Help with my thing

I know a guy who’s continually starting new things. I say “things” because I don’t think there’s a better word. They’re mostly political-ish campaigns but it might be a charity fundraiser one week, a new blog the next, and so on. Mostly they’re things that sound vaguely like a good idea, so it’s been hard for me to work out quite why he irritates me so much.

Then I got it. Firstly, he doesn’t finish much. He’ll start a petition, hassle everybody he knows to sign it… then walk away. Or he’ll start a “community website”, hassle everybody he knows to contribute blog posts and pictures… then walk away. He’s not even a friend of mine, but he’s still asked me to support three different campaigns in the past couple of months. A friend who follows his progress closely tells me that he’s started and abandoned five websites in the past year.

But I realised today: that’s not the main reason why he annoys me. He annoys me because in addition to not being a finisher, he is not a joiner. I’ve never known him help out with an existing campaign or somebody else’s event. He always starts his own things, because he is desperate to be a leader, desperate to be the guy who starts things.

Why does that annoy me? Because it’s not fucking fair, that’s why. Because in a fair world, people who do voluntary stuff in their spare time would all get a fairly equal share of helping out with existing stuff and starting their own stuff. And I believe that (again, in a fair world) if you start something you take responsibility for it, and you push it through the dip of other people’s apathy and hostility, and you get it going and you nurture it and you damn well keep it going until you’ve either achieved what you needed to achieve or found someone else to take over. You don’t walk away without a damn good reason, and you’re supposed to feel bad if you do.

You might say “Hey, Gryphon, take a chill-pill. You’re talking about voluntary work here, done in his own time. You don’t get to dictate how other people’s voluntary work is done. Isn’t it better he does things a bit badly rather than, like so many people, doing nothing at all?”

Well, actually… no. Starting a new campaign or event of your own is rewarding because by its very nature it tends to be something you’re deeply interested in. You have ownership and you get to take most of the credit. Whereas helping out with other people’s events is less rewarding, because you’re fitting in with other people’s ideas and schedules, you don’t get to control what’s going on and, y’know, it’s not your thing. But if everybody decided just to do the fun, rewarding bits, there would be nobody left to help with anything, stuff often wouldn’t get completed and we would have some serious tragedy-of-the-commons shit going on.

And while we’re talking about the commons, I also believe there’s a finite store of general goodwill to be had. There is a limit to people’s willingness to sponsor your sponsored events, sign your petitions, man your stall, give out your leaflets and, well, generally help with your thing. That store gets depleted every time someone starts something new and requests support for it. And if you deplete that store without actually doing any good as a result (because you abandon every project before it achieves anything) you are actively doing harm. That’s why doing voluntary work in this way is not a mildly benign or even neutral activity.

I don’t start my own things much, partly because of my belief that people will be more sympathetic to your latest request for help/attendance/support if you’re not continually demanding this. I guess my (until now, unexamined) assumption was that you could earn that support by helping with other people’s things.

Apparently not. The most recent thing I started and ran myself was a public event in November 2010. I didn’t ask for help organising it; I just asked my circle of friends and acquaintances to attend. I took on the responsibility of organising it myself, with the help of one other person. 300 people were invited to the event by post. Another 600 or so I invited more casually, through Twitter. My co-organiser took care of the local press, Upcoming, etc. I singled out a few friends that I guessed were certain to support me, and contacted them individually to check they were coming. This was my thing. This was the basket I’d put all my eggs into.

And I thought that because I’ve never asked my friends to sponsor my trek in the Himalayas or bake a cake for my jumble sale, that would count in my favour. I thought that because of all the times I’ve gone to their art exhibition and baked cakes for their fundraiser and sponsored their 5k run, it would count in my favour. I thought about all the petitions I’ve signed, all the stalls I’ve manned, all the marches I’ve gone on, all the times I’ve dragged myself out on a wet evening to “be there for” various people, and I thought “yes, this will definitely count in my favour.”

It fucking well didn’t. Guess how many people turned up on that rainy and windy night? One. One complete stranger. My closest friends and loved ones had excuses for not being there; nobody else even thought they needed to explain. They saw no reason to offer their apologies, because, hey, you can’t support everybody’s stuff, right?

And that just made me boil with fury, because I felt as if I had damn well earned support for my event by putting my time and energy into organising something good and making sure it happened. I felt as if I’d doubly earned it by “doing my time” helping out with other people’s events and campaigns, and triply earned it because I hadn’t abused people’s goodwill with an endless stream of bullshit. But this guy gets more support for each fresh piece of poorly-thought-out, quickly-abandoned rubbish than I got for my one event.

I’ve heard that in the crazy world of business, you’re more likely to get venture capital if you have a string of failed businesses behind you. You’d assume the venture capital would go to people who are starting their first business, who’ve never fucked up, but actually it goes to people who’ve jumped into carrying out a series of poorly-thought-out ideas and failed at all of them. And I wonder if that’s how it works in the world of voluntary things. Perhaps the guy who’s started and abandoned twenty things in the past year is somehow seen as a better bet than the guy who only does one thing every eighteen months or so and tries to do it really well. If so, I have no idea why.

Anyway. It’s clear that there is not an infinite supply of goodwill and support. In a perfect world it would be divided equally so we all got the same amount each. (The guy I’m talking about would have used up his year’s supply by mid-January.) But clearly we don’t. It’s a common store and if other people have been pulling a lot of bullshit lately, there will be no goodwill left for your thing. And it doesn’t matter how hard you’ve personally worked on it or how infrequently you personally make demands on the goodwill store.

We don’t live in a perfect world. And I can only control my own behaviour.

So I won’t keep sponsoring you. I might sponsor you if you’re doing something challenging and you haven’t asked me for sponsorship for at least a year and I don’t suspect your sponsored event is a thinly-disguised holiday. But the ex-colleague who does three half-marathons a year and asks me to sponsor him for all of them? Nu-uh. Maybe if you do a full marathon, mate.

Ditto events. Yes, it’s important to you and you’ve put a lot of work into organising it. Well, that’s how I felt about my November 2010 event, and if you’re reading this you almost certainly didn’t bother turning up to that. (Unless you’re the one person who did. Cheers, Dave, I still appreciate it even now.)

Ditto your fucking petition. I know it only takes a minute to sign. But it’s longer if I’m responsible enough to actually read what I’m supposed to be signing.  And I get asked to sign perhaps ten a week. And it’s not as if by signing your petition I’m building up some kind of credit which will make you more likely to sign mine. It’s no more reciprocal or fair than any other thing. I think in my entire life I have created two petitions. Both were really important to me, both were ignored by most of my acquaintances. So fuck any person or organisation who thinks I somehow owe them because it’s “just a minute” to sign.

Ditto how you really want me to write to my MP. That can take a good fifteen minutes. You’d better not have asked me to do the same thing in the past year, or I’ll say no with a glad heart.

In other words: I cannot create a world in which goodwill and support is distributed fairly. But I can ration my own goodwill and support in a way that I believe is fair. Because I have reached the conclusion that trying to support everything is not actually the right thing to do. Not only is it impossible and a one-way road to burnout: it’s actually unfair to treat each thing equally when equal resources and commitment are not being put into them.

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2 Comments on “Help with my thing”


  1. […] written before about people who ask for “help with my thing”, and my own (incorrect) assumption that you can “earn” help and support by valuing other […]


  2. […] than responding to questions. Some of it is about being a flake, some of this is about being the kind of person who wants lots of other people’ s attention and energy without having a plan fo…. And some of it is about having a cheerful “throw mud at the wall and see what sticks” […]


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