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?

The Locker Room

YMCA office in (Ulan-Bator) Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
This one's in Mongolia! Image via Wikipedia

I work out and take classes at a local YMCA, which guarantees a wide mix of ages and income levels. A life-long jock, a veteran of boarding school and summer camp, I’m used to being around other people in various stages of undress.

But it’s the naked emotion that often surprises me there, not the glimpses of others’ flesh.

I learn a lot in the locker room and often leave it in a very different mood than when I arrived:

— the mentally disabled children who come to swim, bound up in splints and diapers, laughing and playing with their caregivers

— a diabetic woman my age who needed the EMTs after going into sugar shock

— the woman who casually announced it was her 83d birthday the next day, the one whose vigor and tart wit made me sure she was 20 years younger

— the scars of surgery

— what a woman’s body really looks like in old age

I value the very few places in American culture where little children and people in their 80s or 90s mingle freely, sharing space and ideas. One is church, the other is the Y. I don’t have children or nieces or nephews and lost both my grandmothers when I was 18, so I hunger for cross-generational contact.

A few weeks ago I was worn out, weary of holding it together. A conversation that began in the locker room after swim class with the 83-year-old was, suddenly, the most honest and helpful I’d had with anyone in months…Then we kept talking in the parking lot, even after I burst into embarrassed tears. Her unexpected advice was blunt but kind.

I’m used to being visible physically, not emotionally, a common theme in my life. I tend to keep feelings bottled up, not wanting to burden friends or family who have, of course, their own challenges as well.

I know you change in the locker room. I didn’t know it might be more than your clothes.

When Corporate Kings Go Public — Beware, Meg And Carly!

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Are you familiar with Lucy Kellaway? She’s a much-respected British journo at the Financial Times, whose column on management is a must-read.

She recently tore a wildly successful British businessman a new one, devoting an entire column (ouch!) to his inane pomposity in publishing a book of his “rules”:

Ray Dalio is deluded, insensitive, emotionally illiterate, simplistic, breathtakingly smug, weird and plain wrong.

Harsh words, but I know the founder of one of the world’s most successful hedge funds will welcome them. The Bridgewater chief has just made a list of his top 300 rules for life and number 31 is to write down the weaknesses of others. Number 11 is never to say anything about a person you would not say to them directly, while number 22 is to “get over” fretting about whether comments are positive or negative. All that matters in Dalioland is whether they are accurate or inaccurate.

These rules are contained in the most curious management document I have ever come across. Simply entitled “Principles”, it is being handed out to staff at Bridgewater to help them be as successful as their boss. It is also being passed gleefully from pillar to post on the internet.

I love her taking the piss out of this guy, who probably earns more in the time it took me to post this than I’ll make in my lifetime. Tant pis.

Jack Welch is one of many ex-CEOs who write best-selling books, persuaded  — like this guy — their bons mots are going to transform our miserable lives. If you read business books, and I do, occasionally — as hungry as anyone for smart, helpful advice — you know how many of them are deeply, annoyingly, self-righteously dull, stupid and eagerly swallowed up by people who use “impact” as a verb or say things like “This robust suite of products is mission-critical”.

Just because you’ve “created shareholder value” and made big fat profits for your company doesn’t mean your in-house brilliance will translate to the rest of the world, who are not actually breathlessly awaiting your next PowerPoint. (A lesson Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, both corporate legends now entering the bare-knuckled fray of politics, are learning as well.)

It can come as a terrible shock when those who are not your underlings find your “wisdom” risible.

Which business book did you find a total waste of cash?

Any one you did like?

Ten Things I Learned In The Past Decade

New years eve 2010
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I hope your 2010, and the decade to come, is filled with good things.

Here are a few of the life lessons that hit me upside the head these past few years, some more gently than others:

1) Young ‘uns rule. If you’re older than 35, 45, let alone 50, it’s a good time to get to know, and understand the thinking and relationships and behaviors of, people unrelated to you who are smart, talented, ambitious — and under 30. Maybe not if you’re a civil servant or tenured professor, but in the media, I think so. Even as a manager, it’s your job now to figure out how differently they think and deal effectively with it, whether the use of technology or some radically different ideas of what work is.

My two best professional opportunities arose this past year thanks to meeting two young women, both of them barely out of graduate school, who were working with high-level people they introduced me to. Had I been dismissive or skeptical of their interest, which many older, experienced workers can be, or could have been pre-recession, I’d have missed out.

