Pay it forward: A charming idea for our hard times?

The power of do good!
The power of do good!
Just imagine…
You do a favour that really helps someone, and tell him/her not to pay it back…
Instead, you ask that it be paid FORWARD to three other people who, in turn, must each pay it forward to three more…and so on.

Impossible? Well, not quite – if you believe (as I do) in the essential goodness of human beings, no matter what their class, race and other divisive factors are.

This idea is known as ‘Pay it forward’. It is really simple: it asks that a good turn be ‘repaid’ by having it done to others instead. Paying it forward has been around as a concept for more than two millennia, from the time of ancient Greece. It was rediscovered in modern times by Benjamin Franklin and later, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of my favourite essayists.

In his 1841 essay titled ‘Compensation’, Emerson wrote: “In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.”

During the Twentieth Century, science fiction author Robert A Heinlein popularised the concept in his book Between Planets (1951). It formed the central theme of Pay It Forward (2000), a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, which was soon turned into a movie by the same name.

In that story, a thoughtful teacher challenges his seventh grade students with ‘an assignment to save the world’. One perceptive student devices a scheme where one has to carry out three good deeds for others as repayment of a good deed received. Such good deeds should be things that the beneficiaries cannot accomplish on their own.

It was through Pay It Forward the movie, made in 2000 and directed by Mimi Leder, that I first came cross the idea. It’s one of those simple and elegant ideas that packs so much power to change people and the world. Its implementation requires trust, honour and imagination, which most human beings can muster in sufficient quantity when challenged.

Then I realised that, without a conscious plan and not labelling it as such, I was already ‘paying it forward’ myself — and not just to three new people, but many. That was the least I could do for the many breaks, blessings and opportunities I had received in my professional life.

More about that in a minute. First, take a look at the official trailer for Pay it Forward:

And this is how it all started in the movie, with one thoughtful class teacher challenging his seventh grade pupils with ‘an assignment to save the world’:

Here’s an extended, unofficial trailer remixed by a fan using the official trailer, some scenes from the movie and a few interviews with the key stars:

Journalism – especially the industrialised, mainstream version of it – is by definition a highly collaborative business: newspapers, magazines, as well as TV/radio broadcasts are produced by several or many people working together, each playing a specified part.

And because the media are a mirror on our society and our times, the stories we journalists produce just won’t be possible unless our sources share their information, experiences and insights. This is why Bill Moyers, one of the most respected and credible voices in American broadcasting (a land where such professionals are endangered), says: “We journalists are simply beachcombers on the shores of other people’s knowledge, other people’s experience, and other people’s wisdom. We tell their stories.”

During the early years of my career as a science writer and journalist, I was enormously lucky in both respects. I had kind, indulgent, nurturing senior colleagues who showed me the ropes, expecting nothing in return except good stories. And I benefited much from the kindness and thoughtfulness of many accomplished men and women – mostly in the worlds of science, environment and development – who took the time and trouble to talk to me, clarify even basics to a rookie like myself, and allow me to attribute information or quotes them. I was a complete stranger to many of them, yet they cared enough in spite of busy schedules (there were also a few didn’t, but that’s only to be expected).

Then there were opportunities, some competitively earned, others bestowed on me. In those formative years, the opportunities for training, mentoring and other influences sharpened my skills and shaped my worldview. It was easy to grow up angry with the world and seeing conspiracies everywhere; it was much harder to acquire a balanced view of the world and to become a skeptical enquirer without turning into an incurable cynic.

Among those early influences were:
• Working with the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in India, under the late Anil Agarwal and his worthy successor Sunita Narain
• Regional and international training programmes, organised by various UN agencies and other entities such as the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy
• Invaluable support from the International Science Writing Association (ISWA), which leverages far more benefits than its modest resources would indicate at first glance (again, the power of networking!)
• Editorial training and global syndication from Panos, which provided my first outlet to publish internationally through Panos Features (sadly, no more).

Then there was my mentor Sir Arthur C Clarke, who gave me the rare privilege of spending 21 years as his research assistant — a long and unique apprenticeship that enriched me so much.

These and others helped fill gaps in my formal training in science journalism. And such exposure was worth so much more in the days before commercial internet connectivity. There was no Google or YouTube, and early versions of email were just beginning to roll out.

