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Why I Quit Being So Accommodating
December 27, 2012 8:01 AM   Subscribe

Why I Quit Being So Accommodating. This is the story of a man who found out what it was costing him, his family, and his business career, to let himself be a universal Good Fellow, at the beck of and call of every Tom, Dick and Harry who wanted him to do a favour.
posted by zoo (98 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

 
Extreme wimp becomes extreme jerk. Middle ground nowhere to be found. Film at 11.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:06 AM on December 27, 2012 [16 favorites]


These kinds of sweeping personality change decisions should really be only made during or after psychedelic visionary sessions.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:14 AM on December 27, 2012 [22 favorites]


What, I'm supposed to read this just because you asked me to?
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:20 AM on December 27, 2012 [32 favorites]


Extreme wimp becomes extreme jerk. Middle ground nowhere to be found. Film at 11.

Let me guess: you didn't read this article. The writer says he now gives more money to charity than he did before, that he's "helped more young men find positions" (it was 1922) in the previous year than any year before, that he's taken in a nephew and is helping him pay for his college education. He just learned to set some boundaries, to prioritize his responsibilities, and to say no to those requests that are too low priority or are from those who ought to be taking more responsibility for themselves.
posted by orange swan at 8:21 AM on December 27, 2012 [43 favorites]


Actually, I liked the article. And, hardware stores are waaaaaaaaaay more work than most people realize. I'm speaking from experience.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:22 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I dunno. It seems like he whizzed straight past, "I'm sorry, that won't be possible," to, "There are 47 percent of the people ... who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims." In spirit, if not in action.
posted by supercres at 8:23 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I stopped buying pickup trucks and now nobody asks me to help them move couches.
posted by bondcliff at 8:23 AM on December 27, 2012 [43 favorites]


People never trust an accommodating man with important things.

This is actually a good lesson to learn. "Accommodating" is often in tension with "effective." I thought the article was pretty good, too.
posted by gauche at 8:23 AM on December 27, 2012 [9 favorites]


That said, I liked it. As a lesson in how and why one shouldn't be a doormat, rather than a lesson in world outlook, though.
posted by supercres at 8:24 AM on December 27, 2012


Heh. Reading too much Weird Fiction from the 20s and 30s has trained me to expect Yog Sothoth to show up.

Was he visited by three ghosts?
posted by Artw at 8:25 AM on December 27, 2012


Balance and priorities are a good thing. That and prudence. Noted.
posted by cross_impact at 8:27 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Man figures out doormats get walked upon. News at 11.
posted by Aquaman at 8:29 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


The tone of this piece reminded me of How to Win Friends and Influence People. I never finished that book. I don't think friends are to be won, nor people to be influenced.

On the other hand, I've been a doormat for most of my life, which probably colors that belief with learned helplessness.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:29 AM on December 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


Except for one or two good friendships and a little social polish, which I needed badly, I doubt whether my college experience added much to my equipment for success.

Same as it ever was.
posted by Gin and Comics at 8:31 AM on December 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think this story should ring familiar with anyone who's tried freelancing as an artist or musician. At some point, you need to take the 'r' out of free, and get some respect.
posted by hanoixan at 8:41 AM on December 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


I started to say that blue_beetle wasn't to be blamed for not reading that entire article, but I didn't want to sound pissy. :-)

Yes, that line about accommodating people not being trusted is the best line of the article. There's a lot in that piece about the dream of owning a small business, and the mythology about that small town hardware and drug store and how nice everyone was to each other back then. Speaking from experience as a recovering small business owner (and somewhat of a doormat at times, although I've never been as bad off as this guy describes himself).

People used to expect the world of the small merchants they dealt with, they threw them over their collective shoulder the minute the Buy-N-Larges arrived with their lower prices, and now they bitch about the poor service they receive at the big box when they go to check out merchandise before buying it on line. Kinda like how people can't understand why there aren't middle-class jobs anymore...

The irony, it is rich, like the coffee which was the only thing people were buying from the Barnes and Nobles before they started closing too.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:55 AM on December 27, 2012 [20 favorites]


The article's a long way of putting it, but the basic premise is true.

There is no advantage in being a doormat. You don't even do more "good" as a doormat. Doormats are unpaid personal assistants for jerks. It's often hard to learn how to say no and how to pick and choose what you want to do, but ultimately everyone is better off for having clear boundaries.

I don't think friends are to be won, nor people to be influenced.

You may not "win" friends in the same way that you can win fabulous prizes by being the ninth caller, but it's a common enough phrase. It's not as if anyone actually "makes" friends, either, unless you're Dr. Frankenstein.

As for not wanting to influence people, I'm at a loss for words. Are you saying that there has been literally no moment in time where you have ever wanted anyone on the planet to see something in another way?

It's been a long time since I've read How to Win Friends and Influence People, but I don't remember anything unseemly or dishonest in it. Just stuff like, let people talk about themselves, listen to them, ask questions, relate to them, don't needlessly correct people, things like that.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:59 AM on December 27, 2012 [27 favorites]


Worst two years of my working life were when I bent over backwards trying to help a key client who was extremely demanding on limited resources. End of that two years I was burnt out and got an awful performance review. Swore I'd never work that hard again and stopped covering for lack of resources; I started getting rave reviews and got promoted. Go figure.

