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Jeff Gitterman

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On Giving

Posted: 03/08/11 12:58 PM ET

In the conventional sense, philanthropy means "love for mankind, usually demonstrated by giving money to, or doing work for, other people." When it comes to financial philanthropy, most people who give generously are those who already consider themselves wealthy. As a financial advisor, I've seen this time and time again, and this makes sense to a certain degree. If you can't support your own family and pay the daily bills, you probably won't be writing $10,000 checks to even the most worthy of causes.

A few years ago, I went on a trip to a Land Rover training school in North Carolina. It was quite an experience. You get to drive a car that is smarter than you are, when it comes to driving on rough terrain. The instructor told me, "If you're going downhill and you start losing grip, don't brake." I thought he was kidding, but he wasn't. He explained that with this car, you actually had to step on the gas, which is so contrary to everything we are usually taught. If you're flying down a hill and you start losing control, your natural tendency is to step on the brake. But in this car, the trick was to do the opposite. The tires would then grab onto the dirt, engage, and provide the stability and grounding you needed.

Giving also sometimes seems counterintuitive, but it tends to work in the same way. Just when your instincts tell you to try to hold on to as much as you can get, experience has taught me (sometimes the hard way) that you have to do completely do the opposite, and find a way to give. This may sound like a simple principle, but it is one that often goes against so many of our deeply imprinted habits. Contrary to what many of us believe, giving is not an afterthought to success; it is, in my experience, the very foundation.

When I think about giving, I don't just think of it in terms of money. I also think about it in terms of our time, energy and attention. From firsthand experience, I've definitely learned that simply being concerned about my own selfish needs and desires is a certain recipe for unhappiness, while being of service and giving to others is where true fulfillment is found.

My understanding of the power of giving came about many years ago, when I was just starting out as a financial advisor. One of the initial appointments that I'd have with any new prospective client is what we call in the industry a "fact-finding session." The idea is that you are there simply to get information and gather data like their Social Security number, date of birth, place of work, the kind of house they lived in, income, assets and so on.

One day, I was getting out of my car and about to walk into a prospect's house to try to sell some insurance. I was way behind on my bills, and my mind was going on and on about how much I needed the sale. Desperation poured out of me as I caught my reflection in the car window. I stopped and looked hard at that reflection and said to myself, "Who would want to buy anything from you? Look at how desperate you look!"

I decided in that moment that I needed to drop my desperate, needy attitude and walk into this prospect's house with the attitude of someone who was looking to give without expecting anything in return. I dropped my worry about having to make a sale, and began to listen very deeply to what these prospective clients really wanted and needed. And as I approached more clients this way, my meetings started to transform, and my success as a financial advisor grew exponentially.

Although it sounds like a bit of a cliché, I was able to see firsthand as I was going through my own crisis around wealth and success that the more I gave to others, the more I received in return. I quickly began accomplishing more in the world and my income grew substantially. In addition to starting my own financial firm, I also became the chairman of the advisory board to The Autism Center of New Jersey Medical School, and started a fundraiser that we now hold every year, which to date has raised over a million dollars for autism research.

Too many of us spend our lives waiting to get something from the world so that we can show up as the person we always knew we could be. Deep in our hearts we think there's something missing. But when we flip that mindset, we can discover that by becoming a giver rather than a taker, we can change the world, literally, one person at a time.

Adapted from "Beyond Success: Redefining the Meaning of Prosperity." © 2009 Jeffrey L. Gitterman. All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books. A Division of the American management Association.