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Photo by Mr Wabu

This year on my birthday, I offered to give gifts instead of receive. Out of hundreds of people who read my original post asking what I could do for them, only twenty-five people asked for anything. Why so few?

I first learned of this custom of giving gifts on my birthday in college. I was working on a project focusing on Native American culture in the United States and found myself sitting somewhere near Greenville, South Carolina in the backyard of an Occaneechi man named John Blackfeather drinking beer and attempting to shoot his home made arrows. Before we left, he gave me an arrow and a dreamcatcher he constructed himself.

“It’s my birthday,” John told us. I must have given him a funny look because he continued. “Oh, we Indians are different,” he joked. “We give gifts on our birthdays instead of receiving.”

So that is exactly what I did. The only rule is it can’t cost money. This year, by the end of the March 20th, I learned how true a tired old adage can be.

It’s Better To Give Than Receive

Photo by Wonderlane

I’ve always thought this little saying was tied to an often misguided altruistic streak that runs through our common human nature, and many times, it’s only words. Thing is, in spite of all I write about finding the positive in things you dislike and trusting life, I’m really quite a cynical person. Ten-plus years living in New York City, I suppose, can do that to a person. This year, though, my little birthday experiment taught me more about generosity of others and gratitude than I ever could have learned by saying thank you for gifts bought and bestowed.

In the immortal words of every writing teacher I’ve ever had: Show don’t tell.

I was presented with 25 (so far) different challenges.

Fourteen of them center on writing, blogging, editing, researching or requesting particular subjects for upcoming blog posts. All things I do for my own work. Thank you for telling me that you respect my expertise and enjoy reading my writing enough to want more.

Five people requested we meet for coffee the next time I’m in Atlanta or New York. How could I possibly refuse people who tell me that when offered anything, all they desire is my presence?

Four seek travel advice. You value my opinion?

Pam Mandel from Nerd’s Eye View asked me to spread word about the TBEX call for entries. I’ve been planning to send in an entry myself but then forgot entirely. I didn’t even put it on my to-do list. Thank you for the reminder.

Matador’s own Nick Rowlands presented an interesting challenge.

I’d like you to write a letter – a proper, old-skool pen and paper job – to any friend or family member that lives overseas and you haven’t contacted for too long.

We all have complicated relationships in our lives. This is one for me. There’s one person with whom I haven’t spoken in three years. We haven’t written, e-mailed or called.This person had been one of my best friends for over a decade. Someone I wrote to regularly throughout college and to whom I turned when my life seemed most overwhelming. The story of what happened is filled with sturm und drang and I really can’t get into it here for many reasons, but last night I put pen to paper, sealed and addressed the letter I sent today.

My little birthday experiment taught me more about generosity of others and gratitude than I ever could have learned by saying thank you for gifts bought and bestowed.

Thank you, Nick, for this. I never would have reached out otherwise. Life is too short to hold onto complications.

What Would You Like?

I’m about half way through the list of challenges now, and as I fill each one, I find myself wishing there were more. I realize, too, how much courage it takes to ask another human being for a favor. These days, too often, it seems we equate wanting help with weakness. And even though my birthday has since passed, I invite all of you to request something.

That will be your birthday gift to me.


In an attempt to up the ante, I promised to loan one dollar to Kiva for every challenge I receive. Learn more about the Kiva Fellows Program and other ways to volunteer on Matador Change.

About The Author

Leigh Shulman

Leigh Shulman is a writer, photographer and mom living in Salta, Argentina. There, she runs Cloudhead Art, an art & education group that creates collaborative art using social media to connect people and resources. You can read about her travels on her blog The Future Is Red

  • Akemi – Real Life Spirituality

    I recently found this site and really like it.
    This post on the meaning of giving is beautiful. “It is in giving that we receive” said St Augustine, I think, and you live it!
    Happy berated B-day!

  • Nick

    Thanks for doing that, Leigh. It might have seemed like an odd request, but – having been an expat for much of my “adult” life – I know how easy it is to fall out of touch with people you once cared about, and still do. Especially if there’s any form of drama involved, which makes it so much harder to bridge the personal, as well as physical, gap.

