The Third Chapter: #A-Z Challenge

“If, in our third chapters, we were to ‘give back’ in our efforts to be useful, we would miss the mark. We must ‘give forward’ in order to meet the needs of the changing environment around us and to continue to grow and learn ourselves.”

The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

You are probably aware of the concept of generativity. It is psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s seventh (of eight) stage of human development. The gist of generativity is to give back to the next generation. Giving birth and raising children is an act of generativity so it can clearly happen at any time in an adult’s life. However, conscious, deliberate generative action is usually associated with midlife and beyond. The opposite of generativity is stagnation–disinterest in the world, in contribution, even in one’s own development.

Give Forward, Not Back

In The Third Chapter, author Lawrence-Lightfoot argues that the concept of giving back is wrong. She believes that giving back leaves us stuck in and endorsing our nostalgia for the past at the very time that we should be embracing new ideas and having new experiences. She wants us to look back to do the self-discovery work that will lead to living our authenticity in later life. But she encourages that we then give forward by marrying the lessons we’ve learned with the realities of the current generation.

A simple example of giving forward would be to use social media to share our understandings with young people. Not to use it as an older person does – i.e., Facebook only – but to deeply understand the role of social media in the life of a young person. And then to share our knowledge and experience using the medium that is most popular at the time.

I am what survives me.

Erik Erikson

Ways to Give Forward

As a single, childless woman, I have often felt excluded from discussions of “leaving a legacy.” I am heartened to learn that there are many ways to contribute from writing a book, to giving blood, to attending a community meeting. All of these, and many other, actions are generative. To make them generative actions where we give forward, all we need to do is make sure that we stay involved in life and learning.

What are your thoughts about giving forward versus giving back? 



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  1. It’s an interesting concept – giving forward – and one I’ll need to think about some more. I also spend a bit of brain space thinking about my legacy now and then. We have children and soon to be two grandchildren, but I don’t see them as my legacy – it’s more about how I’m remembered by those who knew me that I would hold as a legacy – I hope I’m remembered well and people smile when they think of me – although on my grumpy days I often wonder!

    Leanne |
    T for Take Control

  2. Congratulations about the ‘soon to be’ two grandchildren, Leanne! That’s tremendously exciting. You make an interesting point about them not being your legacy, but how they and others view you as your legacy. That’s one I will need to think about some more.

  3. I like the concept of giving forward. For me, bringing my grandchildren to extra skill development in hockey comes to mind, as does my volunteer session yesterday afternoon with the Visual Arts Centre. Developing new skills myself in pottery and talking with others interested in the art is another. I find exploring these new areas with future implications far more interesting and meaningful than in revisiting the past in giving back.

    1. I think your assortment of passions (they’re beyond interests) are such a wonderful way to give forward, Fran. And the fact that they are passions means, I believe, that you have even more impact on the recipients. And that includes your passion for supporting your grandsons.

  4. I hadn’t thought about the difference between giving back vs giving forward. But I like the idea that giving forward is living in the present. I don’t want to be one of those older people who constantly says, ‘Back in my day we did it this way and it was fantastic.’ Such a turn off for younger people. Staying involved in life and learning is a fantastic legacy and can keep us relevant at any age.

    1. So true, Molly. Even though we could tell them about walking miles in the snow, uphill, in our bare feet to get to our one-room schoolhouses. And we could finish that off by telling them that in our day people understood hard work and perseverance. I’m sure that wouldn’t be a turn off 🙂

  5. Another great post, Karen!

    I would go so far as to say we have a “duty” to give forward. After all, we’ve made it this far and younger people, whether they will admit it or not, could benefit from the hard-earned knowledge of those that came before. As much as the world is changing, many things stay the same – people still need to work (however that may look these days), create a home (however that may look these days), choose to have a family or not (however that may look these days), be part of a community (however that may look these days)…you get the picture.

    Mentoring is mainly how I give forward, on a personal level – whether it is to someone at my work who is looking for my advice, or to my grown kids, or to younger friends. I am aware (through my interactions and social media) that the world has changed, but hopefully I have something to share with my mentees that they can translate into useful information for their world and life stage. And the information flows both ways – we learn from each other.

