Six Reasons I Might Not Help You

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I really enjoy helping people — to connect with one another, get jobs, get better jobs, meet a sweetie. I tend to do this automatically and have for many years.

But I recently turned someone down who came to me for help.

I’m done having my generous goodwill taken for granted.

If someone has turned you down for help or mentoring or advice, (and you don’t understand why) maybe it’s one of these:

The person who referred me to you hasn’t treated me well.

Just because you know someone who knows me doesn’t mean I automatically want to help you (i.e. helping them out.) The quality and longevity of my relationship with the person who referred you to me is what counts — because you’re a total stranger to me.  Your referring friend knows, (even if you don’t), this is as much of a favor to them.

Why, if at all, do I owe them (and you) my help?

You asked to “pick my brain.”

It’s taken me more than three decades of unrelenting hard work, surviving three recessions — (while some of you were still in diapers!) — to accumulate these skills, experience and contacts. Asking someone this question is rude and disrespectful. I charge up to $200/hour for my skills. You get what you pay for.

Here’s a recent Forbes blog post on the same issue. It surely hit a nerve, with 3,000 Facebook shares.

You didn’t even acknowledge that asking for my unpaid time is a favor.

Because it is. Your unpaid use of my time costs me income.

You asked me for information that is quickly and easily accessible elsewhere.

I don’t help people I perceive as lazy, no matter how charming they are.

You offered nothing in exchange or access to potential clients.

Epic fail!

I was approached about a decade ago, (not at all unusual), by a writer in another city I didn’t know who needed advice about writing and selling his first book.  In that first email, he also offered to put me in touch with some of his valued editorial contacts that might lead to paid work for me down the line.  We’ve since become good friends. He got it.

In contrast, a few years ago, another total stranger  — another young man, but this time with no ties in common — asked for my help getting started as a photographer. I made introductions to a few very powerful and connected professional contacts, the sort he could only dream of.

Now that he’s thriving, (and good for him!), a thank-you note or flowers would be nice. I had no expectation of that, but anyone who chooses to share some of their skills or contacts is giving you a gift.  Don’t just grab and run!

You didn’t follow though.

The person whose behavior prompted this post took the time to write me a long email asking for help. I took the time to write back and told her my fees.

I never heard from this person again.

Do you really want help?  If you want something badly enough to ask for it in the first place, why waste my time by walking away after I respond (not necessarily exactly as you had hoped)?

If you mentor, do you care what happens after you help someone out?

Has someone you helped come back to thank you or return your generosity?

20 thoughts on “Six Reasons I Might Not Help You

  1. Marlo Heresco

    Yes, yes and yes! I hear ya! My limited experience has taught me that most people want $100 of work for $10….or for free if they can get it. I recently did a ‘favor’ for an acquaintance which entailed taking over a financial contract they could no longer afford. During the course of that year I faithfully made the monthly payments on time, from which they now enjoy a perfect credit score. I did, in all fairness, enjoy the use of that contract, however, I never once received a thank you for bailing them out their sticky situation.

    Not more than two months ago I hand picked 27 intelligent and well-traveled ladies from my list of people for advice on a magazine article I wanted to pitch. Not one of them responded. After some gentle investigation I learned that my writing successes had surpassed their expectations to the sting of two other ladies who continue to experience difficulty in getting their writing career off the ground. They have lived here twice as long as I have. A handful of these same ladies continue to come to me each month for help. In an attempt to be a slightly bigger person, I provide it to them in minimal or ‘useless’ doses, answering questions extremely sparingly.

    Much like you I have put my heart and soul into learning what I need to know. This has been accomplished through enormous personal and social sacrifices. No one has yet to throw a ‘success overnight’ manual my way filled with tips, tricks and contact names. I am now as reluctant to offer my help, as I am to ask for it.

    1. I belong to a writers’ group, the ASJA (which you might consider joining), and we are generally really generous with one another — but that’s also because we all have to clear a certain bar to gain admission; i.e. they’re not rank newbies who will drive you nuts with basic questions or screw up your contacts with editors if you make a referral.

      I think women expect one another to be helpful and it’s a lovely personal quality. But we are not equally taught (where? by whom?) to be protective of our hard-won skills.

      I raised my consulting/editing rates by 50 percent in this recession. People either pay it happily knowing they are getting good value (as they tell me later) — or they disappear quickly. Works for me!

  2. Geeze! What if I promise to give great conversation during the ride? For you see, I am but a poor writer, struggling in this cruel world. Every day, I am rejected. Will you not reach out and rescue me from the rain? Can compassion be bought? Nay, I think not!

