On Gifts

Posted on Aug 3, 2020

TL;DR: Spend thought not money. Think about your edge. Don’t buy beans for a hobby roaster.

I’ve often felt strongly about gifts made and received and always had some vague intuitions floating around in my head concerning distinctive properties. Finally have I sought to distill them and make them more explicit.

Reflecting on past gift-finding processes, I came to realize that I would often feel dissatisfied when most of the value of a gift would stem from money. I’d much rather have the value be derived from thought, concern and genuine interest about someone. This topic concerns itself with the kind of effort. Within this kind of currency, efforts can still be misdirected. Pondering without getting anywhere is likely a common phenomenon. What’s the purpose of spending the ‘right’ kind of effort without ensuing reward? Hence, within the realm of spending thought on someone, I would attempt to direct them towards my own edge. In the context of gifts my own edge seems to be:

  • What I know a lot about in general, in particular at least as much as the receiver
  • What I know about the receiver that possibly not many other givers know

I wish to emphaszie the former after having fallen victim to a fallacy more than once too often: gifting wine to a wine lover. Now there is a chance that I’m a true and battle-proven wine afficionado, too. In that case, nevermind. In all other cases this person will have developed strong preferences by sheer hours of exposure and attention to detail, quite literally acquired a taste. My blunt ‘guess’ seems way more likely to miss than to hit. Clearly are there exceptions to this, e.g. me knowing about a detailed preference beforehand. But then, what exactly is the value I am creating with a gift falling perfectly in line with something the receiver has had before, knows and could likely buy at the press of a button?

The latter seems fairly straight-forward to me. It seems like a classical pie expansion, win-win situation to me: the receiver can easily feel appreciated, catered with attention and acknowledged as the snowflake that he or she is; I feel like doing a good job, creating value for my friend and possibly even standing out from the crowd.

At the end of the day a good present is a present that makes everybody feel good about it and this is hard to capture in more explicit words. Yet, a priori, I will now look for the following properties:

  • The main currency [0] paid is thought and time, not money [1].
  • The gift is unlikely to be gifted to the receiver by other givers.
  • The gift is unlikely to be gifted by me to a different receiver.

The latter two properties seem like a reasonable heuristic for me having leveraged my edge [2]. That, in turn, seems like a great precondition to creating true value. But it can of course still all go horribly wrong. :)

[0] ‘Main’ is arguably very vague here. The heuristic of ‘what feels like the greatest cost?’ could be used here.

[1] Except that… time is money.

[2] Certainly not necessary, maybe not even sufficient conditions.