TL;DR what cross_impact said.
posted by arcticseal at 9:02 AM on December 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


Mefites don't read the fucking article. Snark ensues. Film at 11.
posted by slogger at 9:03 AM on December 27, 2012 [17 favorites]


[Folks, we're not against snark but snarking-before-reading is less awesome and something entirely within your control.]
posted by jessamyn at 9:13 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am convinced that indiscriminate charity, whether one gives money or time — which is life itself — merely pauperizes the recipients. The business and social world are full of respectable panhandlers, who will take and take and take, just as long as they can find anyone to give. I gave to them for years, at the expense of those who had a far better claim upon my generosity. I am still willing to help any man who honestly needs help. But as for the strong, perfectly well, and perfectly capable human beings who have chosen to ride through the world on someone else’s back, they will have to look for another beast of burden. They can buy their own theatre tickets, write their own letters of introduction, make their own hotel reservations, use somebody else’s office instead of mine for their engagements, and borrow money from the banks which are in business to lend.

And, finally, I am persuaded that no one ever achieves anything worth-while in this world unless he has so great a respect for his work that he compels all other men to respect it.

these things come and go. in a society where everything is trying to be the great gatsby, climbing to the top on the backs of others, do you bend your back for someone on the way up or start climbing to where you think you deserve to be? when everyone's trying to make it to the top there's always a market for "objectivism."

where was the author of this essay after 1929?
posted by ennui.bz at 9:14 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Mefites use a lazy cliche to sarcastically indicate a lack of surprise. Film at 11.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:14 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Except for one or two good friendships and a little social polish, which I needed badly, I doubt whether my college experience added much to my equipment for success.

Same as it ever was.


Too true. People back then, like people now, didn't know how to take advantage of a great environment.
posted by DU at 9:15 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Extreme wimp becomes extreme jerk. Middle ground nowhere to be found. Film at 11.

Ooh, is the film Blackadder's Christmas Carol?
posted by Sys Rq at 9:22 AM on December 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


MeFites point out use of common tropes. This is my shocked face.

That said, lots of "new wisdom" from 90 years ago is going to seem pretty corny and simplistic to us jet-setting future-types.

I think sometimes it's easy to take the body of accumulated knowledge we have available to us for granted.

(Although, interestingly, the word "doormat" has been used in that sense since about the 1860s.)
posted by Aquaman at 9:22 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


For everyone who dashed in to comment without reading the whole thing:

I am afraid some reader may imagine that from being a good-natured friend of humanity I became all at once an unobliging and purely self-centered individual. That, I am sure, is not the case. I am giving away more money to-day in various sorts of charities than at any previous period of my life. I have helped more young men to find positions in the past year than in any previous year. I have added two invalids to my permanent roll of pensioners, and taken on a nephew whose college expenses I am helping to defray. I am not a dried-up, inhuman wretch. But I have made the big important shift in my life, just the same. I control my charities now; they do not control me. I am master of my time; it is not wasted wantonly among a thousand thoughtless folks. And while I find ways to do more than ever for those who really deserve help — the young, the sick, and the bereaved — I no longer allow myself to be sacrificed by the selfish demands of those who are perfectly able to take care of themselves.

My feeling is that he's right -- we all have limited time/energy as well as money, and it makes sense to be as discriminating with the time we have as with the funds we possess. But Lord, he takes a long time to make this rather straightforward point. And I'll add that I think he also spent too much time and energy musing about and justifying his decision to say no to the people he's rightfully decided not to accommodate.
posted by bearwife at 9:26 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


In my building the people who pay the rent on time are shit on by the landlord. The people who don't pay the rent on time get new bathrooms and any issues in their place handled in a timely fashion. It's an upside down world.
posted by juiceCake at 9:32 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


My feeling is that he's right -- we all have limited time/energy as well as money, and it makes sense to be as discriminating with the time we have as with the funds we possess. But Lord, he takes a long time to make this rather straightforward point.

But it's just saying: if I take the devil's offer, if I look to my own advantage rather than to help others, then I will have the power and wealth to change the world. There are some problems with that idea... what happens if everyone is trying to make it to the top so that later they can help people below them?

(Mind you, I think there's reason to take the devil's other offer: knowledge)
posted by ennui.bz at 9:32 AM on December 27, 2012


I'm pretty amazed that this was written as long ago as 1922. I remember a book The Nice Factor setting out the same sort of message in the 1990s, as a self help book, with, I think, a range of classes you could go to to teach you how not to be so nice.
posted by DanCall at 9:33 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


bearwife: (and others): But Lord, he takes a long time to make this rather straightforward point.

It's an essay from the Atlantic, ferchrissakes. That's what that type of magazine does.
posted by PMdixon at 9:35 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I suspect that after taking out personal ads in the local newspaper this guy became the subject of a series of satirical cartoons in The Tumbler.
posted by Artw at 9:36 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


arcticseal: Swore I'd never work that hard again and stopped covering for lack of resources; I started getting rave reviews and got promoted. Go figure.

