The best gift I ever got...

Was a sketchbook and set of drawing pencils from an artist friend.

Not because I enjoy art or drawing. In fact, I’d never drawn anything before getting these. I still remain a bit skeptical of “modern art” and the like.

Not because they were particularly nice or expensive. As far as I can tell, those materials were fairly standard, available at any local art-supply store for a total cost of like ~$30.

Not even because I went on to use them! That specific sketchbook and pencils are still sitting in my parent’s home, still in the original shrink wrap, barely touched since I got them.

Why, then out of the dozens (if not hundreds) of gifts I’ve received in my life, did this one stand out as the “best”? Roughly, because of the comparative advantage that my friend Alice exercised here. She took the steps to share something of her hobby with me, in a way I would never have understood or prioritized myself.

A lot of people seem to think "oh, Bob has a lot of cookbooks, I'll buy him another cookbook, he'd probably enjoy that". But that's exactly backwards! Bob has spent a lot of time figuring out which cookbooks are the best, which ones suit his tastes; it's very unlikely that your money spent on a cookbook you picked more-or-less at random would be spent nearly as efficiently as if you just gave the money to Bob straight up. Conversely, you would have to spend a lot more effort digging into the space of cookbooks to give even a passingly useful one. He’ll probably genuinely appreciate the gesture, but not the gift.

Instead, just give Bob something where you have comparative advantage; something from a hobby you enjoy that is a bit foreign to the recipient. If you’re really into mechanical keyboards, having spent hours on end looking up the pros and cons of different models — then spend a year upgrading the keyboard setups of all your friends.

Is that too impersonal, not to tailor your gift to each recipient? It might seem so… but 1) Gift-giving has fallen into disrepair; a “Happy Birthday” text or Facebook post is already exceeding expectations. Anything that lowers your barrier to actually gifting something should be celebrated. 2) If a friend gave you something that was instrumentally useful, and you later found out another friend got the same thing, would you ever be mad? And 3) Personalization is what the note is for. The gift should stand on its own merits.

Anyways, to wrap up this story: last month I picked out a sketchbook and pencil, and ended up drawing almost daily (in the spirit of Inktober). My drawings are still crap, but I’ve immensely enjoyed the time spent learning something new — and it only happened because of this one thoughtful, comparatively-advantaged gift.

So go out there, and give great gifts!

Inspired by Gifts Which Money Cannot Buy.