The Favour Bank
I can’t exactly remember when it was, but some time in 2000 after I had been living in London for a couple years, I met this American girl named Julie (I can’t believe I’ve forgotten her last name! but she worked at the Pizza Express near Camden Market, in case she ever stumbles upon this post!). We hung out quite a bit for a few months, and I remember her frequently for introducing me to so many different topics that I hadn’t been exposed to before, and specifically for introducing me to Paulo Coelho.
Paulo Coelho became a pretty big influence on my thinking for a period of time. The simplicity with which he re-conveys stories that you have likely already heard, is both comforting and motivating . There are so many mini-lessons that I’ve taken away from reading his books. Although I fell off reading his newer books some years ago, one lesson in particular that has always stuck with me is the concept of ‘The Favour Bank’ from his book ‘The Zahir‘.
I’ve always interpreted it bit differently than he had articulated it. Rather than a favour bank to introduce contacts, I’ve viewed it as more of a general bank. For me the favour bank is not about monetary or even tangible deposits as that wouldn’t be looking at the whole picture. It is more about Karma – help others and it will come back to you in some form. Sometimes, the return is tangible, and other times the return is simply in the way that the other person makes you feel. The way they can make you laugh or seem to have that uncanny knack of knowing to call at the right time just to see how you’re doing, or even the happiness that they enjoy may be satisfaction enough.
I often wonder if the reason for a disproportionate number of strong friends of mine from prior to the past 10 years, is an indicator of the space I was in both mentally and emotionally at that time. I was less inhibited and jaded, and contributed to the bank without thought. I loved the feeling of being there for others and building or contributing to the tribe, and I’m positive that nearly everything of value in my life currently, is a result of the positivity that I have received back from others due to that period.
Unfortunately, like in all banks, sometimes accounts can default quite badly and when that happens it is easy to think that you’ll never want to use a bank again and to close yourself off to the potential risks. The favour bank is fundamentally built on trust, and when that trust is broken, it results in building walls. Unsurprisingly, we get so distraught when someone doesn’t respect the deposit and withdrawal rituals, or worse when they take advantage of it, that it becomes a block, or a drain affecting all bank balances.
I’ve definitely built those walls, and it has taken me time to learn that it is normal to have feelings of sadness or anger or even depression when that happens. Over time, when your energy siphoned away, you subconsciously start to close the avenues to access the bank, whether it be making deposits or withdrawals, which in turn just hurts yourself more and starts to erode the strength of your tribe. I’ve been fortunate that despite painful, failed relationships, I’ve had many friends who were there for support and to get me through (unfortunately, that friend was sometimes named Tito or Jack, but that is a topic for another time…). It has taken me considerable time to dig myself out of that hole and to start addressing the state of my favour bank.
The last couple years have been growth ones as I have started to tackle the various walls that I built up — the coping mechanisms to manage the feelings of shame for the bouts of depression, or for not being able to understand why some may have flouted the implicit constructs of the favour bank. The turning point was after I started to realize that my perspective was wrong. In general, I’ve always looked at events as learnings – an unsuccessful product launch, is just an opportunity to learn about users. A poor music set performance, is an opportunity to improve about preparation for the next time. Or a disagreement about current events, an opportunity to understand a different perspective. I was not taking that approach when it came to the favour bank though. I was taking it as a failure that I had been burned in many cases. I had been looking at it as something I did wrong, rather than asking, ‘what were the signs that I didn’t see?’ or ‘What could I have done to open dialog earlier?’ or ‘How could I have created protection against potential risks?’ As soon as I changed the lens and thought of defaulted accounts as learning experiences, I started to move forward.
The problem was that my walls were affecting my happiness and my long term aspirations. I enjoy meeting people, expanding the circle, learning about others and providing assistance where I can, or helping others to achieve their goal. I get satisfaction in it. But I didn’t know how to identify those who take advantage. I hadn’t built up my instincts to know when things might go awry or my protections against potential dangers.
In hindsight, I look at those failed accounts, as lucky events – that they didn’t happen after I had put in even more. In one such case, I lost six figures and I had been on the cusp of putting in more with that person. Luckily they slipped up and showed their true colors. It gave me the opportunity realize that I could have been wiser earlier on – When someone shows you who they are, believe them (Maya Angelou). Similarly, the experience helped me to formulate my own position on the mantra of ‘its business and not personal’ — business is always personal. It has made me a better judge of character and the learnings from that helped me years later with another partnership, and it turned out fabulously.
It is a fine line though – the favour bank isn’t about keeping score. It is more about consciously investing the scarce resources of your time and energy on those areas that bring meaning. Like any investment portfolio, you want to invest more in those areas that align to your longer term goals and you want the build the self awareness of those accounts that are constantly moving you backwards. Whether it be the person who constantly calls asking for a lead or sales call but fails to remember you when in town, or be it the person who sniffs around for deals to come their way but mysteriously omits you when deals come by them, or the person who simply treats you poorly with a lack of respect or consideration – it is necessary to let those accounts close.
Not all accounts or relationships last – some fade because of circumstance, some fade because of where you are in life and diverging goals, and some fade because of external factors for the other person that are out of your control. Fortunately, for the same reason that some relationships don’t last, other relationships start out of nowhere and blossom. I consider myself lucky that the closing of some accounts has given me the space and opportunity to open others.
I’m nowhere near where I want to be in terms of contributing back to the favour bank and building the tribe though. I still sometimes hesitate to let new people in or sometimes I realize too late that if I had listened or watched more closely, I would have noticed that a friend was ‘asking’ although maybe not verbally. That I could have stepped out to help before they did actually verbalized an ask. I hope to get better. It can sometimes be tough and the vulnerability, scary. Despite much literature advising about learning how to ask for help, it is a daunting thing for many to do, and I am no exception. But as I have opened up my bank again and starting investing in more accounts, I have also realized that in many cases the withdrawal I benefit from, is in the impact of proactively ‘seeing’ when others are in need or when lending my support might provide an extra boost to a friend.
Be gregarious with your time. Be gregarious in helping others. But be firm on what you accept in terms of reciprocal. Focus on those areas that truly align to what want in terms of leading a purposeful life.
This past year has been a tremendously wealthy one for me in that sense.
In case you’re looking for more on the concept of ‘The Favour Bank’, here are some references.
It isn’t much different than the concept of givers and takers by Adam Grant