How did you compensate in the eyes of management for not performing all the heroics that you were known for previously? Once you set the expectation of being a team player (however thats defined), it's tough to back away from that.
posted by dr_dank at 9:42 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


People never trust an accommodating man with important things

Worth noting.
posted by chavenet at 9:44 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


You may not "win" friends in the same way that you can win fabulous prizes by being the ninth caller

Speak for yourself. I've acquired all of my friends through call-in radio shows.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:45 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


As for not wanting to influence people, I'm at a loss for words. Are you saying that there has been literally no moment in time where you have ever wanted anyone on the planet to see something in another way?

I didn't mean that I didn't want to change people's minds. I meant that I didn't think their minds could be changed. And I ended my post by implying that this belief was founded on the sand of learned helplessness rather than the tough soil of observation and practice.

To clarify: I think I should finish the book, however much I dislike its folksy tone and its Elk-lodge worldview.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:48 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I liked it and think it rings true. Nobody respects the doormat, and the doormat will NEVER get ahead. I enjoy helping people out, but their request needs to be worth my time, which is my most important thing.
posted by zombieApoc at 9:51 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


One of the first comments is from "Ayn Rand" and is word for word what you'd expect an impressionable someone who just read Atlas Shrugged to write. The first response to it is perfect.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:55 AM on December 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


But it's just saying: if I take the devil's offer, if I look to my own advantage rather than to help others, then I will have the power and wealth to change the world. There are some problems with that idea... what happens if everyone is trying to make it to the top so that later they can help people below them?

I didn't get the sense that the piece's author was "building up" his time like that, though. He's just managing his time better on a day-by-day basis. Since he no longer feels the need to drop everything and give specific performance whenever anyone asks, he can manage better what he's actually able to accomplish, and he can decide for himself whom to help and how.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:55 AM on December 27, 2012


I dunno. The most accommodating people I know at my place of work keep getting entrusted with the most important things, as did I before I decided that those kinds of important things weren't worth it to me. Different workplaces are different.
posted by Peach at 9:55 AM on December 27, 2012


It's an essay from the Atlantic, ferchrissakes. That's what that type of magazine does.

It's from The American Magazine, and it's what that type of magazine did 90 years ago. And generally, a decorated, cirumlocutory style in writing was very much the norm in American writing in that period. In fact this piece is positively blunt for its day.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:01 AM on December 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


if I take the devil's offer, if I look to my own advantage rather than to help others,

No, the question isn't whether to help others, it is who to help. I think it is to the advantage of all the "others" to think about who really needs help, versus who is simply used to getting other people to do what they'd like done instead of doing it themselves.

I think if we're worried about catering too much to the devil's wishes, maybe we should consider that a) a lot of people who demand help are often those who neither really need nor deserve it and b) focusing on them distracts us from those who do.
posted by bearwife at 10:04 AM on December 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Every doormat I know is a resentful and bitter person behind the scenes. They feel put-upon and persecuted and don't see that they do it to themselves. It's really hard to respect someone like that. I'd much rather deal with someone who maintains boundaries, even if they aren't as "generous," because I always know where I stand and there aren't any passive-aggressive time bombs.
posted by desjardins at 10:05 AM on December 27, 2012 [25 favorites]


Right. In a way, the story here is "Dude improves his life by learning what the real social rules are in his corner of the world."

The outline here is super common: "Everyone insists that they operate according to Rule X (which sounds pleasant and virtuous according to the standards of their culture). Really you can explain people's actual behavior much better by invoking Rule Y (which sounds too nasty or weird for them to actually own up to). But some people just go blindly along following Rule X like they were told, and only an incredibly close friend in a moment of extreme stress and candor will be willing to correct them."

It's just that the values of X and Y vary in different places and times.
posted by and so but then, we at 10:07 AM on December 27, 2012 [11 favorites]


I may be psychologizing -- and it's interesting that this is something we do today routinely and it's evident back then not so much -- but I had to wonder about how his father's influence and the difficulties of his childhood played into his adult relationships. Often as not children recapitulate the mistakes of their parents as repudiate them, and it seems that was much the case here. There's also the fairly obvious transference of parental responsibility to his friend.

Anyway, I can hear what he's saying. I basically gave a relative a good six months of free rent in one of my apartments because they were more and more erratic paying me, possibly thinking I could never evict a relative with a small child -- but I sure as hell can if the alternative is not paying the mortgage (or having money for surgery for the dog). I never wanted to rent to a relative in the first place, but through a long chain of circumstance it happened, and I've just had that lesson confirmed. People do take advantage and sometimes being "accommodating" in the language of the author/era is something that advantage-takers are skilled at probing for. To add insult to injury, these are also (alas) the people who are most likely, after having received multiple months of free living quarters, to report you to the city for every minor infraction.

I remember a book The Nice Factor setting out the same sort of message in the 1990s

Well, my experience of this was the rather large (in its social-media-less time) furor over the 1978^ book Looking Out for #1. There's probably something like this for every generation, in its own language, so to speak.

One of the first comments is from "Ayn Rand" and is word for word what you'd expect an impressionable someone who just read Atlas Shrugged to write.

Smelled like Poe's Law to me.

In fact this piece is positively blunt for its day.

Indeed it is. It's quite interesting that it's unsigned.

