Open source, giving freely, and self-awareness |

Open source, giving freely, and self-awareness

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In a July 2010 post on, Jonathan Opp wrote about the nature of giving and participating in a gift culture/economy. One point that he mentions is the benefit of giving freely, without strings attached. I’d like to expand on that, since I think there’s a lot we can learn from recognizing the hidden strings that we sometimes attach to our gifts.

For example, let’s say that I contribute some new features to an open source project. In the next newsletter from the project leader to the user community, the new features are trumpeted as a significant advancement, but without my name being mentioned. How do I feel when I read the newsletter? If I notice myself feeling strongly resentful, that’s an indication that I did attach some strings to the gift that I gave. My resentment may well be justified, and others might even agree that I was wrongly slighted. But that’s not the point — whether justified or not, I wouldn’t feel strong resentment if my gift were truly free.

Now, that doesn’t mean I have to beat myself up about being an imperfect giver. In fact, just the opposite — I can appreciate that I recognized the feeling of resentment as a barometer, right as it showed up. Because if I didn’t, I’d then be acting from that resentment. Resentment might prompt me to snidely react to the next email message from the project leader, which might provoke him to respond in kind, which could then suck me into an escalating conflict that would end up stealing a lot of my energy.

By remaining aware of the feeling, I retain more control over my next actions. Maybe I need more recognition from the project leader to motivate me to continue working on the project. So perhaps I’ll have a skillful conversation (where I may not even ask the question directly) to gauge whether the project leader can meet my needs. Or maybe there’s another project where I can give freely, and I’ll go work on that instead. Or, maybe I sense a growth opportunity to let go of the attachment, and I continue to work on the project with a clearer intent. You get the idea — any one of these approaches is a far better investment of my energy than just lashing out from resentment.

In general, when we give from a state of abundance, we can give freely. We don’t feel diminished in any way. We can enjoy the act of giving just by itself. We can welcome any future benefits that ensue, without fretting about what we were owed. Whereas when we give from a state of scarcity, there are more obstacles in the way, more opportunities for strings to get attached.

One of the places where scarcity shows up in the open source world is in the “leech” label, applied to those who use plenty of open source software without contributing much on their own. After all, the image of one’s very lifeblood being sucked away is pretty scar(ce)y! As with my recognition example above, whether the feeling of being “leeched from” is justified or not, that feeling can only be present in a giver who isn’t giving freely (if he’s giving freely, there are no strings attached, so there’s nothing to leech onto). And here too, if the giver recognizes this feeling as it arises, he can inquire into it more fully before he acts. For example, the developer might recognize that he doesn’t feel leeched from (and might even feel validated by) any number of end users who freely use the code without compensating him in any way; but he feels indignant toward a corporation that uses his code in a profitable product. He might recognize that, if he felt financially secure (abundant), his indignation might vanish. Or alternatively (or possibly even at the same time), he may feel a strong sense of obligation to contribute to open source projects as compensation for having used them extensively, and has formed an expectation that other skilled individuals should do the same. When people do not meet his expectation, he feels cheated/leeched from/etc.

Here, we have an opportunity to uncover some of the most subtle strings that we attach to our gifts. When we “give back” to an open source project out of a sense of debt (scarcity), to compensate for something that we “took” from the project, then we’re not giving freely, even if we are giving virtuously! We may even end up attaching more strings to the gifts as a recipient, than did the giver who gave them!!

This is an extremely subtle point, so I want to make sure I’m being clear. I’m not at all suggesting that any gift motivated by the natural sense of gratitude is tainted. On the contrary, gratitude is an uplifting feeling that propels us to give freely. It’s debt that weighs us down — its gifts become laden with that emotional burden. Gratitude allows us to spontaneously gift it forward; debt constrains us to pay it backward.

When we give freely, we invite others to take freely. We enable them to utilize the gift from their highest level of creativity. Whether they then give freely to us, give freely to others, or do not give freely to anyone, is out of our hands, and we’re okay with that. The better we get at giving freely, the more trust we develop in the process itself. We loosen our possessiveness towards our gifts, and shift our identity towards the source of those gifts. Instead of an idea bank with depreciating assets that we have to protect at all costs, we start to see ourselves more confidently as an idea mint capable of dynamically creating solutions.

Open Source is a wonderful way to experience this power, and I feel an abundance of gratitude towards everyone who makes it happen.

About the author

Kartik Subbarao - Kartik Subbarao is an independent consultant with extensive experience in open source strategy, architecture, and implementation. His career includes over 16 years at Hewlett-Packard in a variety of engineering and technical leadership positions in R&D, Consulting and IT. He was the founding Global Lead for HP's Open Source and Linux Profession, a community of practice for thousands of open source technologists across the company. Kartik has a BSE from Princeton University and an MSE from...