One of them is fellow Canadian-jock-in-NY, T/S’s Katie Drummond, who heard me speak to her grad school class at NYU, snagged me, and is now one of my under-30 bosses. Reporting to people so much younger than is a little funky at times, but work — now more than ever — is less about titles and degrees and what you’ve done for the past 20 or 30 years, but about collegiality, mutual respect, enthusiasm, shared values.

Some of us older folk also share the “new” values of Gen Y, such as a way to make a living that also allows us the time and energy to enjoy our life. And there’s no way past the ugly truth that age discrimination is thriving. If you’re out of work, sneak in under the skirts of someone fresh(er)-faced.

2) Techno-sabbaths will keep you and your relationships healthy. I’m not an Orthodox Jew, but I admire their strict Sabbath. In an era of cool, sexy, portable toys that buzz, beep, blink, ring, whine and suck us into their orbits 24/7, turn ’em all off! One full day every single week. Very, very few of us need to be available 24/7, to anyone. It’s ego, addiction, boredom. Your kids, partner, co-workers and others — like wait-staff and retail associates trying to serve lots of other people at the same time — will like you more.

Read the fantastic book on this issue, “Distracted” by Maggie Jackson. Then go stare into the sky or at nature, night or day, uninterrupted, for 20 minutes. We are not meant to spend all our days reacting and responding to machinery, no matter how alluring its form.

3) Take gentle, consistent, grateful care of your body. In January 2000, mine started teaching me a lesson I had no interest in learning — it has limits. Excuse me? I’m not invulnerable?

That’s when I had a right knee arthroscopy to remove torn cartilage (the result of playing three squash games a week). December 2001, I had left knee arthroscopy for the same problem. May 2008 offered right shoulder surgery. By December 2009, the left shoulder needed months of physical therapy to avoid another surgery. November 2009, stress fracture of my left foot.

I’m now on a first-name basis with a whole pile of physical therapists, whose praises I sang in a piece for The New York Times. Not exactly what I had in mind.

In the past decade, I’ve also watched more than a dozen people I cared for die, one at 17 of cancer, another at 49, of cancer, one murdered the day after he retired. Life and health are to be treasured.

If you’re young — under 30, say — you’re certain you’ve got your whole life, probably 80+ years’ worth, to eat junk, sleep 4 hours a night, ride a bike without a helmet, binge-drink, have weird/complicated relationships with food, smoke, take all kinds of drugs or share prescription medications with friends. All you need is one bad accident, surgery or months-long injury to get it and get smart(er.)

Women, especially, are socialized to care for everyone but themselves and to focus endless, tedious, narcissistic attention on the size and shape of their bodies. Focus instead on your blood sugar/pressure, heart health, cancer risks, mental health, wearing a facial moisturizer with SPF every single day.

We live, in the U.S. in one of the most brutal and bare-knuckled of capitalist countries: no paid sick leave, little or no paid vacation, 1/3 of the workforce now working freelance or temp or contract — i.e. no paid sick days or vacation, people terrified to disappoint their boss(es) and get fired. Don’t let this larger world shorten your life, as it can and will.

I worked myself, in March 2007, into three days on an IV in a hospital bed with pneumonia. Don’t ever be(come) that person. Save several months’ expenses so when you are ill you can take enough time off, in most cases, to fully recover.

Respect your body for its strengths and be gentle with its weak(er) bits.

4) Mentor and volunteer, wisely. Everyone needs help, at 17, 28, 39, 54. Whenever. Don’t be a doormat and beware of users, but make it a point to help others trying to achieve a goal you admire and share. It’s fun and it builds good karma.

I answered an email about six years ago from a younger writer in D.C. asking advice. Unlike most people who shamelessly ask to “pick my brain”, he immediately offered several extremely valuable, hard-t0-get editor contacts. Which was kind, classy and made me reply right away. He wasn’t, as so many hungry wannabe’s, out to grab and run.

We have since — still never having met face to face — become good friends and colleagues, acting as valuable sounding boards for one another. The book he was then trying to sell became a best-seller. Cool!

I also serve on the board of the 1,400 member American Society of Journalists and Authors and am a trustee for the Writers’ Emergency Assistance Fund, which gives grants of $5,000 quickly to qualified writers in need.

Find a cause, or several, that matter deeply to you and make a commitment to giving back.

5) Publishing a book will not, despite people’s fantasies to the contrary, change your life. Everyone thinks it will. They want it to. You want it to. Your agent or publisher, maybe less so. They’re been around that block many times before. Don’t assume you’ll get on “Oprah” or even get reviewed anywhere.

If you’re lucky, and/or persistent, and the book has some lasting value, you will find a community of its fans. That’s a lovely thing. Nurture them.