Anyway, I really really tire of people here on MeFi -- the more erudite and well-read end of the web -- being astonished at magazine writing as if it's some sort of genetically modified alien from outer space. My God! They're armed with metaphors! It's a fine tradition, particularly American, and should be encouraged instead of snarked at in this day and age of 140-character insights.
posted by dhartung at 10:10 AM on December 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


It's been a long time since I've read How to Win Friends and Influence People, but I don't remember anything unseemly or dishonest in it. Just stuff like, let people talk about themselves, listen to them, ask questions, relate to them, don't needlessly correct people, things like that.

I totally agree. How to Win Friends... struck me as an eminently practical book. Unlike so many of today's self-help books, it manages to be concise and insightful. I learned some very useful stuff from just perusing it. As a young man, I thought that I had to impress people to get them to like me and find me interesting; unfortunately, most of the time, that approach just made me tiresome. From Carnegie's book, I learned how important it was to be interested in order to be interesting. I still have to occasionally stop and remind myself of this fact, but it's stuck with me over the years and served me well every time I follow this dictum.
posted by Edgewise at 10:16 AM on December 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


I say old chap, methinks your jolly good old article was written perchance, nigh unto 2346 fortnights thence.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:19 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


He makes a lot of good points, most of which are still entirely evergreen and pertinent. But he was raised and trained to be that way due to an unfortunate collision of parental temperament and family business. It never occurred to him to question or oppose that until he was fully adult and facing the concrete consequences of doormatting your life.

I think every child is heavily influenced by the atmosphere of their childhood, and most of us throw off some of the negative aspects of that once we grok that [CHILDHOOD THING] shouldn't necessarily determine our lives... which is what happened here.

But I'll also say that the sort of "pathology" that he had to overcome is exactly the sort of thing that women historically have had to negotiate, except for most of that time without any outside affirmation (and few visible examples) that rejecting the "good woman" trap was a sane and healthful response to a draining, exhausting, ultimately self-defeating and profoundly unhappy existence based on unrealistic and self-serving expectations that others happily and self-righteously set for you.

Setting boundaries is an excellent, excellent skill for everyone to acquire as early as possible.
posted by taz at 10:21 AM on December 27, 2012 [15 favorites]


It's been a long time since I've read How to Win Friends and Influence People, but I don't remember anything unseemly or dishonest in it. Just stuff like, let people talk about themselves, listen to them, ask questions, relate to them, don't needlessly correct people, things like that.

The book is such an old chestnut that it gets underestimated and unfairly dismissed. However, do not apply its recommendations too literally. For instance, I would not advise that you indiscriminately approach others with the words, "My! What lovely hair you have!", even if it is true. If you're, say, a man approaching another man in a bar, it could lead to your getting beaten up.
posted by orange swan at 10:28 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


a decorated, cirumlocutory style in writing was very much the norm in American writing in that period.

I, too, am a bit disappointed that so many mefites interpret this essay as a long-winded way of making a simple point. The journey's as important as the destination, if not more so. It's not so much the conclusions he came to that are interesting as the way he got there and the details along the way. For example, I found the episode of the long conversation with his old friend after he got shafted for the VP job very engaging. It would have been the easiest and "nicest" thing for Joe to give his friend the job but it would probably not have been good for the business or Joe or the writer or their families and customers. There's another message: sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.
posted by binturong at 10:31 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


When the journey is down a gravel road in a model A, it can get tiresome.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:35 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]



No, the question isn't whether to help others, it is who to help. I think it is to the advantage of all the "others" to think about who really needs help, versus who is simply used to getting other people to do what they'd like done instead of doing it themselves.

I think if we're worried about catering too much to the devil's wishes, maybe we should consider that a) a lot of people who demand help are often those who neither really need nor deserve it and b) focusing on them distracts us from those who do.


Like I said, I think that's pretty much the opposite of Christian charity... it's why the author has to throw in Jesus at the end as cover: for you and for you, but not you; you don't deserve it?

Contrast that with the Bishop in Les Miserables: does he give the thief what he has stolen because he deserves it?

Read what the author is saying here:
He’s the nicest fellow in the world, and when you have said that you have praised him and condemned him in the same breath. He is everybody’s friend to such an extent that he is a very poor friend to himself. It was written a long time ago that no man can serve two masters. Bert, in his good-natured way, is trying to serve a thousand.
He *is* really saying, you have to look out for yourself, "serve yourself," before you look out for others and as a moral principle that stinks.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:43 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


How did you compensate in the eyes of management for not performing all the heroics that you were known for previously?

I found I was able to use the time more effectively on projects that actually added value rather than time sucking maintenance/housekeeping issues. We eventually disengaged the client I mentioned for several years as there was no pleasing them despite throwing additional resources at them.
posted by arcticseal at 10:45 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a fine tradition, particularly American, and should be encouraged instead of snarked at in this day and age of 140-character insights.

You might enjoy longform.
posted by Rykey at 10:45 AM on December 27, 2012


Was he visited by three ghosts?
The only episode I remember of the short-lived George Burns Comedy Week on CBS was Christmas Carol II - The Sequel, the premise of which was that Ebenezer Scrooge had become so insufferably nice and generous that he was driving everyone crazy, and the spirits are brought in again to push him back in the other direction.
posted by usonian at 10:55 AM on December 27, 2012


There's another message: sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.

