Why Everyone Should “Pay It Forward”

I recently read a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde called “Pay It Forward.” Her book promotes a simple idea that would change the world we live in if everyone did their part.

Upon reading the previous sentence, you’re probably already skeptical. Changing the world is difficult. It requires worldwide communication and cooperation — yet our differing beliefs, ideals, and perspectives makes it hard for even two strangers to agree on any one thing.

Catherine Ryan Hyde suggests that the one thing that can be used to change the world is what every one of us has the capacity to experience: Gratitude. In order to truly benefit from the power of gratitude, though, we need to learn to abandon the traditional act of paying people back, and adopt the act of “paying people forward.”

As a simple example, imagine that you do favors for three friends. Eventually, these three friends pay you back for the favor. In the end, when everyone is decidedly “even,” you’ve affected a total of only four people: Yourself and your three friends.

Figure 1: Paying People Back Creates a Closed System

In other words, by participating in the traditional act of having people pay you back, you’re creating a closed system — the favors being received never proceed beyond your friends. This isn’t to suggest that doing favors for your friends is a bad thing, it’s just that it creates a world full of closed systems:

Figure 2: Our World Full of these Closed Systems Leaves Some People Unaffected by our Actions

Consequently, there will be people who never experience a kind act from anyone else, who live in a closed system containing only themselves. I imagine these people resent those who have received favors, and direct a lot of hate towards others. The reason I believe these types of people exist is because of the kinds of hateful messages I receive in response to LifeReboot:

I’d just like to say that the reason you were depressed was probably because you are a twat.

This derogatory comment is not the first of its kind. I have already written two articles that include samples of the hate mail I receive. I’ve been called a moron, a pussy, a slacker, a jerkbag, an arrogant prick, a self-righteous prick, a lazy ass, a burnt out whiner, and now a twat. (And these are just the names I’m willing to publish.)

When I receive these kinds of hateful comments, I’m saddened by the idea that this is the type of world we’re living in — where people knowingly treat strangers with incredible disrespect. Honestly, is there any benefit to be had from leaving abusive comments on my blog? I’d understand if I purposely offended people in real life, and they retaliated — but the onslaught directed at me comes from an anonymous audience to whom I’ve done nothing.

So what can be done if I don’t even know who these people are?

Enter “Pay It Forward” — an idea to help everyone using the power of exponential growth. It begins with a single person who helps three people. The help performed is subjective, depending on what the helper can offer and the receivers need, but it must be something significant — like the kind of help you’d only do for a close friend or relative.

The only rule is that in exchange for receiving help, each of the three receivers must become helpers themselves. The most important detail is that the help cannot be paid back, it must be paid forward. In other words, each new helper must find three new people to help. The resulting movement becomes large very quickly:

One person helps 3 people.
Those 3 people help 9 others,
and those 9 people help 27 others,
and those 27 people help 81 others,
and those 81 people help 243 others,
and those 243 people help 729 others,
and those 729 people help 2187 others,
and those 2187 people help 6561 others,
and those 6561 people help 19683 others…

…and it continues growing like this until everyone starts being helped more than once:

Figure 3: How Everyone Would Be Affected by Learning to Pay It Forward

In the above diagram, everyone was affected by only the fourth level of “Pay It Forward.” Though I didn’t actually draw 81 purple arrows, I’m sure you understand the significance: When people pay it forward, nobody gets left out. Consequently, we’d end up living in an world where everyone was anxious to help others.

I’m certain there will be naysayers who label the concept too idealistic for reality. Admittedly, the notion of “Pay It Forward” is easy in theory and difficult in practice — but I’d like to think that as difficult as it may seem, changing the world is possible.

So if you want to help change the world, don’t immediately dismiss the idea. “Pay It Forward” relies on cooperation, so I intend to do my part — and I will. I hope that you will too.

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24 Responses to “Why Everyone Should “Pay It Forward””

#1 Gerhi Janse van Vuuren on 03, Aug, 2007 at 6:25 am


I find the idea of leaving insulting (often anonymous) comments to be a mystery. As you say: “is there any benefit”?
It is possible that it is the dark side of paying it forward. Not that somebody insulted the commenter, and therefore they now pay it forward by insulting you. But rather due to a lack of kindness, appreciation or gratitude in their lives they lash out because they perceive the world to be a cold and cruel place.
It is safe to lash out at strangers because there are no repercussions. But the same can be said for helping strangers – it is safe because there are no strings attached.
Who would you rather be: Somebody who walks around randomly slapping people in the face, or somebody who walks around randomly hugging people? Whom would you rather come across today and how will it affect your day if you do?

Gerhi Janse van Vuuren

#2 Chay Donohoe on 03, Aug, 2007 at 9:47 am

An interesting article, I always wondered what ‘pay it forward’ meant. The trouble is that the world is mostly full of self-serving ignoramuses who would only look for the short-term rewards engendered by the closed loop favours system (and its likely that these are the sort of people who hide behind the anonymity of the web to make snide comments at people such as yourself, without being held accountable for their actions).

#3 Fishbones on 03, Aug, 2007 at 9:51 am

Thank you, this is a very well written and explained post. Please keep on writing and don’t let the internet trolls get you down. There’s too much hate and anger out there and we need to get rid of it.

Also, nice comment from Gerhi Janse van Vuuren. I wish I had written something as insightful.

#4 mcangeli on 03, Aug, 2007 at 10:03 am

They made a movie about this premise. Kevin Spacey was in it and while in theory its an awesome idea, it won’t work in practice because it goes against human nature.

#5 Andrew on 03, Aug, 2007 at 10:35 am

Great article, tank you for this site you inspired me and tanks to you i now know how to live my life

#6 realist on 03, Aug, 2007 at 10:56 am

a utopian concept for sure. apart from running contrary to human nature, this concept is completely in opposition to many of the social systems humans have forged over countless years.

could you imagine this concept being attempted in politics? never happen. humans have developed an evolutionary expectation to receive in-kind or tangible rewards for their efforts. surviving and thriving depend upon it.

but let’s say it was able to work and every last person on earth participated 100%. has anyone thought about the explosion of favors/good deeds/help/assistance would ensue? with a ratio of 3 acts per 1 person, does anyone not see that eventually every moment of a person’s day would be devoted to paying it forward? lol.

#7 John on 03, Aug, 2007 at 11:54 am

Naive adolescent rambling on utopias.

Not trying to be a dick, not trying to avoid “paying it forward”… just being honest. Because I think realism and honesty are infinitely more important in this world than paying it forward.

#8 steve on 03, Aug, 2007 at 12:14 pm

Mathematically incorrect argument, sorry. The closed system is only true if your friends have no other friends.

Try labelling every connection in your third (exponential) diagram with “friend”, and you’ll see the problem.

The maths of the situation is that you’re already paying it forward when you have friends.

#9 Helen on 04, Aug, 2007 at 3:44 am

Intresting. Even moreso, reading the comments.

Pay it forward is, in reality, very effective. IT may seem to be a utopian dream, but, in practice, works out quite nicely.

A good example is this: on their way to work, one had to stop to pay a toll. Feeling magnanimous, they chose to pay the toll of 2 cars behind them. They didn’t know the giver, nor why.

As a result of the unexpected gift of money and time, they felt extremely benevolent and it affected their relations throughout the day.

Something so basic may seem minor, but in effect, it’s really not. A simple smile can go a long way towards making a day bright. This is a larger version of the idea. Utopian? Maybe not so much.

#10 James on 04, Aug, 2007 at 6:12 am

The existing mode of reciprocity is prevalent for a reason: it limits the negative effects of free riders.

In any system there exists some set of members that receive much more than they put in. Free riders thrive on the generosity of others yet contribute little themselves. In a system without any checks against these members, the free riders end up receiving a disproportionate share of the benefits while putting in the least work. In the end, they upset a free-giving society by being rewarded for not contributing.

Thankfully, many people are aware of such unfairness and develop filter for free riders. The common way of filtering out free riders is by investing personal resources in those you know and trust rather than complete strangers or people who have cheated you in the past. By doing so, untrustworthy free riders are excluded from draining resources away from otherwise sharing investors. For most, this is an intuitive process that comes from learning it the hard way as a kid.

On the other hand, there are occasions where investing resources in someone we’re unfamiliar with is useful. For instance, helping out a new colleague at the workplace can help form a beneficial working relationship. There is no assurance that a colleague will end up helping back or even staying. But on that chance that the colleague becomes a essential coworker, it is the person who decides to lend a helping hand that receives the benefit rather than the person who holds back.

What was just described above and is what the author wants to encourage is a COOPERATE FIRST approach. Instead of waiting around for someone to help you and then reciprocating, turn it around by helping out someone else and letting them return the favor. By extending the favor first (paying it forward), you create more opportunities for mutual benefit. Numerous books have been written and words spent on describing the advantages of what is essentially an application, a manifestation, or a derivation of the cooperate first strategy.

However, I will caution against the author’s statement that “when people pay it forward, nobody gets left out” and claims of exponential growth. It is naive to believe that everyone will continue the chain of generosity. Free riding personalities do exist and will continue to exist so long as there is a producing society to sustain them. In the interests of individual investors and the cooperative society as a whole, people should be vigilant of free riders and know when to stop giving them resources with little or no return on investment.


There are some insightful applications of this type of analysis. One interesting topic is the value of information, especially information that helps us gauge a person’s cooperativeness and his/her potential trustworthiness. How much technology allows us to share that information and how the proliferation of such information allows us enhance cooperative societies is another intriguing field of inquiry.

If you’re interested in finding out more, do some research into economic game theory. There are brilliant academics who spend their lives investigating these interactions. Do yourself a favor and educate yourself with the work of these intelligent people.

#11 Danielle on 04, Aug, 2007 at 8:53 am

It is a sad and pathetic world we live in when people won’t even try something that has the potential to make a difference because “in theory” it won’t work. I say piss on “in theory” – if we wanted it to work it would. It’s because of people who say “it’s against human nature” and so on that we live in the world we do today. Make a choice to be part of the ones that TRIED instead of the ones the blew it off. I can gaurentee that it will come back to you at some point in time.

I believe in what Shaun says – not because he says it, but because I’ve experience it in my own life. Call it “pay it forward”, call it karma, call it whatever you like. People who do good things and reflect a good attitude in life, have good things happen to them!

Don’t let those who have given up cause you to give up Shaun. There’s value in what you write about.

#12 crazy anthon y on 04, Aug, 2007 at 10:00 am

i actually made your website my home page becuase i found it insperiational. But it is starting to annoy me. Im sure you get lots of advice so ill just keep it short. Find someone else that has a lot of shit say that is nothing like you and do the site with him. If you do that it can add a new dynamic. Well i guess you could also take your content and put it in book and get it pubished. yeah publishers are morons they wioll publish anything> not that what you write is bad but if they will publish anything so your stuff would probably make money.

oh another thing kudos on being all crazy and living ff your dream. Your doing what everyone says they will do and dont do. im drunk and i hate niggers.

well i dont really but isent it fun to say things that you are not supposed to say?

#13 Yevgeniy. T. on 04, Aug, 2007 at 10:34 am

Here is how i deal with “free riders”. When someone asks for a favor i ask them why they specifically ask me and why they can’t ask their family member or do it themselves. If i find that i truly am required then i happily do a favor.

In such system you end up benefiting as well, because when you help more people then your friends you can also ask for favors from more people then just your friends. This is how you expand your friend network and get new friends or just people who will trust yourespect you.

#14 Kelly Petrucci on 04, Aug, 2007 at 9:40 pm

I watched the movie, “Pay It Forward” and was so touched by the meaning of the story line. I did not like the ending, however, it made the story seem even more realistic.
As my children got older, I made them watch the movie. I am always teaching them about being thankful and accepting. I am a kindergarten teacher and I try everyday to instill those values on the young generation of leaders. I am a pay it forward kind of person and I feel it has always been paid back to me ten fold. Sometimes one just must look really hard to see where the payback lie.

#15 josh on 05, Aug, 2007 at 10:01 am

you twat!1

#16 Matt @ Realigned Living on 07, Aug, 2007 at 10:13 am

I never cared much for the movie “Pay It Forward” – I found it boring and insipid – but the premise of the movie and what you’re blogging about is interesting. 😛 I think the concept is really nice, but it just screams “pollyanna idea” to me.

I don’t like helping other people out for the sake of helping them out, as Pay It Forward heavily suggests, but rather to help them become the best person they can be. P.I.T. appears to work very well for the people who aren’t sure of what kind of value they can offer to others, or the Mother Theresas of the world who help everybody out.

#17 Umar Siddiqi » Around the web: pay it forward, linux cheat sheet, dumb ideas that worked on 15, Aug, 2007 at 5:18 am

[…] Pay it forward instead of paying it back, and the world might become a better place. […]

#18 Finer Minds - Todays top blog posts on Meditation - Powered by SocialRank on 16, Aug, 2007 at 2:53 am

[…] Why Everyone Should “Pay It Forwardâ€Â? […]

#19 Mary on 28, Aug, 2007 at 7:51 pm

Pay it Forward is like doing a good deed. It can only Bless the Doer and the Receiver. Nothing wrong with that! Spread a little Love around.

#20 Sheli on 26, Feb, 2008 at 8:39 pm

I love the movie, “Pay it forward” so I had to read the blog, when I ran across the title while reading another of your blogs, Shaun. I think it is a great premise & whole heartedly agree with the concept. Although I have not actually Paid it forward in the true sense (done 3 favors for people, who then paid it forward to 3 more, etc.), I try to do good deeds whenever I can. As for the comments; I don’t understand why it’s “against human nature”? Sure doesn’t seem that way to me. When I do something for someone I don’t do it based on what I will get in return. Isn’t that the very nature of giving? I have had to remind myself of this after helping/giving to a friend only to be in a position a short time later to be in need of something myself, which same said person(s)could’ve “returned the favor” with, had they chose to do so (which sadly they didn’t). I felt resentful, briefly, until I had time to think it through, and know that what I had done for them, I had done because I had wanted to help. That’s it. It’s too bad they didn’t do it for me as well, but that in no way takes away from what I did. In fact, I make a conscious effort to avoid becoming pessimitic or jaded, by the lack of kindness and respect I see in this world on a daily basis. Who was it that said you have to kill em’ with kindness?

#21 Tanya on 26, Jul, 2008 at 10:43 am

I wanted to say that everyone has their opinions. Life isn’t so perfect for all. That’s why we have those that lash out instead of receiving minor compliments. This world isn’t ready for such a phenominal concept that would honestly save man kind. My fave band is “Dave Matthews Band”. His video for “Everyday” was a perfect example of paying it forward. One man made an eight hour day just giving people hugs and telling them to pass it on. At the end of the video, everyone in that city had hugged each other, even the grumpy ones that he started with earlier that day. The beatles said it best…. Love is all you need! Peace to all!!!

#22 Janelle on 17, Nov, 2008 at 4:34 am

I love to pay it forward.Just to see the surprise in complete strangers faces when you do something nice for them is payment enough for me.Knowing that you may have made a persons day is wonderful.
I am fortunate enough to be working with a great group of people that beieve in the PIF concept.I would rather belong to a group of people like that than the negative people that cant see the joy in anything.
I have enjoyed your post well done and thanks.

#23 HS on 08, May, 2009 at 1:14 am

I love to pay it forward, to make people happy. I don’t care if people think it’s a Pollyana idea. I think it would be better for all involved if the naysayers were quiet so we could get on with getting on.

#24 MrsKate on 25, Sep, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Our daughter is in her first semester of college this Fall. Her community college requires all Frosh to take a reading class, an English class, and a math class…after being tested for competency levels in all three. Her reading class is engaging in “Pay It Forward”, the movie then an essay paper creating a ‘pay it forward’ event. It will be interesting to see where her professor takes this lesson, as it’s possible she could divide class into groups to pull this lesson into a real-time scenario. Let’s hope so.
I remember seeing the movie (vaguely) but am interested in how the book compares. Most usually, I’ll read the book first before seeing the
movie, primarily because so often movies sensationalize aspects of the book version in ways that can ruin the book’s punctuated events.
I felt the need to write because ‘paying it forward’ is alive in Arizona’s classrooms. Talk about a movie having an impact on society, this one is such an example. Hollywood did a great job affecting people with this movie, but it’s the idea behind ‘paying it forward’ that society loves and loves it as a challenge. Perhaps the book might not have made the same impact as the movie. Some ideas need put into action for people to recognize a good thing.
By the way, stay true to yourself… you’ll get published before you know it! Good Luck!

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