The Friendly Imposition
Overstepping the line between a personal favor and a professional request
“You could do this in your sleep.”
On its face that is a fairly absurd statement because if I was sleeping, most all I could likely do would be to toss, turn and snore. But it doesn’t stop many, many people I know vaguely or don’t know at all from saying it anyway.
That declaration, or left-handed compliment, usually precedes a big ask. They would like to know if I can please edit a book-length manuscript for a third cousin’s in-law’s son? Can I coach a neighbor’s boss’s wife on a speech script? Can I quickly look at an essay tonight for a friend of a friend of a friend? Can I have coffee with a stranger to advise her on what to do with her life?
Lest you think I am heartless, selfish and extremely stingy with my time, be assured I do lots of mentoring, volunteer on five boards, and continue parenting my three sons on a regular basis while trying to keep all the plates spinning. And I do say yes in emergencies to my inner circle of family and friends’ requests because that is the generous and empathetic response.
It’s the outer, outer, outer circle of strangers’ requests and demands tapping my professional talents that I cannot abide. Because I am stretched.
The requests arrive on top of full-time work that involves lots of travel. And the kind of travel that no one really wants to do, but has to do—fly in, work hard, get room service, have a mediocre night’s sleep, work hard, fly home. Still, I get asked for work-ish favors a lot.
From my friends who are doctors, nurses and therapists, I understand that even strangers on the train will ask advice if they get wind of the nearby professional certification.
Yes, it might just be a factor in the human condition to seek help from people you consider experts. But I also practice restraint and I won’t call an accountant friend at tax time to see if she can help me with my seven 1099 forms.
I recently read about a study from researchers at three universities — Duke, Georgia and Colorado — examining the treatment of people who are considered “extremely competent,” and how these super performers actually feel when it seems all their peers call on them and make demands to solve a crisis.
It turns out people who are considered good at what they do, are called on to work harder, longer and more often than those who don’t have a star by their names in everyone’s files. You could call it the Curse of Competence. Become known for being great at something and the requests just keep on coming.
Yes, yes, I know, it’s flattery. It’s acknowledgment, it’s validation. I should be thrilled people ask me for help, to pitch in because they think my work is effortless.
But do you think Mrs. Fields was eager to bake cookies for friends after she baked cookies all day? Does Neil deGrasse Tyson want to help neighbors’ kids with their science homework?
It’s not effortless, and really nothing is, even if you love doing it more than anything in the world, and others see you as capable of doing it in your sleep.
One friend says she responds to these kinds of asks with the statement: “I can’t give this the attention it deserves right now, but here is a summary of my rates and available dates and times to schedule a meeting.”
To check my own inclinations to seek free help from those I admire, I put myself in the competent person’s shoes and dare not intrude. If I need the help, I will solicit someone and pay for the input.
When I think about the friends, work acquaintances and relatives who are really, really good at what they do, I wouldn’t dream of asking them to do something in their professional realm for me as a favor for free. Because it’s what they do for work. You with me here? They get paid to do what they do. So I worship from afar or pay up.
In the study from Duke researchers and others, they surveyed 400 employees about perceptions of “high performers” and found they were stressed about having to do more work, more tasks and being relied on more often.
I admire friends for much of what they do and are really great at doing. But I wouldn’t dream of imposing with a request for them to redo my living room, spruce up my garden this summer, edit my manuscript or overhaul my closet. I want them to know I respect their talents fully and consider their competence a blessing, not a curse.Edit Module