If you believe the records, the origin of birthday gifts is closely linked to evil.

The Pagans believed that evil spirits culminate on your birthday, and thus need to be warded off. Gifts purge evil. They are, or used to be, tools to support you for another year of life: charms, candles, and talismans. As we evolved, so did our traditions, and the charms and talismans morphed into clothes, food, and money.

The cake is a more recent tradition, starting around the industrial revolution, where mass production made cakes affordable. And of course, with industrialisation comes consumerism. If we can create cakes en-masse, we need people to buy cakes en-masse. At least once a year per person, for sure. Happy Birthday to you.

This is one of my favourite stories.

Most people don’t know this. Why, then, do people today give birthday gifts? Reciprocation and tradition. Alice gave me a present, so I need to give her one. This is how it has always been.

I like the idea of birthday gifts as tools to support you for another year of life. However, for someone like me – with access to a computer and the internet – clothes, food, and money aren’t tools I need from others. Health care all over the world is improving, and I’m more worried about my brain dying1 earlier than my body.

I appreciate birthday wishes, but wishing “Happy Birthday” is probably the worst proof-of-work for any relationship. I’d like the conversation to continue after “Thanks for the wishes!”.

The more years go by, the more people in this wishing cycle lose touch. This is a sub-optimal way2 to go about relationships. Why even spend the time wishing and replying, if that’s all this relationship is ever going to be? Isn’t it better to not put in any work?

If you expect to make a connection, or ask a favour sometime later, doesn’t it make sense to engineer the connection? It may not lead anywhere, but then at least you aren’t waiting for chance to create the connection.

I have an experiment to try out this year. One that helps stimulate my brain, plus engineer amazing conversations.3

Instead of saying “Happy Birthday!”, or buying an expensive gift, share one thing you find interesting. One idea. That’s all I want.

That’s all I’m going to do on your birthday, too.4 I think this is more difficult than wishing. It’s more difficult than buying an expensive gift, too. This is by design. It makes it harder for me to wish people I don’t care about, and go deeper with people I do care about.

Ideas have leverage that physical gifts don’t. We do gifts once a year because more often isn’t sustainable. But, ideas multiply. They become better by sharing, and there’s no reason to restrict talking about ideas to just once a year. Further, ideas are cheap and don’t take up space.5

Maybe you find a common thread. You find a new “old friend” on your birthday. You create something interesting, together. Or, maybe it falls flat. But that’s okay, you can’t sustain the interest of everyone in the world, anyway.

You’ve just engineered serendipity.

  1. Read as: a brain that stops learning. 

  2. Read as: super shitty way 

  3. I use conversations interchangably with connections since conversations are a primary means of connection. 

  4. This declaration works as a great way to break the reciprocating loop. “Please don’t give me a gift this year, but even if you do, know that I won’t give you one next year!” 

  5. Cleaning them up is automatic too. Your brain just handles it for you.