Investments with Unknown Dividends

If you’ve put in the time and effort, sooner or later you’ll have something coming back to you.

A couple of weeks ago, my lady and I attended a “food truck festival” event on the grounds of a nearby shopping-outlet. No idea how many years this thing had been going on, but the organizers hadn’t learned very much in the process. All of the logistics that could matter were poorly executed, if addressed at all.

That included parking. There’s no shortage of space on all sides of the outlets, which want to have capacity for as many shopping-visitors as possible. Driving into the place, however, there wasn’t a single sign to direct attendees to the side where the event was. Further, each parking area was set up so there would be one, maybe two ways in/out for hundreds of parking-spots.

So, once a visitor had enough of the event and decided to leave, s/he’d discover that extracting a vehicle from the place was a nightmare, because there was already a traffic-jam of other vehicles trying to do the same thing…and good luck getting any of those frustrated people to hang back and let you ahead of them in line towards the exit. There was also no telling where the lineup began. Lots of people couldn’t even back their cars out of their spots.

On the way towards our car, we encountered another would-be departee who’d been staffing a solar-panels booth at the event. Their purpose was to talk up the technology and enlist people for a home-visit, estimate, etc. One of those “you pay nothing and your electricity bills will drop” affairs that you’ve probably heard of.

I’d looked into it years ago and found that, at least in my case, I would most definitely be paying…enough that they offered me financing. Due to details of my particular house, power usage, etc., not a good deal at all. I knew it would be a waste of everybody’s time to talk with the solar-panel gal, and was more interested in getting to my vehicle so we could get on with the interminable wait to escape…

…but my lady engaged her in conversation, so I went along and didn’t mar the pleasantries by telling the gal she was barking up the wrong tree. Turned out she had the same first name as my lady’s younger sister, and I forget what other commonalities. A few minutes later, we proceeded on our way.

Not long after, we’d gotten in position to try breaking into the line of cars leading towards the exit…and lo and behold, the car situated to take pity on us and let us in was driven by the solar panel gal. We gave her big ol’ grins and a wave, and she had no real excuse not to let us go. Escape-time and stress were thus drastically reduced for us.

Had we not taken the time to be friendly and maybe let her think she was wooing customers, we would just have been other faces in the crowd, and there would have been no reason for her to let us in. Unbeknownst to us at the time, our chatting with her was an investment that yielded dividends in our quest to escape the parking-lot.

Rare as it is for the turnaround on such an investment to be so quick, I’ve found it to be a not-uncommon phenomenon: Be good to people, do nice things, and you might just find yourself rewarded for it down the line.

Phrased another way by an erstwhile residency-mate, consoling a peer about some downturn in the job-market or other negative forecast on future professional success: If you’ve put in the time and effort, sooner or later you’ll have something coming back to you.

It takes a little leap of faith to make this work. What you don’t want to do is keep careful tabs on who you did what favor for, how and when you expect them to repay you, etc. Not only does that greatly increase the effort you’re investing, it will make you very aware of—and possibly bitter about—all of the times you don’t see yourself repaid. Plus, other people pick up on that very quickly and come to know that any favor from you comes with strings attached.

Instead, think of it more as “casting your bread on the waters.” You don’t know how, when, or if you’ll see dividends…and you might not even recognize them when they come your way. They might simply seem to be pennies from heaven.

Freely give of your time to other rads in your group for curbside consultations. Help techs out when they have logistical issues. Be generous with advice and feedback to other rads, even med students earlier in their careers than you who are seeking guidance. One of them might someday be in a position to help you.

Maybe payback won’t come directly from them to you. Perhaps the rad you assist at no direct benefit to yourself will be inspired to follow your example, and help others. The circle of “paying it forward” could eventually come back to you, and you’d never know that you got it started.

Or maybe nothing specific is ever done that “pays you back.” Maybe the goodwill you generate just serves to boost your overall likability and value in the eyes of others. A boost that permanently improves your relations with them (and any witnesses to your socially-giving nature). Maybe that, in turn, pays dividends now and then…or maybe it just makes them that much nicer for you to be around in the future.

I’ve written previously in this column of the concept of “reciprocity.” We social animals are hard-wired to give back when we perceive we’ve been given to…and expect the same from others. If we can emphasize the former…even start the cycle by being the first to give…and not worry so much about the latter, it has the potential to create a positive-feedback loop that does nice things for us when we least expect them.

Follow Editorial Board member Eric Postal M.D., on Twitter: @EricPostal_MD