I was actually rather impressed by how much Joe clearly cared about the writer. He made the right hire for his company, but he also took the time to be really honest with his friend about his shortcomings, and to have a conversation that lasted hours with him, because that's what his friend needed. Some people simply won't have hard but necessary conversations with others because it's "too uncomfortable" or "they don't know what to say", and it can do others a lot of harm in the long run.

There was the matter of Joe demanding that the writer come into his family business with him when they were college boys because he had to(!), which was selfish, but then he was very young at the time. Evidently he did mature.

He *is* really saying, you have to look out for yourself, "serve yourself," before you look out for others and as a moral principle that stinks.

I don't know why some posters in this thread are insisting that the writer's moral principles are inherently selfish. One does have to be self-preservationist to some extent, and to achieve a certain balance between looking after one's own responsibilities and helping others. I'd like to see some hands up from all of you who have taken the mortgage/rent or grocery money and given it to charity. I'll bet none of you have (and quite rightly so), and it doesn't mean you're selfish. I have to pay my mortgage every month rather than giving that money to charity, or I'll end up imposing on others by having to borrow the amount, and if I make a habit of it I might lose my home, which would put me in position where I am less able to help others, or even provide for myself in my old age.
posted by orange swan at 10:56 AM on December 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


Here's the formula for any in doubt. Who you accomodate makes all the difference. If they are powerful and can boost your promotions raises ratings reputations--knock yourself out. If not don't bother. When in doubt the most efficient action is to look around and see what everyone else is doing. It may be be difficult to figure out who's right but it's usually easy to see who's in charge.
posted by bukvich at 10:57 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


And, finally, I am persuaded that no one ever achieves anything worth-while in this world unless he has so great a respect for his work that he compels all other men to respect it.

The hardest lesson to learn. No one has respect for you unless you have it for yourself first because no one knows you better than you know yourself. People think nice equals stupid, and most "nice" people I know are also the angriest. You can't bribe friendships by doing favors for people because people think they must be better than you and then see you as a desperate servant ripe for exploitation.

Thanks for the link -- enjoyed reading that.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 10:58 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


He *is* really saying, you have to look out for yourself, "serve yourself," before you look out for others and as a moral principle that stinks.

If you interpret it as though there is no middle ground, sure. But if you think of it as putting your own oxygen mask on before assisting the person beside you, it's perfectly fine.

There is no sustainable moral code which requires perpetual self-sacrifice. What the author is describing is someone who had no ability to set boundaries or to prioritize among the multiplicity of demands that others can put on them. That is just as unhealthy and damaging as someone who only serves themselves.
posted by gauche at 10:58 AM on December 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


(Humbug! I should have tested the video link above before posting - they've been yanked by CBS or whoever owns the thing now.)
posted by usonian at 10:59 AM on December 27, 2012


Who is living your life, anyway? Is it actually yours? Or is it a kind of public storehouse of odd jobs? A pile of days and hours put on the counter of the world with a sign inviting every Tom, Dick, and Harry to take one?...Surely, if life means anything at all, it means that each of us is entrusted with a certain irreplaceable fund of hours and weeks and years. To let anybody and everybody fritter that fund away is as if the trustee of an estate were to deposit the estate’s funds in a bank and issue check books to whoever applied.

I think this sentiment is one of the gems in this article. I have found that constantly reminding myself of the very real limitedness of the one life I own does wonders for sorting out my priorities. Office jobs, social expectations, and our own personal cravings for acceptance, material possessions, status, prestige, etc. often lead to us giving away or wasting the only time we have. In the face of a ticking clock counting down to our inevitable demise - things that feel so incredibly important...simply don't anymore.
posted by jnnla at 11:00 AM on December 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


I started to say that blue_beetle wasn't to be blamed for not reading that entire article

Well, in fairness he didn't pay for it, from which we must conclude that he is the product being sold.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:03 AM on December 27, 2012


Agassiz? Really?
He was well on the way of seeing "good" or "productive" as a physical/genetic property to begin with.

Barring that it looks like he was really stung by Joe's betrayal and decided now he was Ice Man.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:14 AM on December 27, 2012


I found I was able to use the time more effectively on projects that actually added value rather than time sucking maintenance/housekeeping issues.

Going off topic, but this, times a thousand and seven.

Work smart first and foremost. Find out what work do you need to do to get the highest returns. Focus on those things. Dotted I's and crossed T's might be satisfying, but at the end of the day, does it contribute to results?

Sure you might feel that by focusing less on the details, such as maintenance and housekeeping, makes for shoddy work of poor quality; and it probably does - there is a reason for housekeeping and maintenance tasks, after all - but if your employer demonstrates that he/she doesn't appreciate these types of things, then you need to work a bit more strategically, without compromising your beliefs too much.

It's a fine, delicate balance, and I don't think you should just say "aw, screw it", but it's never a bad idea to consider re-calibrating a bit.
posted by bitteroldman at 11:15 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, my experience of this was the rather large (in its social-media-less time) furor over the 1978 book Looking Out for #1. There's probably something like this for every generation, in its own language, so to speak.

My grandfather had a copy of Looking Out for #1 in his study's bookshelf. I read it when I was young. I don't remember how old I was by then, but I don't think I was far into puberty. For a few weeks, I wouldn't stop talking about it. My mother hated its ideas. My father, divorced from my mother, encouraged them.

