo, and Twilio. If you had concerns about the HVAC in your server hosting facility, you might make a quick visit to a cigar shop in Redwood City to get Omar Ahmad’s advice. He’d signed datacenter contracts for @Home, Netscape, and Napster. Sometimes you’d almost feel silly at the small scale of the problems you had compared to scope and erudition of the person helping you. Stanford professor, Rajeev Motwani, the brain behind much of the theory of web search, would gravely discuss your puny graph database as if it were the seed of something much bigger.

But a lot of five-minute favors fall more into the realm of the everyday transactions of life — hiring and starting careers, learning new skills, maintaining relationships — albeit with a Silicon Valley twist. Ahmad, for example, gathered up all the holiday strays for his famous Muslim Christmas, which mostly entailed eating Chinese food with Jews, Hindus, and atheists, watching Hollywood movies, and participating in a discourse on Islamic principles.  Anyone could play this game; even the youngest intern Rifkin ever trained, Yi Shi, eventually became comfortable arranging informational interviews for her career-changing friends, including one who switched from erotic photography to systems administration.

There is not enough time in life to…. see the rest of the column at Forbes.Forbes1-150x1502-2

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