The Problem With Helping People, Part 1

Everyone needs help.

“I want to help people.”

I quietly chuckle to myself a little bit every time somebody says it. If only they knew how many times a week I heard those exact words. So, I usually ask them to explain what they mean by ‘helping people.’

“Hmm. I haven’t thought too much about that. I just want to do something meaningful, you know?”

Oh, I know. I might even know this more than they know it. I don’t say that, though. Instead, I reflect the whole meaning thing right back at them – ‘so, it sounds like you want to feel some kind of personal fulfillment in your work’ or something like that. I almost always have a few of these statements stocked and ready to go.

“Yeah! I just don’t want to be sitting at some desk all day, pushing papers or anything like that. I mean… I guess I wouldn’t mind pushing papers if it was for a good cause, like saving starving children in Africa or something.”

Okay – that’s a little bit better. There’s a value in there somewhere, but what direction to go in now? I could follow up on the whole pushing papers thing – what do they mean by pushing papers? Does that constitute personal fulfillment or meaning? Is there a hidden disdain for administrative work under there somewhere? They didn’t sound too convincing with that last “I guess…” statement, either. So, what’s the deal with that?

“What do I mean by pushing papers? I dunno… I guess I just don’t see myself in an administrative assistant role when I think of my future. I’ve kind of done that in summer jobs before, and I was always waiting for the day to be over, then for the week to be over. I’ve thought about it, and I’m pretty sure it’s because I wasn’t really helping anyone.”

I’d bet the staff at that office would disagree with them there. That’s another one of those thoughts that I keep to myself, though. I can’t help but recall a conference I was at recently, in which the keynote speaker (John Krumboltz) stressed that there’s no such thing as a job that doesn’t involve helping people. Hmm, maybe if I throw that out there, they’ll go a bit deeper.

“Really? I guess that might be true. Still, I’d say that there are jobs that involve a lot more helping than others. Like, doctors and nurses and all those other medical careers – they save lives. That’s more helpful than organizing schedules and answering phone calls for an office.”

Ah, the life and death argument. A compelling case, but also a conversational dead-end. Maybe I should try a different tactic. Let’s think about helpfulness for the time being as a sort of mathematical equation. We’ve already established that every job is helpful, simply by virtue of performing some kind of role in society. So, your level helpfulness is in a way the same as your skill or strength at a particular job. Follow me so far?

“I think so. So, you’re saying that how good I am at a job is the same as how helpful I’m being?”

Good, they’ve got it so far. That was the hard part. Okay, now back to the mathematical equation thing. So here’s the deal, strengths aren’t just how good you are at a job – i.e. your talent or natural ability. That’s a big part, but there’s another equally significant factor, and that’s plain old hard work. So, if you multiply talent and hard work, you get strength. Since strength is equal to helpfulness, you could substitute it into our little equation to get helpfulness as the product of talent and hard work.

Helpfulness = Strength = Talent X Hard Work.

“Alright, I guess that makes sense. But how does that apply to me?”

Ah. Exactly what I was hoping they would ask. I’d love nothing more than to tell them exactly how this applies to them, too. They’d probably think I was really smart – you know, an “expert.” But I won’t. If we play our cards right, they’ll figure it out for themselves, and they’ll never forget that realization. So I’ll have to be careful how I handle my end of the conversation here…


*Cross-posted in Dave’s Diary at the Career Services Informer.

– Image by andjohan on flickr.