My father, at that time, was telling my brother and me to stand up to our mother, whom we lived with, but he would never have allowed us to stand up to him. The least objection to his lectures only prolonged them and increased their volume. It seemed as though he wanted to hurt our mother by alienating us from her. He may also have wanted us to stick up for ourselves in general, as he always told us between calling our mother The Troll and ranting about her greed and neglectfulness.

So my resentment of my father's resentment drove me away from the book. It drove me away from a lot of things he tried to teach me. Now I'm trying to learn them afresh.

I probably won't swallow that book entire like I did when I was younger, though.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:19 AM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's not selfishness to realize that you're human and that there are limits to what you can give. Someone once answered a question on AskMe by saying "put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help others". That advice has been really useful to me in a lot of situations where I've been overwhelmed by others' demands.
posted by fuzz at 11:26 AM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Here's the formula for any in doubt. Who you accomodate makes all the difference. If they are powerful and can boost your promotions raises ratings reputations--knock yourself out. If not don't bother.

I dunno. I had a friend who worked at a bank where everyone was pretty much afraid of the woman who ran supplies -- but she was always nice to my friend who took the time to get to know her enough to ask about her grandkids and shoot the breeze with her for a couple of minutes before he asked for something. Sucking up to the VPs might have gotten him more, but just being nice saved him a lot of aggravation.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:28 AM on December 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


You know how on an airplane if there's a loss of cabin pressure and you have to put on the masks, you're supposed to put on your mask first and then your kids' masks? Well, that is because if you don't put your mask on first, you're maybe not going to be in the proper shape to help your kids at all. Basically, as every person who does rescue work knows, the first thing you have to do is ensure your own safety or you're going to become somebody who needs to be rescued, too.

I think the same thing is true of helping people in other ways. If I'm in a position to help somebody, I'm happy to help them every single time. If I'm not in a position to help, I either recommend somebody who might be more able to help or simply apologize. Society works a little better if we help when we can and it breaks down a little when we don't help at all.

But, again, if by helping somebody else, you put yourself in a position where you need to be helped too, you're creating more work for somebody else.

Also, I'm starting to feel the same way about The Atlantic that I feel about Gawker. I feel I can't take any of their articles seriously because there's a good chance that the only reason its there is to generate page views. This is, I feel, too bad.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:38 AM on December 27, 2012


He *is* really saying, you have to look out for yourself, "serve yourself," before you look out for others and as a moral principle that stinks.

Ooh boy, I would say that as a moral principle it's essential.

I am currently involved in trying to teach morals and boundaries both to a pair of small children. It's a long-term project; I'm their mother. The basic lesson (which we repeat over and over and over, ad nauseam) is:

"The most important thing you can be is kind. You can be pretty, or smart, or strong, or even all of those things, and still not be a good person if you aren't kind. And while not everybody can be pretty, or smart, or strong, EVERYBODY can be kind; it's a choice that you make.

Sometimes it is easy to be kind to people. Sometimes it's harder, though. Some of the things that can make it hard to be kind to people are if you are hungry, or angry, or scared, or tired, or otherwise have some kind of need that's going unmet. Usually, when you have trouble being kind to others, it's a sign that you need to take a moment to be kind to YOU; figure out what it is you need to be a caring person, and make sure you get it. If you're hungry, you can be kind to yourself by eating nutritious food. If you're angry, you can be kind to yourself by talking about what makes you angry and seeing if you can work towards a solution. If you're scared, you can be kind to yourself by asking for help or for reassurance. If you're tired, you can be kind to yourself by taking a nap, or a rest, or even just a break to get some alone time.

Learning how to identify those things that you need when you are having trouble being kind is so critical. You can't be a positive impact on the world when you're a negative impact on yourself. It is always OK to ask for what you need, or to ask for help figuring it out."

Now, because they're little kids, I spend a lot of time hauling a screaming 2-year-old off to his room while saying "You are tired, your body needs rest, you need to take a nap" or telling a petulant 6-year-old "You are having trouble concentrating because you are hungry, I made you a peanut butter sandwich and I want you to eat it" or whatever. But yeah, putting yourself last doesn't really work out in the bigger picture; you just have to make sure that when you take care of yourself, you're getting what you actually need.
posted by KathrynT at 11:49 AM on December 27, 2012 [23 favorites]


It makes an interesting commentary on It's a Wonderful Life, which has always struck me not as a feelgood movie about unappreciated good, but a tragedy of a man whose life is destroyed by always putting others first.
posted by raygirvan at 11:55 AM on December 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


My comment on the article when I shared it with friends on Facebook: "A very, very interesting read. However, I think the author of the original article could have been a bit less of a doormat at times. It's entirely possible to be a Good Guy but yet be able to tell people "no" or "okay, now what about me?" without feeling bad doing so."

I've been known to be that Good Guy who helps everyone else at the expense of himself, at times. It can be *hard* to get to the point where you can say "no" or "okay now what are you going to do for ME?".
posted by mrbill at 11:55 AM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


That said, lots of "new wisdom" from 90 years ago is going to seem pretty corny and simplistic to us jet-setting future-types.

