Many people have said to me, “Erik, as soon as I make it in this world, I promise to start giving back to the community.” This used to sound beautiful to me. It made sense. It was the order of operations that was logical…. First make it in the world, then give back. Right? I am not so sure. I think we have an opportunity to gain perspective on a whole new definition of ‘making it in the world’ if we choose to pay it forward, instead of waiting to give back.
I believe that there is magical energy in the gift of giving, and if you wait until later in your life to experience this; you are missing out on so much beauty in this time. For me; I experienced so much generosity, so early in my life, that I had to commit to a life of paying it forward, or it would have been hard for me to appreciate all that came my way. Without giving of myself, it was extremely difficult for me to receive all the love that came my way as a countless stream of miracles.

At some point, I felt like I should shift to the Giving Back from a place of external achievement perspective. This was a time of great introspection for me. I was finding ways to give on the side join committees and make individual impact when I could. The problem for me is that external success indicators mean very little if they are derived from a true sense of purpose, service and gratitude. I was at an impasse. I was hoping to be the great provider that my father didn’t choose to be for me. I was also trying to be the husband and father I thought I was supposed to be. The challenge was that I did not have a model that resonated with how to do this. I had seen people who dove into careers and forgot their family, because being a provider was their identity. I had seen people who gave up on career and worked by furthering someone else’s dream that they did not get nourishment from other than empty dollars. People were so willing to exchange hours for dollars, like that was the only way to get to tomorrow. What did tomorrow bring? Today revisited. None of these models worked for me. I learned how to make money, and with every dollar I earned, I was no closer to happiness. The path of Giving Back was very empty for me. As I became a father of children who were starting to wonder what their daddy was all about, I had no idea what their answer would be. I could not live with this. I did not want my kids to think that I was about making money, any way I could. I wanted them to know where I came from and what I believed in.

This was a process that has taken many steps: literally. I started making promises to myself and keeping them. Many of my earlier promises were regarding my own health and fitness. I took an hour away from watching TV and I went running or read self-development books instead. At some point, my body started providing feedback. I lost 30 pounds that I did not even know I had to lose. Suits that I purchased months earlier stopped fitting and made me look like a clown. Soon thereafter, the job that asked me to wear the suits stopped fitting as well. With every run, came a meditation and a message of purpose. Eventually I felt called to train for and run a marathon. Not just any marathon, I needed to run the New York City Marathon. I learned that I could earn a guaranteed entry if I raised money for charity. Then I learned that one of the charities I could run for was called Back On My Feet. This organization assisted folks experiencing homelessness; through the transformative act of intentional running. This added a true sense of purpose to the promise I made to myself. Now I would be able to run the NYC Marathon and carry a cause that I believed in on my shoulders. In addition to reaching a personal goal, I was able to reach and then surpass a charitable goal. What made the experience even more meaningful was that I was able to recruit a partner to train for the run and share in the fundraising goals with me. When you share this experience with someone, you can inspire each other. Admittedly, he was faster than I was and he even started in a different wave than I did. It still inspired me to know that he was another one of the 45,000 people who ran that race on November 2nd, 2010.  If there was ever a thought of quitting, it left as quickly as it entered my mind.

When I crossed the finish line, I was a different person.  I was a finisher!  I had completed something that I never thought I wanted to do as little as 2 years earlier.  Then I asked, “If I can do this, what else can I do?”  This new found energy and confidence allowed me to rethink my whole entire life.  Instead of feeling old, I felt young!  I felt that the entire future was ahead of me from a whole new set of lenses.  I no longer thought about giving back, instead I thought about paying things forward from a place of humility and possibility.  For me, the difference between giving back and paying forward is the difference between two words “for” and “with”.  When I pay forward, I get to serve “with” people, when we give back; we are doing service “for” people.  The energy that separates these two words is immense.  A can assure you that the gift of giving pays greater dividends when we choose to serve “with” rather than “for”.

What is the difference between service “for” and service “with”?  I believe that service “for” brings with it several assumptions like:

I know what is best for you and here it is…

I don’t trust you to come up with your own solution, because you got yourself in this mess in the first place…

Your opinion does not count because you need my help….

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that basic needs are the first needs to address….

If you can get yourself to this job placement program 10 weeks in a row on time, we might ask you what you want to do with your time…

There is no future looking energy or inspiration in service “for”.  The sad part is, that there are very caring people who are being asked to do very unloving things, because service “for” organizations are funded with service “for” dollars and service “for” rules governing how those dollars are spent.  No one has challenged this system in a very long time!  Now, more service “for” organizations are competing for fewer service “for” dollars than ever before.  We passed the point of diminishing returns a long time ago, and we are now running on fumes in the service “for” economy.  We now have terms like the ‘deserving’ vs. ‘undeserving’ poor.  How did we get here?  I don’t really know or want to spend too much time or energy finding out.  All I know is that service “with” will transform how people experience challenges like hunger, homelessness and poverty.

I have had the opportunity to dine at several community kitchens across the country.  What I have learned is that those in the service “for” giving back camp tend to focus on the kitchen, and those in the service “with” paying it forward camp tend to focus on the community aspect of the ‘community kitchen’.  In fact, many folks in the service “for” perspective use the term soup kitchen rather than community kitchen.  What I have observed in the community part of the community kitchen is that no one feels better or worse off than anyone else.  In fact, I have often times witnessed many guests during the blessing on the food, extend their prayers to those less fortunate than them.  This amazes me and fills me with hope every time it happens.  This is the promise of service “with’!  Service “with”, will provide for the asking of questions that may never have been asked before, like:


What were you born to do?

Why are you here?

What will make you feel whole again?

How can I serve with you today?

What would make your heart sing?

What inspires you to want to grow?

What lights you on fire?

Could you imagine what the experience would feel like if the Department of Social Services asked people these questions?  Think of what could be possible if we all wanted our dreams to come true!  This is where true abundance has always been hiding.  If we choose to pay forward the love we were already given, I have tremendous hope that challenges like hunger, poverty and homelessness will have no chance against service “with” energy!  This is what Dream Catalyst believes, and we will spend our days, paying forward all the gifts we have already been given!

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