Just do it, and hope others will keep doing it too...
Just do it, and hope others will keep doing it too...
And now it’s my turn to ‘pay it forward’. It’s plain and simple; there’s no grand pledge or plan. No one asked me to sign up to any binding agreement. There is no spiritual or intellectual compulsion. I just do it, because that’s a good thing to do.

This is why, despite pressure of work, I work with young journalists and producers, organising training workshops through TVE Asia Pacific, or readily agreeing to be a resource person for good programmes organised by others. This is also why I mentor a few eager, committed young professionals in my native Sri Lanka and elsewhere in developing Asia. Read here my tribute to one of them, whose death four years ago was hard to bear. And this is why every year I donate a couple of weeks of my time serving on boards of management of two media/development related charities whose vision and mission I share.

This is also why I spent a good part of my recent Easter/New Year holidays putting together a detailed response to a young script writer who is passionately promoting a film project related to climate change. I have never met him in person, and until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of him. A cynical British colleague used to caution me that any crazy nut sitting under a banyan tree can write a letter (or more likely an email these days) claiming to be anything he wasn’t. There’s always that risk. But I’m taking my chances.

Years ago I stopped counting the favours I paid forward, and I no longer even keep track of the people that I give little nudges along the way. Being a secular rationalist with no absolutely religious belief of any kind, I don’t collect brownie points for any ‘next world account’. I just do these little good deeds to make this world a little better place.

If further justification were needed, I cannot say it better than Steven Grellet, a prominent French Quaker missionary who once said (and I quote him for its secular essence): “I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

6 thoughts on “Pay it forward: A charming idea for our hard times?”

  1. I enjoyed this personalised take on a well-loved movie. What you don’t mention is that the boy who initiates the pay it forward movement dies at the end of the story in a tragic, needless accident. I felt the movie could have been ended without such tragedy, but trust Hollywood to tug on our heart strings at every turn!

  2. Who the hell cares what Nalaka Gunawardene does and for what reason or motivation. You are so full of yuorself in this blog. Is this what we have for new media expression, so much of self congratulation and navel gazing? We dont give a damn what you do with yourself or why ior how! Stop wasting our webspace with yuor endlessly self righteous rambling

  3. 21st Century Fox,
    You are turning out to be one of my persistent followers and critics online! I’m all for discussion and debate, which I’ve spent 20+ years doing in the public media on issues and subjects close to my heart. I leave it to my readers and viewers to judge the efficacy and impact of my work.

    One thing to remember, though, is that this is my personal blog where I’m writer, editor, publisher and proprietor all rolled into one. That’s the way it is in the blogosphere, and I’m expressing myself and engaging people who share my interests and views. Such niche conversations are very much a part of web 2.0, and that is distinctively different from the conventional mass media. More on my reflections of blogging can be found at:

    You may move away from my blog anytime with the simple click of a mouse or keystroke. There are literally millions of other blogs and websites you can visit instead. If you wish to engage me more productively – instead of chasing me online and trying to run me down – I’ll always be happy to respond. But if you chose to be always this negative, the web is large enough for you and me not to bump into each other.

  4. Nalaka ,
    I do appreciate your opinions expressed in the blogs, i may not always agree with them in their entirety but i do appreciate the value of personal reflections that are so meaningfully expressed. It would seem I am becoming an avid follower of your blog.
    I am saddened by 21st Century Fox’s rather shallow diatribe. I feel one, such as yourself, of such high caliber and first class thought should not justify such small minds as 21st Century Fox with a response.

  5. i do fully endorse the ‘pay it forward’ concept and i have seen how well it works when you do it unconsciously. it’s nice when people actually put it down so that those who read it can start to consciously practice these things and make it apart of one’s way of life…
    great thought nalaka.

    1. Thank you very much for giving a name to that beautiful concept. Repaying favours to those who have been nice to us can sadly often create a kind of vicious cercle that creates small groups and excluse people. First, the best reward of giving is just in the pleasure of giving. If you give, you give. Giving to obtain something is not giving. I fully support the idea of using the gifts giving to us to give to others. Now, I have a name for it : giving forward.
      Let’s give forward.
      Thanks Nalaka.

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