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Other People’s Projects

When you’re a kind, generous, and concerned person, it’s easy to take on other people’s projects. You like to help. You like to utilize your knowledge and skills, and you like to make other people’s lives better. Being helpful is great, except when it’s not.

I was watching Paul Rubin set up a table in preparation for a Feldenkrais lesson. I asked if he’d like some help. He thanked me, but indicated that he preferred to do it by himself, “This way, I know what the ‘other fellow’ is going to do.”

Norman Kennedy

Norman Kennedy

My friend Norman Kennedy was warping a loom, while I stood idly watching him. When I asked if I could help, he bristled. Among the “old people” in Scotland, where he learned to weave, it was considered an insult to try to help someone do something that they were perfectly capable of doing singlehanded.

I’ve taken on some big jobs that in retrospect were other people’s projects. What I notice—mostly in retrospect—is that they were not my projects. I saw a better, grander, more elegant, more Gika-like way to do them, and generously stepped in to help. What I also see in retrospect was that I got to do a lot of “heavy lifting.” I got to nudge and poke and prod and persuade, in order to get things done. I even found myself occasionally being resentful of the amount of work “I had to do.”

I’m a little humbler now. I know that the Gika-like way is just that: the Gika-like way. Not better or worse than someone else’s way; it’s just my way.

The greatest thing about getting carried away with other people’s projects has been that in between the bouts of heavy lifting, there’s been a lot of room for fun and learning and growing. Some great stuff got done, no one died in the process, and now I’m really clear that I want to work on my projects.

How can you tell that a job is not your project? Were you invited to work on the project? Did someone give you permission to work on it? Are you finding yourself re-inventing or redefining the work at hand? Are you resenting the amount of work involved? Was it your idea?

It’s not always easy to make the distinction between collaboration, genuinely generous assistance, and minding your own business, but it’s worth doing.

Chances are you have some projects of your own that are hanging around waiting for you. How can you tell which ones are yours? The following are clues that you’re getting warm:

  • You get excited, maybe even nervous at the idea of doing them.
  • You wonder if you really could do them.
  • You’d love to, but it makes you anxious, because it’s a stretch.
  • It feels selfish to consider these projects, because they’d be so much fun, so satisfying.
  • If you had the means, you’d pay someone to let you work on this stuff.
  • It makes you happy to think that maybe you really could do this.

Here’s the best part: when you work on a project that is really yours, and you know it in your heart, then, inevitably, what you’re doing is kind and generous and makes the world a better place.

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