    Blogging is another way, on a less personal level. Maybe someone reading my blog will get a different perspective on their own life from something I’ve shared of my own struggles or discoveries.

    My mother always said that the day she stops learning is the day she dies. She was my mentor in this way, and I hope to always honour her by continually learning and giving forward.


  6. Great comment, Deb. I can hear your passion for learning and giving forward. You are definitely honouring your mom.
    I hadn’t thought about blogging as a way of being generative, but you’re so right – it is, even if we never know whose lives we’ve touched.
    Have a great day.

    1. Hi, Karen – Like a few other commenters, I hadn’t thought about the difference between “Giving Back” and “Giving Forward”. After reading your post, I Googled both terms and found that many other people were wondering about this distinction as well. One author was completely in sync and shared: “I Googled “giving back” and received 200,000,000 results. Then I Googled “giving forward” and received 587,000,000 results! I Googled “giving forward vs giving back” and received 115,000,000 results.” ( Thank you for introducing me to this concept, I look forward to reading more.

  7. A thoughtful piece! The notion that giving back and giving forward are different concepts makes sense. Even the term, giving forward, frames the idea in such a positive and inspirational light. However, I think giving back, the self-discovery and reflective journey, is necessary before you can give forward. I would challenge the author that the concept of giving back is not wrong, it is merely part of the process before you can completely give forward.

    1. Hi! Thanks for commenting, Deborah. Lawrence-Lightfoot would actually agree with you. She believes that we all need to engage in the self-discovery and reflective work that gives us the authenticity in later life which, in turn, makes our giving forward meaningful.
      I like the way you’ve framed it as two parts of a single process- giving back (or maybe looking back) and giving forward.

  8. I too like the idea of the two-part process of giving (looking) back and giving forward. I am in the middle generation I guess when it comes to using social media. I don’t just go on Facebook to keep in touch with my family living at a distance. I know what social media is and where and why the younger generations hang out there and why. I use not only my YouTube channel to share things with others but I spread those messages across other social media accounts as well. I am talking about Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, StumbleUpon, Tumblr, Twitter and Disqus. I like sharing what I have learned and value my link in the chain of knowledge. After all, I learned from someone and others will learn from me and of course, I have my own individual take on any given subject that I can add to the stuff I share which broadens what gets communicated to the next generation. I believe we are far from the days of sitting at Grandad’s knee hearing all about the good old days – today we are on social media, texting, instant this and instant that. To truly give forward we must reach people where they are now.

    1. I forgot one other place I share things forward, Quora. That website is chock full of knowledge, advice and questions…so many questions. 😉

      1. Hi Susan,
        When it comes to the example of giving forward via social media. I’d say you’ve got that one licked! And you’re so right – to be generative in any manner, we need to reach people where they are. Thanks for your comment.

  9. Actually, I’m fine either way. I like the idea of paying it back for what I’ve received in life. I like even better telling my kids they owe me! (we’re close so I can get away with that!)

  10. I agree with Deb above that “Blogging is another way…. Maybe someone reading my blog will get a different perspective on their own life from something I’ve shared of my own struggles or discoveries.” For me, right now, this is my biggest form of legacy…and legacy is an area I continue to struggle with.

    I am also childless and not close to any of my nieces/nephews. In my working career I mentored many younger people, but after 4 years, I have lost relevance to them/their situations and we are no longer in contact. Although one contact told me that she still often thinks “what would Pat do” when she faces issues at work… which made me feel wonderful! I’ve struggled with volunteer work as a way to connect to younger folks and provide legacy as well.

    So, my Third Chapter of giving forward/giving back still is a struggle…and often I wonder if it’s a societal expectation I need to just let go!

    1. Hi Pat,
      I’m with you. A good friend has said to me, more than once, “you’ve made your contribution. Check off that box and move on!” And I think that’s true. Does generativity need to last until the day we die or is it okay to say, in my 20s through early 50s I focused so much on helping other people and contributing to society and now it’s okay to play? Oh and to blog which, I agree, is a great way to do legacy work.

      1. “Now it’s OK to play”. And then my mind went to …but did I really contribute to society? Leave a legacy? I worked for a big MegaCorp… I didn’t solve world problems. I didn’t raise the next generation of leaders. I worked for a company to make a profit (and they did from my work). Yes, I’m probably being hard on myself and I will think on the “now it’s OK to play” a bit more. Hubby feels that way, for sure! Thanks for the nudge.