I think sometimes it's easy to take the body of accumulated knowledge we have available to us for granted.


Oh, I think a lot of it is so many of us are so steeped in irony and sarcasm and doubletalk that the idea of sincerity is a ghastly and horrifying thing none of us are really equipped to cope with. I made a comment yesterday that my mom said something (what isn't important) and a friend of mine was just adamant that she had to be trolling and couldn't get his head around the idea that my mom has no idea what "trolling" is and she was really sincere. But you know, he's so steeped in internet that I don't think even he knows what he actually believes anymore. Of course stuff from years ago seems corny, it's not wrapped in meta-irony or hipster backhandedness or all the other protective shells we wrap genuine sentiment in.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:56 AM on December 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


I don't remember where I got this but it has served me well from time to time in office environments. Your choices are: fun, fame or fortune. I first implemented this when I was working at a place where I was trying my damndest to be the top team player of all time, super helpful, always cheerful and, yet, everything kept turning to shit. I was getting blamed for things that were not my fault and pilloried for stuff that I had volunteered to do when no one else would. So, I started trying to figure out what to do to turn things around. And I came across "fun, fame or fortune." Basically, don't take on any task that isn't personally fun for you, or will bring you fame in the office or out of it (help your career) or will boost your fortune somehow (bonuses, raises, a nifty trade, etc.). I started saying 'no' to the tasks which were not fun or going to boost my standing or provided any kind of incentive whatsoever, which opened up my time to more interesting tasks and suddenly my superiors liked me again. If you suggest that you are a dumping ground, I guess plenty of people will believe it.

I'm also consciously not as conciliatory or sweet in my email correspondence after reading how people don't respect those people who are nice in their email. I have to say, it works. I'm not rude, I just don't pepper my email correspondence with niceties and I make no concessions toward the recipient. I have gotten better active responses and more prompt feedback since changing my style.

People are weird.
posted by amanda at 11:58 AM on December 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


It can be *hard* to get to the point where you can say "no" or "okay now what are you going to do for ME?".

But I don't think that's the right question. If you're going to give something to someone, give it without expectation of reciprocation, otherwise it's not a gift, it's a trade. (If it is a trade, make that explicit in advance, otherwise your question comes off as petulant.) If you need something specific, ask someone for it. I don't know about you in particular, but this is the most common problem I run into: people do not directly ask for what they need, and then they're upset when they don't get it. And then they keep trying to get it from the same person.
posted by desjardins at 12:04 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I feel certain that I am going to be the first person to make the analogy to airplane oxygen masks.
posted by adamdschneider at 12:12 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Joey Michaels beat you to it.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:41 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


In business: go out of your way to be nice to reception, IT, and physical services no matter what the cost. They will always know what's happening before you or anyone else not in the C-suite does.
posted by digitalprimate at 1:04 PM on December 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


Joey Michaels: You know how on an airplane if there's a loss of cabin pressure and you have to put on the masks, you're supposed to put on your mask first and then your kids' masks?

"Well, I'll be too busy screaming to help him at all! If he can program the goddamned VCR, he can jolly well put on an oxygen mask. It's a great time for him to learn... SELF RELIANCE!"

- George Carlin
posted by dr_dank at 1:22 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I formerly was part of one of the so-called "helping professions", teaching, and made the switch to working at an industry association. One of my jobs was to help our client members connect the dots with information or like-minded folks who might help them out.

The real challenge of working at an industry association is to not provide too much help. It's really easy and really valuable to connect Person A with Person B, but Person A has to ask for help first.

There's the temptation to provide help when it's not asked for, but usually things don't work out.

The other rule is to give people what they want, not what you think they need. It's up to all of us to figure out what we need, and it's up to all of to ask for help.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:27 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Do Gooder" gone "No Doer" decides he's more Jesus that Aunty. News at 11.
posted by busillis at 1:32 PM on December 27, 2012


But, yeah, the ability to say "no" is the first rule of negotiation, and if your desire is to make GM or VP, you'll never make it unless you demonstrate this ability.

I thought it was a little sad that the writer of the piece had, at the age of 40, basically lamented the fact that he got passed over for promotion by being a wimp. Interesting read, though, because a lot of the way he feels seems to be based on resentment of his father's faults.

But there is more to life than being the VP or GM. Such a hollow, meaningless goal, and you think he would have figured it out by age 40.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:38 PM on December 27, 2012


90% of this is a story of a person who had no boundaries whatsoever who learned to have some boundaries, yay for them, and started having a normal life.

For about 5% it starts to sound like a Republican fretting about all the welfare cheats stealing honest people's money.

And about 5% of it starts to sound like the more boundaries you have, the more awesome a person you are.

I'm down with the 90%.
posted by edheil at 1:50 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the best lessons I have learned in this life is that the momentary discomfort of saying no is a million times better than the lengthy discomfort of doing something I genuinely don't want to do. Often all you have to do is take a deep breath before volunteering for something and someone else will step into the breach instead. Now I save my energy for things I'm really good and will enjoy.
posted by looli at 1:52 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


My reading of this parable is that the friend who was happy to take advantage of him every day of his adult life only saw fit to inform him of this terrible weakness when it came time to pay up, as an excuse not to.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:24 PM on December 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


For about 5% it starts to sound like a Republican fretting about all the welfare cheats stealing honest people's money.

