I’ve been thinking a lot about acts of giving lately. It’s been an incredible year for me and so many people have given me so much. It seems impossible to give back.
In Judaism, it’s common to follow Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Tzedakah (the Hebrew word for charity or justice). The aim is to give as close as possible to level 1. It’s considered a ladder that you climb gradually over time as you mature and have the means to do better.
I don’t follow a ton of Jewish traditions, but this is one I have always really liked since I learned about it many years ago in Hebrew school. But in thinking about it recently I realized that it’s actually a great model for the path to self-actualization. Self-actualization at its core is about realizing your fullest potential and ultimately becoming the person you want to be.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the psychologist’s theory on human motivation, is represented as a pyramid with more basic needs at the bottom and self-actualization at the top. The five levels, from bottom to top, are: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization — defined as morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, and acceptance of facts. I’ve had Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as my desktop background for a couple of years now because it reminds me that my true potential cannot be met without first fulfilling my base needs. With crazy schedules and unruly ambition, it can be easy to forget that the simple things have the greatest impact on our well-being.
It was only very recently though that I saw the relationship between the Hierarchy of Needs and Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Charity. It occurs to me now that perhaps as we climb the pyramid we can simultaneously strive to climb the ladder, not only taking care of ourselves but of others.
Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Charity
- Level 8 — The donor is pained by the act of giving
- Level 7 — The donor gives less than he should but does so cheerfully
- Level 6 — The donor gives after being solicited
- Level 5 — The donor gives without being solicited
- Level 4 — The recipient knows the donor but the donor does not know the recipient
- Level 3 — The donor knows the recipient but the recipient does not know the donor
- Level 2 — Neither the donor nor the recipient knows the other
- Level 1 — The donor gives the recipient the wherewithal to become self-supporting
It’s so succinct that it’s beautiful, and even if you’re not Jewish, I hope that you find value in it and apply it to your own life.
Now I want to take it one step further, because in thinking about tzedakah and its relationship to Maslow, I realized that it mimicked my own professional journey. In the past year of Twittering, blogging, going to events and conferences, becoming a consultant and aiming to be a leader in the community, I have progressively stepped up my game so to speak. And the manner in which I’ve done that seems very much in line with the Eight Levels of Charity. If building your personal brand is a process, then here’s my stab at the steps that it takes to reach self-actualization.
Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Charity Applied to Building Your Personal Brand
- Level 8 — Hate networking, hate professional events, turn your brain off to your career outside of your obligatory 9-5 hours at work. Do only what is expressly required of you, and frown the whole way through it. (You know who you are)
- Level 7 — Go to one major event each year out of guilt. Put on a smile, but talk to no one, only eat the free food, and dash out as soon as possible. (I’ve done this more than once!)
- Level 6 — Go to local events only that you’ve been expressly invited to by colleagues or friends, and stick to them like glue, meeting only those people to whom you’re introduced. Give a business card only when asked. Sign up for Twitter after someone begs you to do it.
- Level 5 — Seek out events to attend both locally and conferences out of town. Ask colleagues to introduce you to people you should know. When engaged in conversation with someone, offer your card and follow up afterwards. Start a blog, become active on Twitter, put your opinions out there.
- Level 4 — Be recognized by name and approached by a stranger who has either seen you on Twitter, read your blog, or heard of you through a mutual colleague. (It feels so damn good the first time it happens…and many times after that.)
- Level 3 — Walk right up to someone you don’t know and introduce yourself. Tell them that you admire their work/their writing/their keynote. Mention a mutual colleague or friend in common. Talk about your work/your writing/your latest challenge and ask for their opinion.
- Level 2 — Start writing for publications other than your own. Contribute to the greater body of work and make a name for yourself outside of your immediate community. Submit proposals to speak at conferences. Synthesize your thoughts for consumption by a wide audience, and seek to refine those ideas based on feedback from a whole bunch of strangers who care more about the idea than they do about you.
- Level 1 — Become a mentor. Reach out to more junior or timid people in your hemisphere and help to give them the self-confidence that you’ve now obtained. Create opportunities for others to learn and grow by being a community organizer and evangelist. Work harder to promote others and the overall practice than you do promoting yourself.
I feel like I’m currently at level 3, and working towards level 2. It’s not a one-way climb and I’m sure that I’ll fall backwards at some point when other aspects of my life take greater priority and I shift focus away from maintaining the brand I’ve built here. But I want to remind myself to always get back on track. In the end, I hope I give every last drop of myself I have to give.
This has been a big jumble in my mind for a few months and I’m thrilled to have finally gotten it out. I really look forward to hearing all of your thoughts and interjections on the topic. Please leave a comment so I can learn from you.