        1. You talked about mentoring many younger colleagues, Pat. And then there was the indirect mentoring as people watched how you behaved in that MegaCorp. You’ve had far more impact than you know. So yes, you are being hard on yourself. Get playing!

  11. This is so important to think about. I have never looked at this concept from this point of view. My husband began writing when he was diagnosed with his cancer, not because he enjoyed writing, but to leave a legacy. You have an amazing legacy in your blog. You are contributing to a global conversation. My great aunt just died. She didn’t have any grandchildren, I sort of filled that role. She contributed more to my life than my own parents did, in many ways.
    Heather Erickson Author Writer Speaker

    1. Thank you so much for that really wonderful compliment, Heather. Contributing to the conversation is one of the three goals I have for my blog. I’m thrilled to read that you think that’s happening.
      Is your husband’s writing private, for family, or is he intending to publish? Good for him that he chose to write even though he doesn’t enjoy the process. It’s such a powerful tool for both self-understanding and to share with others.

  12. Karen,
    I appreciate the distinction between Giving Back and Giving Forward. I was just thinking along those lines the other day. While I like both concepts, the conclusion I came to was simply GIVE.
    As for legacy, I’ve been wondering about this because as someone who used to be in ministry and as a classroom teacher for 25+ years, I hope that the lives I touched were changed for the positive in some way. Now, as a strategy and fundraising coach to small nonprofits, I hope that the wisdom and encouragement I provide have a ripple effect.
    I’m happy that you acknowledge your generativity as a ‘single childless woman’ because we know that one who gives physical birth to a child is not always truly generative.

    1. I agree, Janet. Rather than get lost in how best to give, the critical thing is to be someone who thinks in terms of how they can help. I too was a classroom teacher and a teacher of thousands of other teachers. That impact shouldn’t be discounted just because it’s in the past.

  13. Excellent points throughout, Karen. I wasn’t familiar with the actual term — generativity — but understood the concept, somewhat. Still, not as well as after reading your post. You made me think about sharing forward — I use mostly Facebook (don’t really like Twitter, even though I’m on there), but I kind of like Instagram, and your post made me realize I should use it more often to share with the younger folk in their preferred way of sharing, not mine. Forward is progress, back is history. I think we can learn from one and build the other. As for contribution to the world — you’re absolutely doing that right here, and I’m sure there are many other ways in which you contribute. Thank you.

    1. Thank you so much, Silvia. I truly appreciate the vote of confidence and support.
      You’re the third blogger I respect who has mentioned liking Instagram. I’m definitely going to have to take a look at it, and find you on it.

  14. I really like the idea that I can give back and give forward and that somehow the little things I do in a day can make as much of a difference to others as big, time-consuming gestures. I believe there is an art and a science to both giving back and giving forward and that our life learnings and experiences, as well as our ability to reflect on those, are instrumental in shaping the form of the giving we do and perhaps even the impact on others. I might be overthinking this but the science of giving back and giving forward seems to be in the acts of reflection and generation of knowledge while understanding and using the best possible modes for action. The art side, and arguably the most difficult side of of giving back and giving forward, seems to be making and sharing emotive connections (through words or actions) that provoke insight, hope, and inspiration while providing compassionate support and/or building relationships. The challenge for me to understand this deeply has simply brought me to the place that others have mentioned above, the acts themselves can be simple or complex, all are worthy. My learning is that I will need to be thoughtful about the what and the how of giving back and giving forward. The blessing of this stage of life is that I can make the time to do both. A conscious commitment from me to do this would honour the gifts I have gleaned from the generosity and sharing of others. Thank you, Karen for leading the way for me and always inspiring me to think! My walk away wonder is about the impact of the unintentional give back and give forward messages that others take from my walk.

    1. What an amazingly thoughtful and thought-provoking comment, Maureen. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective and for doing it in a way that is so inspiring. I’m both feeling good about giving back and forward, and I’m seeing a way clear to doing more of it.

  15. I think my best example is that I take people on nature hikes to appreciate the natural world. Encouraging appreciation of the Earth is my way of giving forward.