  3. Roger that! I guess I’ll have to pay. Actually, I’m terrible at conversation and small talk. I would rather write it down and pass it along like a love note in class. As to your original post, I have reached an age where I feel my mentoring is more important than any payment or even a thanks. Sure, an offer to pay and a sincere thanks is always nice, but right now, I just want people to honor our wonderful language and write well. So, we’re in different places. When I was a youth, like you, I felt like you did. Now, as the few hairs I have left, gray, I just want to pass along what I have learned and hope that someone will listen. Dan

  4. I understand about the money. As soon as I feel I have enough so my wife and I can keep sand between our toes, a cold Corona in my hand and a cold margarita in hers, I’ll be retiring. My needs are simple: a good wife, a warm breeze, a cold beer, a well-written book and a waterproof keyboard.

  5. Many people who have been in management positions and have had to directly supervise people plus mentor them, will (as I have) experience the lack of thanks or acknowledgement later.

  6. Many people just don’t get the basic concept of quid pro quo. Reciprocity makes the world go around. At the very least it’s good manners. I find I have to quell my desire to be helpful if it even faintly looks like I am being taken advantage of, or someone is acting self-interestedly. The radar has become finely attuned, that’s for sure 🙂

    1. Interesting that some people simply don’t get it. They are rude or ignorant, but it doesn’t mean I have to help them.

      I’m not always insistent on direct or immediate reciprocity. If I know someone to be generous and of good character, I help them because I know they will help someone else…karma. It’s worked out that way for me over decades. I believe we need to help one another and we are all, really, self-interested. As long as you are willing to share your good fortune with someone else after I’ve helped you…or with me…Entitlement makes me crazy.

  7. I find myself periodically approached by tyre-kickers. Companies or even individuals who have a corporate history or writing project in mind and want my professional services for it… maybe. But then it turns out all they want is free advice – drawing on my qualifications, position in the field, and thirty-odd years experience. I get two or three of them a year – approaches, time put into meeting them, working up something to answer their questions, all at my cost in time and resource – and then (on the latest occasion, involving a law firm’s history) not even a thank-you or return call.

    I draw distinction between these ‘Mr Wright, can we over-draw on your good will and expertise’ approaches and the more genuine ones in which I am prepared to put in time in the reasonable expectation that it will result in paid work or a commission at the end of it. Part of the problem, I think, is that professional writing and journalism is not perceived, outside that field, in financial terms – it is looked on as an amateur or enthusiast hobby in which time can be given freely.

    Matthew Wright

    1. With all due respect, the only way to ensure that writing and journalism are seen as (which they are) income-producing full-time employment for many of us is to educate our clients and set sufficiently high fees they never mistake what we do for some cute hobby. My corporate rate is $200/hr and I do not hesitate to quote it. People pay it — or they go away. Their choice.

      I also charge for any consultation of more than 20 minutes or so. This, of course, can vary based on your cost of living and financial goals…I am writing this after parking my car in a Manhattan garage for barely 2.5 hours — and got slammed with a $46 (!!) fee. No one can afford to give their time away and live here.

  8. But do you think that the people who don’t have the capacity to understand what you are giving, in terms of time and life experience. Are the people unable to make use of the help. Or feel they should be where you are, because, ‘by damn they are as good as you.’

    I don’t mind helping people, but I expect respect for what I can do. Doesn’t need to be money, food and wine work for me.


    1. Good point. Sometimes it’s people who are spoiled and think everything should just be handed to them because…they want it. I have no patience for that.

      I have a pretty good sense now when someone will make good use of what I offer. But charging for my time solves all these questions — what they do with my skills is moot; at least I have been paid for them.

      Food and wine are pleasant, (I agree!), but NYC-area life is punishingly expensive and we are not going to move. So I have had to become much more sparing with my “free” advice if we are ever to make economic progress.

  9. kmstoffel

    Love this post (and comments). I think if you’re good at something never do it for free. Sure if it’s a really good cause, help out, but certainly don’t get taken advantage of. Having recently graduated with a English/Creative Writing degree I find inexperience being a huge fault in today’s work-world.

    It really irks me to think of times I helped a friend editing or work-shopping a paper with I could have charged and marked it as experience. Instead I did a womanly favor to a girlfriend, or because I don’t have “marketable skills” like software development people think my knowledge shouldn’t cost them money.

    For someone with as much experience as you have I would definitely be a bit wary of doling out free advice.

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