  • Joya

    This article makes me want to write a letter to a particular someone I haven’t talked to in a while and didn’t exactly have the best good-bye with. Thanks and I hope you had a happy birthday!

    • Leigh Shulman

      Do it. Seriously. I sent out my letter and have no idea when or if I’ll get a reply. But it’s sent. That’s sort of liberating. Even if you don’t send yours, writing it can be good enough.

      We can compare notes later on to see what happens. :L)

  • emily stern

    hi! i’m really new to matador. i mostly just read entries, and then move on. i just finished high school. my biggest passion is traveling, writing is a close second. i was wondering, how can i make a living of traveling? just some tangible first steps would be fantastic. thanks so much!

    • Leigh Shulman

      Hi Emily,

      Then you’ve certainly come to the right place of an answer to your question. Matador’s The Traveler’s Notebook is entirely dedicated to blogging and travel writing. That’s a good place to start.

      You can also check out Matador U and sign up for a course that will teach you everything you’d need to know. Many of the students of the U make amazing contacts and find work that way.

  • wonderlane

    The photo of HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was taken by the Tibetan scholar and student of Khyentse Rinpoche by Chris Wilkinson. :-)

    • Leigh Shulman

      It’s a really lovely photo. Thank you for sharing it with us, and for letting us know who, when where.

  • Nancy

    I love this, Leigh. What a thoughtful way to celebrate your birthday. Makes me want to do the same on mine. I especially liked Nick’s challenge; letter writing is a lost art.

    • Leigh Shulman

      Letter writing is most definitely a lost art. I write every day, but the last time i wrote an actual letter…. I can’t remember.

      Maybe it’s not a bad idea to start writing out some cards to people. Friends. Family. Lila. Just to get back in the habit a bit.

  • Natasha

    Lovely idea. In Spain on your birthday it’s you who has to take in sweets, cakes or cava to share with others, they don’t get bought for you.

    My challenge is: Spend time chatting to someone who is homeless. Buy/make them a coffee or some food if you can. Show stray animals some love.

    • Leigh Shulman


      Those are both really wonderful challenges.

      As for stray animals. They are everywhere in Salta. We’re looking for a dog, and a friend here told me to just go and take a dog from the street. But I can’t tell if any of them already have homes. We do feed the three dogs that come by for breakfast in the morning. I think they’re telling friends, though, because we seem to have new dogs every day.

      As for people. I’ve been noticing a lot more people begging for money on the streets here than there used to be. Yesterday, a little girl was in the center of town with her mother. I think it’s a lovely idea to go and buy a drink or some food for them.

      Thanks, Natasha.

  • david miller

    such a good post leigh. feliz cumple.

  • Anne

    Such a great idea! I love the thought of birthdays being less ¨me! me! me!¨ and more about appreaciating the people who make your life great, year after year. A friend of mine did this once, and gave out mix tapes. Okay, it was in high school, but I haven´t forgotten the gesture.

    • Leigh Shulman

      What also works nicely about this is you can really drag out your birthday celebration for as long as you want. You’re giving and it does indeed give back. :)

  • amellia

    neat idea! i don’t make a big affair of my birthdays, i prefer quiet time with a few people. i’m honoured enough that they would spend theirs with me, thats what makes my birthdays special (:
    good luck with your challenges, i hope you get to do them all!

  • Justruss

    Like it was yesterday, I remember the hot, summer day when my Uncle Bill popped in unexpectedly telling me and my brother it was his birthday, a day for him to give presents. He loaded us into his car and drove us to the drug store where we sat at the soda fountain where I had my first ice cream soda. Mine was chocolate, of course.

    He’s long gone, but I try to keep up the tradition.

  • Bite me


  • Tanja_sellmann

    Hi! I just came across this and have no idea whether it is still open for comments but have decided for the first time ever to post something. Here goes (I have 3 wishes)… First, gift wrap your favourite book and write a short note why you love it and then leave it somewhere (park bench, subway ….) Next write a letter of gratitude to someone. Then finally scatter a packet of wild flower seeds somewhere where they stand a decent chance of survival. Thank you!

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