  16. I’m happy with either concept as they both describe a generosity of spirit. “Giving Foward” reminds me a bit of “Paying It Forward,” which I think is a wonderful way of extending a favor or kindness. Being childless, my husband and I have talked a lot about what our legacy might look like. We currently give generously to our local Public Broadcasting station and have them named prominently in our trust, but giving forward can be so much more than financial contributions, as you’ve outlined.

    1. Good phrase, Janis – “a generosity of spirit.” You exemplify that, not just in giving money to public broadcasting, but in your weekly grati-Tuesday posts. I always feel lighter and uplifted after reading them.

  17. Unless I’m misunderstanding, I’m gonna disagree with this one. I think giving back is the same as paying forward.

    Everything in life is a learning experience. Even Lawrence-Lightfoot’s “give forward by marrying the lessons we’ve learned with the realities of the current generation” is a learning experience as the reactions of the current generation will affect your future lessons/actions. We make current and future actions based on past ones. Therefore any giving back is going to take our life lessons. Doesn’t that equal the suggestion of giving forward?

    I think the only difference between giving back and giving forward is perception. You are only “stuck in and endorsing our nostalgia for the past” if you want to be.

    To be honest, I think this is more likely to be a problem because of social media than anything else. Social media has encouraged people to connect with their past and not move on with their lives.

    (On social media keeping us in the past: I have a school friend I speak to a couple of times a year on the phone. A few years ago she was very upset for me because I wasn’t on facebook and had not reconnected with our other school mates. She couldn’t understand how I was happily living my life beyond the schoolyard and that I have no need to revisit those days with anything other than the occasional memory.)

    1. Thanks for taking the time to share this really interesting and fresh perspective, AJ. Even though I’m far from being a fan of social media, it hadn’t occurred to me that it could be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. And yet I’ve had a very similar experience to the one you describe in your last paragraph. You’ve given me something to think about.

      Lawrence-Lightfoot’s book is all about learning in the two dozen or so years after 50, so she’d certainly agree with you that everything in life is a learning experience. The point she was trying to make, and that I may not have adequately captured, is that if you give up on learning, consider yourself ‘done’ and don’t have new experiences or take new risks or even read some new and different books, the quality of legacy you’ll leave will invariably be rooted in the past and you’ll likely have a difficult time connecting with a younger generation because your message will be stale. That’s what she thinks of as ‘giving back’ in contrast to staying fully engaged with life and learning, and being actively intent on connecting with a younger generation, which she calls ‘giving forward.’

  18. I really don’t know how to respond to this post. I’ve always struggled with “paying it back – or forward” and wondered if I’m defective because the idea of volunteer work etc paralyzes me.

    I’m glad the Deb introduced the idea that blogging, mentoring – including that of our own children – perhaps even the Board work I do for the Seniors’ Outdoor Group, all count as paying it forward.
    I have done volunteer work, but I have no passion or interest in it.

    A long ago, I came to terms with the fact that whatever influence I may exert on the world is going to be soft and indirect.

    1. Hey Joanne,
      Board work for the Seniors’ Outdoor Group is volunteer work. Blogging, mentoring, raising your sons, helping a friend, taking photographs that inspire people to have a new experience or to look at something familiar in an unfamiliar way – all of these and more are ways to giving in the world. It doesn’t have to hurt or be distasteful to you to be significant. In fact far better that it doesn’t because passion, interest and enthusiasm are some of the best qualities to spread in the world.

  19. As always, Karen, I’ve enjoyed reading this post and all the comments. I learn so much! And I agree that we all have to find a comfortable balance between giving back and giving forward. Hey, as long as we’re not giving up, right?? 🙂

  20. My mom is a wonderful example of someone who gives forward. Every week she goes to the hospital in her town and brings bouquets of flowers to people in the hospital beds, especially those who don’t have flowers or visitors. She has been doing this for a couple of decades. She explained to me once how she had decided to start doing this. She said that she could not visit and care for her own mom (who at that time was still alive, in poor health, and in a distant community). She was grateful to relatives and caregivers who looked after her mom, so she was giving it forward by visiting and bringing some joy for sick people in her own community.


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