Don’t answer that question!

Gift ecologies and the pervasiveness of transactional thinking

By Frank Vassen [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Rafael Matsunaga — Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

With the BestDesk team and Wendy and Craig at FabLab Wellington I’ve been prototyping a healthier desk. Instead of paying for the machines and Wendy and Craig’s expertise, we agreed to guinea pig a different form of collaboration — a gift ecology.

“Oh, a gift economy?” I asked Wendy.
“No. Economy implies monitored transactions. It has to be Ecology”

So, we’ve been trying it out.

We go in and machine the prototypes with help from Craig and Wendy. I keep an eye out around the lab and help people when I can (not often, I’m new to everything). Wendy and Craig give us design critique. I machine some dividers for the Uni. Bart brings his risk and business experience to our relationship discussions. I help Wendy topping up the compost with wood shavings from the plywood milling…

And much of the time, I can’t help analysing it from a transactional point of view, and wondering if we’re getting into debt. I don’t really know how else to think about it.

“Are we giving enough?”

So we moved onto the next stage of prototyping in a mass manufacturing environment, and want to check in with Wendy and Craig about the quality of our relationship.

What is the quality of our relationship? I don’t know how to answer/measure that!


What is the balance of our relationship?

“Wendy, do you feel like we’ve given enough back to FabLab for all of your help with our project? I mean I did do 7 hours machining your project the other day…”

I’m on the defensive, trying to avoid debt.

Wendy — “Pete, what is your thing? What can you teach us?”

Arggh! They’re calling the debt! That means there is debt! Ah shit! I don’t want to be in debt! I’m too busy to be working something off!

“Ah. I don’t know.”

My creative mind is shutting down, I can’t think of anything I can offer. I feel worthless and indebted, heavy and tired.

Why didn’t we just go with a simple, clear economic model. I would rather have just paid than to be in some kind of unknown debt!

“If we’re talking like this, we might as well just used money!”

If we’re talking like this.


“How would this conversation have gone if it really was a gift ecology conversation?”

Wendy, again:

“Pete, what is your THING? What can you teach us”

Ah. Same question. But this time, I don’t feel the fear of debt. Hmm. I’m relaxed now. Are those creative thoughts coming?

What about…

  • The loomio I just started on “Stewardship, organisation level orientation and management substitutes at Enspiral Dev Academy” (what’s working, what’s not?)
  • The internal communication protocols and platforms Dev Academy uses, what we’ve tried, and what works/doesn’t
  • Podification as a way to keep decision making fast and not cramp creativity/new experiments
  • What we’ve learnt about holding an amazing space for learning
  • How we hold and evolve our culture
  • Our co-founder agreements when we’re happy with them, may be interesting for other people growing businesses from FabLab products — using capped returns to create a non-extractive economy.

And so on…

Once we’d escaped the trap of economic thinking, we had a light, creative and energetic session. Walking Wendy and Craig out, I felt enthused about learning and collaborating with them in the future.

In the dark of a fresh autumnal evening, a good friend and I went strolling arm in arm through the bushy slopes of Mt Vic park. Looking over the fairy light lit Wellington, I asked her how her relationship was going. She is very in love with another really wonderful woman, who adores her too.

“It’s amazing, she’s so wonderful” said my friend.
“But sometimes I just don’t feel like I deserve her, she seems too good for me!”

Aside from being a ridiculous statement (my friend is as wonderful a human as you could hope to meet), I thought “Hmm, this seems familiar…”

“She has all these great attributes, and I feel like I’m not adequate”

Hmm. You feel in debt? You’ve measured yourself, and her, and you are less? Ha! This seems like economic thinking. What’s that mindset doing here in relationship land???

“Do I deserve her?”. “Am I good enough?”

There is no right answer! They are questions from the wrong thinking framework!

I’m keen to hear your thoughts, experiences and questions, post em in the comments below!

Note: These are examples of ideas covered in “The Way of Zen” by Alan Watts, “Technical Debt of the West” by Kevin Simler and “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman