Generativity: The Drive to Leave a Legacy!

What do you do with a thousand tons of rice straw? Rice is the staple food for over 3.5 billion people worldwide. What you might not know is that to cultivate four tons of rice, ten tons of rice straw is left behind.

Unlike rice husks which are often converted into fuel, rice straw has traditionally been seen as useless and farmers often resort to burning it, causing massive pollution, especially in large rice growing areas, and until recently, there have been no solutions to the black, choking smoke that hangs over the countryside in many Asian countries. To give an idea of the extent of the problem, the total area of rice fields in Punjab was analyzed: the 2.6 million hectares of paddy in this single state yield roughly 100 million tons of rice straw per year, of which three-fourth is burned.

Meet Trang Tran! I met her when she was invited by BYU University to be the case study for their Social Innovation Solution competition last year. In my role as a judge to assess the BYU students’ ideas, I became fascinated with this young, Vietnamese woman who had devised a profitable way to both reduce the alarming pollution and create a profitable business growing organic mushrooms as a second crop using the rice straw. This was not just an idea for her own business, but she has been helping an increasing number of farmers, mainly female farmers, to develop the same business. Participating farmers have increased their revenue by up to 200% as well as thousands of tons of pollution taken from the air. She continues to extend the number of farmers that she trains to use the rice straw.

What is it that motivates women like Trang to undertake such a project? Much of the theory that underpins Discover Identity comes from the developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, (1992-1994). He described a life-time process by which we move through various stages of identity development. He provides some clues as to this need to build something beyond ourselves. In in a simple phrase he said, “I am what survives me.” As we move into maturity, we have a choice to either invest in our community or youth or personally stagnate. Trang Tran described her motivation as being inspired to use business as a tool to sustainably solve social and environmental problems.

According to Erikson, this stage of building something larger than ourselves belongs to mature adults and not to children. This is because the focus of children and adolescents is typically on themselves. Generativity typically emerges after we become involved in intimate relationships because it is through these relationships that we are placed in a position to start thinking outside of ourselves.

What are some examples of generativity, other than the obvious one of procreating? Raising children is certainly an example of this principle as we look forward to generations of our descendants outliving us. Generativity is much more than a biological act, however. It is a mind-set that permeates everything that we do, after conception and beyond. Examples may include teaching, starting a business, investing in the future, working in a nonprofit, setting up a college fund for our children, creating inventions, writing, sharing ideas, and creating community projects.

Imagine a world without Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. How about those who founded the Big Brothers Big Sister’s program that has provided mentoring for children and youth to study better and to learn how to relate to adults? It doesn’t have to be so large as a Trang Tran project or a national nonprofit. Thinking beyond ourselves might be as simple as helping to coach the local football team or sponsoring a disadvantaged child to receive music lessons.

An organization called Donors Choose was started by one teacher who wanted to get people to donate supplies for 11 different school projects in his school. The concept grew like crazy into an organization that has vetted and fulfilled 1.5 million requests for donations for classrooms and schools all over the United States; small projects like a new garbage bin or a new set of crayons. For every donation, children have sent out personalized thank you notes to donors and both sides are feeling pretty good. Now without belaboring the word, that’s generativity!

Faith and optimism are important elements in this future thinking approach. Trang Tran could not have launched such an ambitious project without a real level of optimism that she could do it and that the concept would work.

On the other hand, a significant barrier to developing generativity today is the prevalence of a victim attitude in our society today. It is difficult to think about our greater contribution to others when we are mired in our past or if we are generally in “self” mode. Victims are generally past centered, trying to right a wrong. It is not the validity of the causes being protested today that is in question, but the methods that are being demonstrated in dealing with these important issues. Why? Because victimhood keeps us in that “self” mode and therefore stunts our abilities to think generatively. Angry protests that maintain our victimhood status have the capacity to leave us stuck in attitudes that leave us without a way out. We hear many causes where hundreds of thousands take to the streets in anger against a perceived wrong but listen more closely and you will hear few actual solutions being promoted.

I look at Trang Tran and her example of what she has been able to achieve, and I ask myself, can I focus more on contributing to those around me and my community in general? Can I be a more “solution-based” person? Working on it!

We'd like to thank Marianne Downing for contributing this article to Discover Identity.