What Can I Do To Help?

Enthusiasm is a shockingly rare resource, anywhere. The reason enthusiasm is a rare resource is because it’s fragile; I’ve seen potentially-great ideas abandoned because the initial response was a liturgy of reasons why it won’t work.  It’s not the criticism which kills, it’s the scorn.

So when someone emails or approaches you with something they’re excited about, please reply thinking “What can I do to help?”  Often I just provide an encouraging and thoughtful response: a perfectly acceptable minimum commitment.  If you offer pointers or advice, take extra care to fan that delicate flutter of enthusiasm without extinguishing it. Other forces will usually take care of that soon enough, but let it not be you.

8 replies on “What Can I Do To Help?”

  1. I find that even possible issues with an idea can merit a response that waxes enthusiasm rather than crushing it. Careful phrasing can pose issues or previous failures of similar ideas as challenges (take a look at this previous effort that didn’t work out, you’ll want to avoid pitfalls A and B), particularly when paired with reflected (genuine) enthusiasm for the idea.

    “Sounds like an interesting idea; I’d love to see a working implementation of this. I find such-and-such particularly useful; I can see quite a few applications of that. So-and-so tried something similar here (link), but ended up running into $foo. You might try $bar, or some other approach that successfully avoids $foo. Have you considered $baz and $inga?”

  2. Totally agree. I suspect many people do it simply because they want to appear clever – it gives on an air of authority to be able to find the problems in something. I also find this in conversation – one former friend used to always add to my comments with ‘no, what about’. I decided to adopt the phrase ‘yes, and what about’ for the same situations – I have listened to you, your idea is good, and I can contribute. Great post, Rusty.

  3. In general, good comment Rusty, nice follup Paul…

    Scorn often arises from insecurity, so a polite way of informing the critic that you pity their inability to truly grasp the concept – but do go on to have a nice day, is a frequent response to such by me.

    If there is a way to make clear the observation that “while somebody condemning you (even if indirectly, by raising doubts) does not define you, it does define them” to a no-longer-encouraged person, this can provide them with a lasting sheld against unwarranted naysaying.

  4. I agree, but it would help if this was practised more in the Linux kernel mailing list. See for example:

    * http://www.shlomifish.org/open-source/projects/linux-kernel/xconfig-search/

    * http://zgp.org/pipermail/linux-elitists/2012-March/013387.html

    Of course, it is possible that the environment of the GIMP-development mailing list was even worse in this respect, though it seems to have improved a lot lately (but after the hostility caused a lot of damage in the process.).

  5. It’s incredible how humanity and technology are tightly bound together in the kernel. I don’t think there are so many other projects in which humanity is so valuable like in this one.

    Although I understand some grumpiness I think it’s really what taints the whole picture. So I really appreciate this post and your attitude. Now we hope in the viral effect ;)


  6. I may be mistaken, but personally, I think I usually find “that won’t work” to be helpful, in that it gives me the opportunity to prove people wrong and then say “haha, told you so” afterwards…

    “That sounds cool” is a plus whether it’s followed by “, but it’s just not possible” or “, how can I help?” though…

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