Help doesn’t always help

My first year on faculty, our graduate program director spent six months demanding an assistant. He mentioned the need for one in almost every email, and brought it up at every faculty meeting. Finally, our department chair looked him in the eye and said, “Tell us what your assistant would do.” The grad director leaned back and folded his hands behind his head. “I need someone to file for me.” That’s it. The guy couldn’t even add coffee and dry cleaning to the list.

We all knew the poor guy just wanted someone to boss around, to make him feel more important, respected, successful. He was 45, divorced, and recently turned down for full professor. The promotion denial even became a reason to justify an assistant. “If someone would help me with all this work, I’d have more time for research.”

The good news? You can hire a federal work study without having to pay for it out of your own budget. So the director got his assistant finally — a young Instagram model who sat at a makeshift desk in his office, taking selfies. Let’s call her Amanda. The bad news: Amanda had no office experience whatsoever. We had to show her how to transfer calls every single day. We had to show her how to deliver mail. We had to show her how to use the copier and scanner, every single time someone asked her to make copies. Almost daily, she walked into my office with an “Ummmmm.”

That’s right. Ummmmmmm.

I would look up and say, “What is it, Amanda?”

“I just …” And she would look down and frown at an envelope. Then she’d huff. “Does this person even work here?”

I’d look at the envelope and then toss it in the right slot for her, each time pointing out how we’d organized the mail boxes alphabetically. Once, she sighed and complained about that. “Yeah, but you did it by last name, and that’s confusing.”

Our graduate director got tired of Amanda pretty quickly after she accidentally deleted a batch of application files. So he started outsourcing her to other faculty.

When one of our professors retired, we enlisted her to pack up his office. Lots and lots of books. We wrote out a list of instructions for her. You know, stuff like “Go get boxes. Assemble the boxes like this using packing tape.” We included diagrams, and I showed her an instructional video on box assembly from YouTube.

Amanda showed up Monday morning with an excited gleam in her eyes. She was going to be useful for once.

Alas. After ten minutes of listening to her fumble with something, I overheard a mini tantrum, followed by sobbing. When I entered the office, Amanda was crouched over a roll of packing tape. She looked up at me, lips trembling. “I can’t get the thing to open.”

I knelt down beside her. “Well, you have to peel the tape back like this to get it started.”

“OMG,” she said. “Where did you learn that?”

“Um, I don’t know … I just ... Do you want some coffee?”

She hugged me, and I decided to leave campus before she got through that first roll and had another meltdown.

No, Amanda’s not typical. But she’s a great example of what having help often feels like. Half the time, help doesn’t help. It just makes for more work.

You might remember this one chapter in your psychology textbook about rats in mazes. Drop one rat in a maze, and the furry little creature will find its way out in a few minutes. Add two or three, though, and they’ll fuck each other up completely. A group of rats might take hours to get through a maze. We should all take one valuable lesson from this experiment: You don’t want help at work. The next time someone offers to help, just lie and tell them you already did whatever.

We hear a lot about the importance of teamwork these days. Sometimes dividing up a task makes sense when it has neatly segmented parts. Other times, what looks like a complex job only requires effort from one person. Any more, and you spend all your time debating the best way to get it done. I’m not even kidding, I’ve abandoned committees and finished their work before the rest of them even decide on a plan.

I’m no martyr. I finish the task, and then I use the new free time watching Netflix and drinking. This year, I gave up my useless office assistant and took on all her work myself. People thought I was crazy. But the work’s done, I’ve already finished The Defenders, and a bottle of nice bourbon. It was excellent, and well earned.

In fact, assistants can be the worst. I’ve had at least three in various jobs. One tried to watch movies while handling paperwork and files. Everything took her three times as long as it should’ve, and I had to ride her constantly. You see, sometimes I couldn’t get parts of my job done until she’d completed a task. So I often had to reconfigure my schedule and timetables around her lazy ass. It drove me crazy.

Good assistants never hang around that long. Once you’ve trained a competent person, you know what they do? They go off and get a fucking promotion behind your back. Motherfuckers. My best assistant got a paid internship after a semester with me, and so she had to leave. By the time I trained a new one, even she got a better job. Even worse, I had to write recommendation letters for both of them.

Sure, I should be proud. Part of a boss’s job is training and helping people. But from a purely selfish perspective, it sucks away a lot of my time. Training someone to do something the first time takes just as long as doing it yourself. You have to show them the process, do some of the process with them, monitor their progress, worry about them late at night, and then check their work when they’ve finished. Training people like that only makes sense if they can hang around for a couple of years.

My new philosophy is that training assistants is a service I provide to my university. If I think I’ll have time, I’ll take on an assistant. Otherwise, I just need to bang out the shit so I can actually relax off the clock.

You know what’s worse? The colleague who offers help but then does one of the following: criticizes your plan and offers a way more complicated one, forces crazy town ideas on you, procrastinates, or bombards you with questions over email and text at all hours. Half the time, I think people ask for help just because they don’t want to work by themselves, even if it means taking three times as long to complete a job.

The advantage of doing most things yourself is you don’t worry about what someone else is doing. You always know the status of your projects. You can organize and prioritize them however you want, without having to stop and explain everything all the time. If you want to radically reorganize your Google folders one night because you reached an epiphany, you can just do it. When you’re done, you don’t have to write anyone an email describing what you did and where to find shit now. If you want to innovate or automate a task, you just do it. Beautiful.

The next time someone offers you help, think twice. You might be committing temporal suicide. Only accept help from low maintenance people who like to work alone, and who you can trust. They’ll actually divide up your load efficiently, and you won’t lose sleep. But most of the time, you might be better off solo.