The risk of helping others

In my career, I have mentored a few people. I was glad to do it. Deep down inside I feel obliged to “pay it forward”. After all, I didn’t earn all of my answers the hard way. Maybe only a few of them. Several were given to me from wiser people than myself. It was very generous of them and I am thankful. Therefore, when I find someone who is in need of advice (and willing to accept it too), I help as much as I can.

Throughout my career, I have come in contact with a few people who were opposed-to helping others. They refused to help others, or even cooperate with them. Occasionally, they might seem cooperative, but only when it was for their own benefit. Personally, I find that kind of attitude, to be despicable. I don’t like to work with people like that.

Of course, after several years of mentoring people, I eventually was assigned the unpleasant task of mentoring and managing a selfish person (as described above). It required a bit of soul searching. I really didn’t want to mentor someone who would hoard the knowledge and refuse to pay it forward. However, my boss and company required it from me. So I did it.

Once I (mentally) accepted it and overcame my distain, I did the best job that I could. As I mentored that person, I occasionally asked questions about his reluctance to help others, in an effort to understand it. Here is what I found.

People who refuse to help others usually do so because of a few motives:

  1. “I don’t see the benefit to myself”
  2. The belief that helping others, will somehow subtract something from yourself
  3. Some people are overly competitive. Helping another person, will simply help the competition to surpass you and thereby, lessen your own relative value.
  4. I’ve heard the claim that helping others, will cause others to become dependent on you. Therefore theoretically, it would be in the best-interests of others, if they learned to solve their own problems.
  5. When someone asks for your help, this could be a Tom Sawyer style plot, to get you to do their work. Certainly, you have enough of your own work to do, without also doing the work of others (for their benefit, and not yours).
  6. “No one helps me. Why should I help others?”
  7. “I do not get paid to help others. If I must help others, then I should be paid more.”

Some of these seemed like misplaced paranoia, some seemed short sighted, some were downright selfish and counter-productive and the rest were total BS. You can’t honestly believe that helping others will make them dependent on you, to their detriment. That is totally horse-hockey.

Of course, it all seemed so ironic, as I was mentoring a person like that. Right? Why I was helping him? How was [me helping him], going to benefit me? I waited for him to ask me that question. He never did. I wish he would have. Surely, he must have wondered about this. Perhaps he was convinced that I was only doing this to make him dependent on me, (to his detriment). Bwahaha!

It took a while, but eventually this guy was somehow able to see the benefit of helping others. In fact, today he is even a public speaker and does presentations for programming clubs. Of course, he always passes-around a lot of business cards and picks up almost as many as he gives-out. Still, he doesn’t charge a fee at the door. He has to count on word-of-mouth and general good-will to make a buck via follow-on work. He certainly seems to have figured it out, because he seems to do pretty well for himself.

Occasionally, I wonder if he looks back at me and sees that he has surpassed me in his career. Then, does he realize that it was only by his own hard work and not because I gave-away my mojo, or he took it from me. I don’t think his success has reduced my value at all. I get paid the same (or more) as a result of mentoring him. Given the chance, I would do it all again.

As for, the risk of helping others, I’d say that you are only exposed to risk, if you give away your knowledge and never accumulate any more. If that is the case, then I think your value will decay eventually, regardless of your interaction with others. You are better-off investing in yourself AND others.

About Tim Golisch

I'm a geek. I do geeky things.
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