I was interested in this post from the Research Whisperer yesterday, written by Tseen Khoo and inspired by a researcher who chooses to do nothing unless it will benefit their career. I recently wrote a post about why it’s important to learn to say ‘no’. Yet I believe, very strongly, that it’s also important to be collegial, to look out for others, to offer support and help where it’s needed and where you can give it freely. Tseen’s post got me thinking about why I believe that. What is so important about being collegial? Would it be so awful if we all just looked out for ourselves – and, if so, why?
For me, the key point about learning to say ‘no’ is that it enables us to conserve enough resources to look after ourselves and other people. Yes, ourselves first, though I see that as at the level of health and happiness, rather than at the level of career management like the researcher mentioned in Tseen’s post. Each of us is best placed to know what we can and can’t cope with and how much energy we have; once we reach adulthood we cannot, and should not, expect others to manage this for us (though of course they sometimes help along the way). So when we’re asked to do something that will take us beyond our coping ability or use up too much of our energy, we need to be able to say ‘no’ – unless it’s an emergency, of course. Then it’s time to pull out all the stops and recoup later on.
Sometimes it’s worth saying ‘no’ to things we do have the ability and energy for, but which don’t bring us joy. I say ‘no’ to a lot of things by choosing to be an indie researcher. For example, I say a resounding ‘no’ to organisational bureaucracy, meetings about meetings, and ironing. I could manage all those things, and more of their ilk, and have done so at times. But I am much, much happier without them in my life.
Once we’ve done all the saying ‘no’ we want and need to do, we should have created the capacity to say some ‘yes’. We have choices there, too. We can act like the researcher in Tseen’s blog post and choose only to say ‘yes’ to things that will benefit our own career. Or we can use a different strategy for decision-making.
Tseen helps because she can. My own strategy is similar, along the lines of ‘if someone needs help, and I can help, I’ll help’. The ‘help’ in that sentence could be passing the butter or giving a troubled friend space to live in my house for a year while they sort themselves out. In professional terms, it could be downloading a pdf for someone who asks on Twitter, or providing years of support for a colleague doing a doctorate. But for me, that’s what I do, not why – and I think there’s more self-interest in why I help, though not the kind of self-interest shown by the researcher who so enraged Tseen. Helping others benefits me, not in the sense of stacking up brownie points to redeem in an afterlife, but because every time I help someone I learn something new. And desire to learn is the main reason why I do scholarly work in the first place.
That doesn’t mean I do some kind of cost-benefit analysis. I doubt it would be possible, even if I wanted to, because I couldn’t figure out in advance what I would learn from helping someone. Sometimes I learn a small thing from a big help, or vice versa. I don’t try to calculate return on investment, either. Offering help and support is part of the fabric of my life and it’s not about expecting some kind of payback. In fact, often I’m paying it forward, such as by helping people with postgraduate research. When I was doing my own MSc and PhD, I received an enormous amount of help from people who were further along in the process, and I never could pay that back – but I certainly can pay it forward, and encourage others to do the same.
The lovely thing, though, is that sometimes helping others has an unexpected payback, if someone you helped finds they are able to help you. A friend and colleague who I helped with her PhD, years ago, recently did me a big favour by hooking me up with the Head of her institution’s Graduate School who wants to commission the kind of courses I offer. My friend claims her main motivation was self-interest, because having identified someone who can help where it’s needed will reflect well on her. Perhaps it will, though I’d dispute the self-interest being her main motivation, because I know her to be a generous person with an eye to the ways she can help others. In fact, she’s thoroughly collegial.
I think I’ve worked out at least two of the reasons why it would be worse if we all just looked out for ourselves. We would deny ourselves regular opportunities to learn from helping others, and occasional opportunities for unexpected benefits further down the road. Those opportunities seem to me to be two good reasons for being collegial, and they constitute two shining threads in the fabric of our lives and work.
I’m sure there are other reasons too. If you have any in mind, please leave a comment; I’d be interested.
The statement that stood out the most for me was “every time I help someone I learn something new.” Working together or helping someone opens up new perspectives, refreshes ideas and poses interesting questions. It is interesting how you started the post with explaining why it is important to look after oneself first. You didn’t make it sound selfish, neither did you look at helping from a greedy benefit seeking point of view. Interesting post. It left me thinking whether I know myself well enough to decide when to say “yes” or “no” to a request.
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Terje, thank you for your thoughtful comment. It’s not easy. I’ve been working on this for years and I still don’t always feel clear about whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ at times. But thinking, talking, and writing about it helps, I find.
I think there is a surprisingly thin line between selfishness and altruism. The greatest benefits to others are often motivated by what will provide the greatest rewards to ourselves. Very often those rewards come in the way of ‘feeling good’ — being connected to a world greater than ourselves, finding a place within a larger context heightens our own self-esteem and increases our own sense of well-being. If I was a researcher, I could cite the tons of studies done which supports the idea that helping others promotes better health and happiness within ourselves. But as you know, I’m ‘just’ a writer. But although I can’t give you references, I can certainly cite my own experience as living proof.
Thanks, Helen. An excellent and important post!
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Thanks, Sue. I’m the kind of researcher who regards your experience as evidence. I was just saying on Twitter that I used to recruit volunteers, and I was always suspicious of people who claimed pure altruism as a motive. I liked the honesty of people who said they wanted experience to help them get a job, or they wanted company because they were lonely, or they wanted to make new friends because they’d recently moved into the area. That’s my experience, and I think that’s evidence too!