How helpful is helpful enough?

I have a confession: I am a compulsive favor-doer. When someone asks for my help, I have a hard time saying “no”. Since there’s only so much Ben to go around, this gives me a tendency to over-commit.  I recognize this as a problem, but I can’t help myself.  It’s in my nature to be helpful.

So how helpful should I be?  My wife works at the county library, and last week a gentleman was checking out a book about Linux.  In the course of small talk it came up that he’s trying to dual-boot Ubuntu and Windows 7.  Angie mentioned that I run Linux at home and he wrote down his phone number and e-mail address for her to give to me.  I’m not mad at her for it, she hasn’t committed me to anything, but it got me wondering.

My initial reaction was to e-mail the guy and introduce myself.  After all, I’m a nice guy and that’s what I do.  Then I realized that this would probably make me his go-to support.  I don’t mind helping people, but an open-ended commitment isn’t exactly what I’m in the market for.  I already do a fair bit of free work for strangers.  I answer questions in the #fedora IRC room, on and on Serverfault.  Additionally, I write this blog, and I write documentation for the Fedora Project.  Maybe I don’t do as much as others, but I’m definitely contributing back to the community.

So maybe, I thought, I should set a rate and charge him for help.  That seems like too much effort, though. I’m not really interested in doing enough consulting/contract work to make it worth the trouble of filing the appropriate paperwork.  Besides, I have such a hard time asking for a reward for being nice.

Where does that leave me then?  I have no idea.  In the meantime, I’ve gone with the head-in-sand approach.  I’ll just pretend like this never happened.  Perhaps someday I’ll be able to solve this quandary.

6 thoughts on “How helpful is helpful enough?

  1. I would suggest introducing him to those very resources you already contribute to. especially (even I know how easy it is to fall into the trap of becoming the go-to guy, but the real trick is knowing how to get out of it.

  2. just think of it like you got a business card from somebody. What do you do with business cards you get?

    Charging for your time is not a crazy idea. Maybe you can work out a trade, you do this for me, I’ll help you with your pc. I do this with my neighbour ;-), both are happy about the trade.

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  4. One of the great things about being part of a project (such as the Fedora Project!), the group is there to share the helping.

    However, this is harder for newer users who have questions that are best addressed with hands-on support. This has often been supported by the local user group with installfests and such. Installation is much easier these days, so the installfests are fewer, but the local-based support is still valuable.

    If you have one other person and yourself, you have a LUG. You could contact the gent and say that the best way to help each other is to both show up to the local LUG, or start it yourself if it doesn’t exist. Start a mailinglist, pick a day once a month, find a location with power and wifi, and learn together.

    This creates something that is scalable — others can be invited, they can all help you help each other. For you, you get to address your desire to help people but in a way that you can contain it enough to not go more insane. 🙂

    If you haven’t started a group like this, it’s much easier than you might have thought. It’s really as straightforward as I said above:

    1. Start mailing list, announce wherever you can that makes sense (put up flyers at library or computer stores, etc.)

    2. Propose and choose a time on the mailing list, including reasons why, etc. (even if it’s only you on the list, the historical record is set so others can learn your thinking without having to ask you.) In this case, try to make a time you and the other person in your story can meet.

    3. Just keep showing up every month, and use the mailing list and word of mouth to grow the group.

    Just as with your work on Fedora support channels, it’s another way where helping one person can end up helping countless others.

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