Actually, the thing I found interesting was how little he talks about that sort of thing. All of his examples are of solidly middle-class people hitting him up for solidly middle-class favors. When he talks at all about actual poverty or begging it's really just as an analogy for asking-a-guy-to-buy-an-extra-theater-ticket-for-you or whatever.
posted by and so but then, we at 2:44 PM on December 27, 2012


Also, has anyone else noticed that in a confusion of narrator perspective, Bert becomes Joe at the very end, in a reported conversation with his aunt? It looks as if some clumsy editorial hand added that postscript without taking the trouble to note who was who in the story. Joe is the friend who let Bert down, but his first person quote ended quite a bit earlier.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:59 PM on December 27, 2012


This story sounds familiar. I used to work for a manager who would sing a little ditty, every once in a while when he refused a perfectly reasonable request from a customer. He would sing it to the tune of "If You're Happy And You Know It."

Oh we'd really like to help you but we won't.
Oh we'd really like to help you but we won't.
Oh we'd really like to help you
Oh we'd really like to help you
Oh we'd really like to help you but we won't.


What a dick. His name was Dick.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:59 PM on December 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


"My reading of this parable is that the friend who was happy to take advantage of him every day of his adult life only saw fit to inform him of this terrible weakness when it came time to pay up, as an excuse not to."

Astute, if cynical, observation. I hadn't thought of it that way, probably because the author had just made the point that Joe seemed to have matured since their college days. Nor had the author mentioned Joe specifically taking advantage of him since then, though presumably there had still been some of that.

"Also, has anyone else noticed that in a confusion of narrator perspective, Bert becomes Joe at the very end"

I hadn't noticed, and went back to look.

"It looks as if some clumsy editorial hand added that postscript without taking the trouble to note who was who in the story."

In this case, astute + cynical = probably correct.
posted by MoTLD at 4:26 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


My reading of this parable is that the friend who was happy to take advantage of him every day of his adult life only saw fit to inform him of this terrible weakness when it came time to pay up, as an excuse not to.

Wasn't really that way until Joe's dad hipped him out to the fact that Bert was a doormat. But wow - what a doormat.
posted by the noob at 5:19 PM on December 27, 2012


after reading how people don't respect those people who are nice in their email.

Whoa? Really?? This is a derail but I would love to hear more about this. Is this a known study?
posted by kettleoffish at 5:20 PM on December 27, 2012


It makes an interesting commentary on It's a Wonderful Life, which has always struck me not as a feelgood movie about unappreciated good, but a tragedy of a man whose life is destroyed by always putting others first.

And it's naked anti-librarian propaganda!
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:29 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Well, I like naked librarians, so I must be opposed to naked anti-librarians.
posted by and so but then, we at 5:31 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks zoo, I enjoyed this article.

I must admit, when I opened the link on my phone and saw how lengthy the article was, I almost didn't read it. Sometimes I can't tell whether my attention span has suffered from too many years of zipping around online, or whether I just don't have the capacity I used to have due to some sort of ordinary ageing process. It feels like it was only about ten years ago that I was all about books the length of Les Miserables or War and Peace. Now I'm initially cowed by articles more than ten paragraphs long. What happened?
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 5:59 PM on December 27, 2012


I'd explain it to you, paleyellowwithorange, but you probably wouldn't read the entire explanation.
posted by orange swan at 6:04 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Kettleoffish, this may have been the piece that I read. I apologize for calling it a study. But I remember it did jibe with some of my anecdotal experience so I started consciously putting it into practice. I found my supervisor on my projects much more responsive and respectful and the contractors also more attentive and helpful, too. I'm not being a jerk but I am sometimes curt.
posted by amanda at 6:06 PM on December 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, has anyone else noticed that in a confusion of narrator perspective, Bert becomes Joe at the very end, in a reported conversation with his aunt? It looks as if some clumsy editorial hand added that postscript without taking the trouble to note who was who in the story.

I noticed that too, and to me it reads less like an editorial mistake and more like the entire story is fabricated to serve the motives of the author. I don't really understand why most of the commentors are giving a free pass to this article on account of its age. An article with comparable evidence and meaning written today would likely be torn to shreds.
posted by girih knot at 6:36 PM on December 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


girih knot, I absolutely agree. The article smells exactly like the sort of improving fable that was common to magazines of the era (and not all that uncommon in any other), and not even a little bit like an authentic memoir.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:41 PM on December 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I found my supervisor on my projects much more responsive and respectful and the contractors also more attentive and helpful, too.

Awesome. And-- I see the article is based on the often-cited statistic that agreeableness is negatively related to salary. I've always wondered if there are a few CEOs at the top skewing that...
posted by kettleoffish at 7:58 PM on December 27, 2012


If you're going to give something to someone, give it without expectation of reciprocation, otherwise it's not a gift, it's a trade.

When I help someone (however that may be) I do it because I like helping people, not because I expect anything in return. However, it also happens that often when I need help, I have a hard time admitting to it and actually asking for assistance no matter how helpful I've been to others throughout the years. I still don't feel right occasionally being the person getting the help instead of giving it.
posted by mrbill at 9:42 AM on January 2, 2013


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