If it does change your life in any significant way, say a huge thank you to whatever deity — or non-deity — you pray to. You are extremely fortunate. Now, go help someone else achieve this; see Lesson Number Four.

6) You can find a decent guy/woman on the Internet. In March 2000, a man in Brooklyn saw my profile on aol.com and wrote me a letter.  Like me, he was a workaholic, ambitious career news journalist, someone who lives to eat, drink, listen to music, take photos, travel. We would never ever have met otherwise, even though we both worked for the Times, he staff, me freelance.

I was, officially, writing a story about on-line dating — then declasse, secret, scary — for the now-defunct women’s magazine, Mademoiselle. We’ve been together ever since.

7) Taking risks is essential to growth. The most terrifying choice — of man/woman, job/career, pet(s), kid(s), re-training, new city, town or country, the fellowship or grant you’re sure you’ll never win, leaving the man or woman or boss who abuses you, the athletic challenge that looks impossible — go for it! Be selective and smart about it, but if nothing you’re working on or with ever makes you a little nervous or anxious, in a good way, you’re stagnant.

8) Your dream job/man/woman/home may prove to be a nightmare. You’ll survive.

9) Being broke, (short of losing your home and health), is annoying as hell but it won’t kill you. I am not talking about severe, chronic poverty, but the nasty fiscal dive so many of us have taken in the past two years — and in the recessions of 2003 and 1990. I’ve watched my income plummet by three-quarters on a few occasions. Not fun!

I live near New York City, where simply driving my Mom to the airport in the summer of 2008 snapped my last nerve after paying an insane $13 in tolls and parking for 15 minutes. Not including gas. Enough already!

Live as far below your means as you can tolerate, adding luxury and pleasures when and where they are affordable; read The Millionaire Next Door, published in 1998, for advice and inspiration on avoiding dangerous peer or family pressure to “keep up”.  Health insurance, safe housing and healthy food are necessities. Cable TV, cellphones, a gym membership, new clothes (short of underwear or socks) are not.

Being broke, even for a few weeks or months, offers a powerful, unavoidable opportunity to sort out your priorities and values, let alone prompt a come-to-Jesus conversation with your partner/spouse/family of origin/kids.

Don’t attach your entire ego to your job title, profession or career. If you have to leave them behind, what (else) will provide you with your sense of self-worth and value?

10) A balanced life includes nurturing your mind, body, soul, heart, friends, family and community. It’s not a zero-sum game. Think of yourself not as a two-sided scale, but a multi-faceted gemstone like a diamond, one that needs to gleam.

I weary to nausea of “balance” conversations. It’s life. It’s your life. It’s your only life. If you need someone to do more of, (even some of), their share of the cleaning, grocery shopping, housework, picking up their dirty laundry — delegate. Insist. Insist again.

Little kids, let alone teens, need to learn that Mom (or, less frequently, Dad) doesn’t mean “slave” in some foreign tongue. If you do always feel like a weary slave to your domestic environment, job or location, consider quitting, moving, downscaling and buying/owning fewer things that need care, feeding, dusting, polishing. Your only life is getting shorter by the minute.

Even if you don’t have kids, you likely have a kajillion other commitments, certainly in a lousy economy with little relief in sight. The word “no” is useful, short, easily said. You can still be a generous and giving person and carve out time for yourself. Do you really need everyone to rely on you being indispensable all the time — or could you, even a few nights a week, instead flop into bed at 9:00 pm. and enjoy a full eight hours’ sleep?

If you don’t take deliberate and consistent care of your own needs, whether for privacy, silence, worship, dawdling, doodling, canoodling, doing nothing, you’ll burn out and become a monster. No one likes a martyr.

Make a list, today, of 10 affordable, accessible activities (no, not Paris) that make you really, really happy. How often do you do them?

Have a Happy New Year  — and great decade!

Old(er) Women And Sex — With Or Without A Partner

Lamplit bedroom
Wherever works...Image by *Susie* via Flickr

Congrats to California writer Joan Price, whose website, which focuses on older women and sexuality, has just been named one of the top 100 sex bloggers. She’s a fellow member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, (on whose board I serve), a recent widow, and a fearless writer on sex and sexuality for women over 50. Yes, women over 50 have sex.

Recent blog posts include her rave review, with color photos, of the Snow Bunny, a sex toy – “no cervix battering!” — and a new book of women’s erotica. Typical of Joan, who’s as openly sensitive above the shoulders as below the waist, she also blogged recently about the loss of her beloved husband, Robert whom she met while line-dancing.

She’s now working on a new book, Naked At Our Age, and seeks people to interview who are ages 50 to 80 and currently celibate, whether happily so or not.