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Great stuff Whitney! Again! :)
This “personal brand stuff” is just fantastic. Err – I don't know – do you feel like becoming a bit like a celebrity? Cause I definitely feel like becoming your fan :)
Just wanted to say – thanks for “sharing yourself” and keep up the good work – it's very inspiring and motivating…
Whitney Hess says
Thanks so much for your comment, Michal. It's not about becoming a celebrity, which implies prestige and recognition. Instead for me it's much more about access to the most influential people and meatiest challenges. Glad you enjoyed the post and I hope you put it to work!
Hi Whitney, first time reader and first time commenter. Matt Oliphant forwarded me this link and I'm delighted to have discovered the blog. I think the way you've outlined the process one goes through in putting themselves out there is pretty accurate. It also emphasizes that the happy consequence of giving is also receiving.
That being said, I feel like I've jumped around the hierarchy you've outlined here. I've already touched Level 2 and am striving for Level 1… but I still have trouble in Level 3? I still find it hard to approach a stranger unless they were smiling directly at me in the most non threatening manner or if they said Hi first. After that, I'm okay, but breaching the first hurdle to approach strangers, I still find uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, I do have a bad habit of Level 6; sticking to people you know and only giving a card when asked.
I guess what this means is that while climbing the ladder and _knowing_ what to do, and occasionally achieving it, doesn't mean we still don't struggle even with the most basic ways to promote and build our brand.
I find this conflation of personal development and personal brand rather sad. By using 'brand' you're implicitly relating personal development to a commercial metaphor that is synonymous (however much marketeers might disagree) with creating an image which can be used to 'exploit' value. As brands and businesses are increasingly looking to become more human, more personal and learn how to be transparent, it seems odd you seem to have decided to explore the opposite direction. I think some of this may be a cultural difference bt the US and the UK / Europe. In the US there seems to be a far greater acceptance of personal ambition linked to wealth and commercial success, no?
Whitney Hess says
I appreciate your comment and I understand where you're coming from. The term “brand” makes me cringe, too. I use it here though because it is most broadly stands for “public persona,” but I don't necessarily equate that with wealth and commercial success, as you put it. As I've said many times before, becoming a leader in the community is far more about access to the meatiest challenges and influential practitioners than it is about recognition. I want my work to have the widest possible impact and help as many people as possible, and I believe that in order to maximize my opportunities I need to be visible. This was just my way of doing that.
For me personal brand is related to how much you are valued as a resource by both your industry and your peers. Wealth and commercial success doesn't really play into my overall concept of a personal brand.
In my attempts to build my personal brand, I try to add relevant and constructive content to the overall community. By doing this, it is my hope that when people are faced with a problem or question they need help with I am one of the resources they reach out to for assistance. Yes, gaining wealth and success may be a by-product of this, but it is not the intended goal.
Aaron Irizarry says
Great Read! Thanks for this list very useful in taking personal inventory. I love the idea of developing your person as well as your personal brand.
I think that as people see something more than just self promotion it ad's value, and legitimacy to what you are saying/doing.
Life is more fulfilling when you are able to give back and invest.
Thanks for being transparent, and posting valuable content, that can benefit others personally and professionally.
I will be at fowa this next week, are you doing any speaking or just attending?
Whitney Hess says
I'm not speaking at FOWA, but I'll be there! Hope we find each other and can chat in person.
I think your view is very accurate. Everyone goes through these steps. You definitely have been a mentor to me and I am grateful for that!
Whitney Hess says
Sarah, you're so sweet. Trust me, you are a role model to many. It's just the beginning for you. Can't wait to see how you flourish!
Mark Richman says
I know your blog is apolitical, but I couldn’t resist. If the Rambam lived in modern day America, he likely would have had to begin with the following:
Level 9 – Being forced to give against your will.
A friend sent me your article. I find I like the comparison and thought within the article. The only thing I would change is the use of the word ‘charity’. As a practicing Jew I find very few individuals within the community that would ever translate Tzedakah to charity even though the common English translation always appears as such. In Judaism it is much more than that concept. Just my personal opinion :)
Nice article. Todah rabah.
This is hilarious–I love how you applied Rambam to networking and branding. Goodness knows he was a networker back in his day.
Nic Walls says
A friend of mine referred me to this blog entry and I feel compelled to comment from the year 2020 and express how impressive it is for this material to be published in 2009. You were truly ahead of the curve to be approaching the idea of a personal brand in this depth. Pre-Instagram.
Loved your comparison!
Going through the Jewish Communal Program at Brandeis, called Hornstein, parallels everything you speak about. It is our goal to mentor/supervise as we grow and mature in our field.
How Hornstein was ahead of its time makes me kvell with Naches!
So very grateful to be active in this Jewish World!
Thank you for your eloquence!