Enterprise Stories

Planning to do good? Get ready for haters.

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This article originally appeared on Tonic.com on February 25th, 2011.

Imagine that after a life-long struggle with obesity, you decided to take measures to shed 100 pounds. But when you told your friends and family, they weren’t on board.

“We’d rather you kept the weight on,” they said. “Sure, you’re at a higher risk for diabetes and cancer, but aren’t you more comfortable that way?”

Crazy, right?

Now imagine that your weight loss wasn’t physical, but material. Imagine selling your house and moving into one half the size so you could give the money away. What would your family and friends say?

That’s what Kevin Salwen and his family found out when they did just that — sold their palatial Atlanta home for one half as large to give the money to help villagers in remote Ghana. But when they broke the news to the people they knew best, the reaction wasn’t what they expected.

“I think we felt that this is something that everybody should know about. We were very proud of it,” Salwen told Tonic. “We thought everybody would understand and embrace that. That was a poor judgment on our part.”

Salwen, who wrote a book about the experience with his teenager daughter, Hannah, called The Power of Half, says those initial conversations about his family’s monumental life change were often painful and awkward.

“Our friends couldn’t quite figure out just what the heck it was about,” said Salwen.
“How did we go from people they thought they knew to people who would make this kind of decision?”

If you start living on less, giving away more of your income to charity, or making any sort of switch away from the typical American consumer lifestyle, you’re going to face confused and even skeptical reactions, said Salwen.

“A lot of people were uncomfortable because it was challenging them. It made them question their own process and their own way of life,” he explained.

Salwen remembers one day when his wife, Joan, came home from lunch with a friend. When Joan described her family’s new adventure, the friend burst into tears and said, “This is not my reality.”

“Joan was so upset. She told us, ‘I’m sick and tired of being a weirdo. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I just want to shut up,’” said Salwen.

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 4.24.12 PMBut although his family has lost some friends, they’ve also gained some new ones.

Despite the criticism they encountered, they’ve never regretted making the choice to downsize.

“Our small act of philanthropy has brought us into contact with so many of the most loving and kind people,” said Salwen. “For everybody who says, ‘This is not a relationship I want to have anymore,’ we’ve had 50 people who’ve come into our lives who put our own generosity to shame.”

So if you’re thinking of “getting off the hedonistic treadmill,” as Salwen says, what should you expect? And how can you learn from his family’s experience to make the transition easier? Here are a few tips:

— ”Recognize that you are going to be running headlong into what people have been lead to believe all their lives.”
The idea that “bigger is better” and “the new beats the old” are part of American culture. ”That concept is so deeply ingrained in who we are and what we do that almost no matter what you say, it’s going to come across as difficult for some people,” says Salwen.

— Make it about you.
Instead of talking about how you want to change the world, talk about your personal motivations for making a change. ”Let them know, I’m doing this because I think I can be happier,” Salwen suggests. “I’m doing this because I feel like I’ve gotten away from my core values.”

— Practice your message.
Figure out what you want people to know and how best to say it beforehand, so you don’t get swept up in excitement. Also, decide how much you want your choices to be a challenge to others. ”Some would say that we were overly challenging,” said Salwen. “But we really do believe that people can be better, healthier and happier. Happier in a deeper, more authentic sense.”

— Embrace change and focus on the bigger picture.

“I don’t have the same friends as I had from high school or college or when our kids were young,” said Salwen. “You go through groups of friends. If there are people who liked us better before than they do now, that’s okay. I can deal with that.”

Salwen says he doesn’t regret for a moment that he listened to his teenage daughter’s prompting to consume less and give more. ”We’re so much happier.We’re so much closer. We’re surrounded by generous, wonderful people. Our life is less about having and more about meaning.”