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Designing Minds 16: To Help or Not?

You've probably heard friends offer: "Hey, I can help you with that--" (new fence, leaky faucet, concrete job, etc.)

It's tempting to take them up on it, but sometimes accepting the offer, however well-intentioned, ends up creating more trouble than it's worth for both of you.

Even when the project turns out beautifully--which certainly isn't guaranteed when non-professionals are involved--you may find your friendship has been damaged in the process.

A few months ago a close friend asked me to help him build a playhouse for some mutual friends. His idea was, hey, we're fairly experienced carpenters, let's build the kids a playhouse. It was a generous and noble project, and the playhouse itself turned out fine (although I still have to go back and add some flashing--see pitfall #3.)

Overwhelmed with work, I was reluctant but unable to refuse; since it was more than one person could do in a few afternoons, my refusal would have killed the project.

My friend bought all the materials and set up the tools, and I was supposed to show up to help make the cuts and assemble the pieces. Unfortunately, I was late every afternoon we'd agreed to meet, and my friend ended up doing the lion's share of the work. This was no four-sheets-of-plywood- and-a-handful-of-nails playhouse; it included windows and a curved roof. To make it even more challenging for me as a helper, we were building without detailed plans.

My slacking didn't add to his enjoyment of the carpentry, and my overbooked schedule certainly didn't add to mine. What was intended as a fun project ended on a sour note. When he pointed this out, all I could do was apologize for taking on the job at all.

Here are some pitfalls to avoid when helping or accepting help on a project:

1. Inaccurate time estimates
In today's world, time management is a key concern, and committing to a "one-afternoon job" that ends up taking an entire weekend will strain anyone's joie de vivre.

2. Guilt factor
Is the job dead in the water without you? It's hard to say no if you're the linchpin, but guilt is a lousy motivation. All too often it breeds resentment, not friendship.

3. Poor planning/the job that never ends
Thanks to inadequate planning--such as lack of materials or tools--some jobs just never seem to end. If you're the pal who agreed to "finish it off," this can be a real burden.

4. Mismatched skill levels
A common mistake is to assume that your hands-on friend will be willing to run the show, or conversely, that a no-experience buddy will actually be of help. Whoever's in charge has to know what they're doing, and be willing to give orders to helpers. Worst case scenario: everyone's here, but nobody knows what to do.

5. Lack of reciprocity
Sometimes people really don't have the equivalent skill or time to offer in reciprocity for some help. It's human nature to want to be generous, but a handshake and the offer "to help you out later" just doesn't cut it unless there's some real potential for reciprocity. If there isn't, then cash or a great dinner should be offered in lieu of an empty promise.

The 'helping out' jobs that avoid these pitfalls can provide some of the best moments of friendship. Just last week I helped this same friend and his wife pour a new concrete sidewalk at their home. He had the mixer, Sackcrete and tools all ready, and I'd set aside the entire afternoon to help. We all three shared the dirty work of mixing, and since I have lots of experience with concrete, they let me do the finish.

The sidewalk turned out fine, and it sure made it easier for me to ask them for a favor when I needed one.

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