You don’t have to be a hero to be a helper

superheromask

Photo via Chiot’s Run on Flickr’s Creative Commons.

Back in April, we posted about professor Adam Grant’s endless capacity for helping and his research on the positive effects of generosity. We also listed some ways to get ahead by giving from Grant’s new book “Give and Take.”

One thing we haven’t talked about, though, is the underlying feeling that may keep many of us from boarding the give-and-gain train.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when standing in the shadows of seemingly superhuman do-gooders. The doubtful thoughts pile up: “How can I possibly be that helpful? What if I’m just not wired that way? How can I be a superhuman, when some days I struggle to be an adequate human?”

Grant believes helpfulness works like a muscle we can all develop. If he’s right, maybe it’s possible we can find ways to get a little stronger every day, without worrying about becoming Spartan-esque triathletes.

In her recent article on Grant, NY Times reporter Susan Dominus tried the theory out and put herself to the test:

I like to think I am a typically helpful person, but after reading Grant’s book, I found myself experimenting with being more proactive about it. I started ending emails by encouraging people to let me know if I could help them in one way or another. I put more effort into answering random entreaties from students trying to place articles. I encouraged contacts seeking work or connections to see me as a resource.

And I did notice that simply avoiding the mental lag of deciding whether to help or not was helpful. At a minimum, Grant’s example presents a bright-line rule: Unless the person on the other end is a proven taker, just do it–collaborate, offer up, grant the favor.

The first time I exchanged those emails, I usually felt good; after the second exchange on a given topic, I thought perhaps I had done my duty. But I noticed that every offer of help I initiated or granted engendered four or five e-mails, at the end of which I sometimes felt surly and behind on my work — and then guilty for feeling that way.

Dominus’ mini-test doesn’t mean it’s unsustainable to be an everyday giver. But it does remind us to find ways to give that don’t trap us in an ever-expanding favor spiral.

How, then, do we find a balance? Learning from Dominus and from Grant, here are a few ways we can start:

1. Make it automatic
How much time do we waste debating whether to respond to an email or to offer a helping hand? The more automatic we make our helpful responses, the less effort and energy they require. What if we turned small things (like picking up litter and throwing it out) into reflexes?

2. Make it reasonable
You don’t have to be a hero to be a helper. Do what you can; know your limits. Instead of responding to every email with the tag “How else can I help?” perhaps only offer when you know you can continue to help.

3. Make it sustainable
Some things–like turning off unused lights or giving away your lunch to someone hungry–don’t require follow up. Those decisions can be automatic. For bigger acts of giving, make sure you take care of your own needs before jumping to attend to others.

4. Make it sustainable…for others, too!
One of Grant’s main findings is that productivity, happiness, and creativity flourish when people see the results of their giving. If you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s generosity, don’t be shy to send them an email or give them a hug to say thank you. It only takes one voice to say, “Hey! It mattered to me!” to keep the giving going.

What do you think? Can giving feel paralyzing? Or burn you out? What are some small (or big) ways of helping that work for you?

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