What do people want most? Philosophers have tried and failed to settle the question; would-be heads of state hazard guesses at each new electoral cycle; inventors, designers, and entrepreneurs lose sleep every night trying to crack it. And whenever the holidays roll around, that existential question gets personal: What do the people closest to me want? Then, despairingly, what can I, no philosopher, president, or inventor, possibly give to make them happy?
For this year’s gift guide, we asked 40 people we admire to tell us the best gift they ever received. Their answers range from simple (author Junot Diaz’s origami, philosopher Peter Singer’s plum tree) to grand (astronaut Chris Hadfield’s racecar driving lessons, news anchor Katie Couric’s piano), to entirely unique (designer James Dyson’s half-Mini Cooper, Virgin founder Richard Branson’s grandchildren).
On its own, this guide may not be a useful shopping list. But we noticed a few trends that might help you out this holiday season. One is that the memorableness of each gift usually had little to do with the ticket price. Another is that not a single person told us they wanted their gift before they received it. In fact, several “best gifts” were described as life-changing revelations: Books and introductions to other people figure prominently in this category.
As Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson writes in the preface, the best gifts are “like roman candles, giving light and wonder to our lives.” In other words, perhaps the best gifts aren’t what people want at all, but light with a flash some new perspective—and lead to new and better questions.