Are You Helping or Wasting Time? Ask the Turtle

Imagine seeing a giant turtle that is crawling up from a river and is approaching the side of a road. You’re hiking past it and it turns up its head towards you. What do you do?

Just because you think you're helping doesn't mean you are.

Gloria Steinem was in that position when she was a college student and on a field trip. She decided to save the turtle and lugged the huge reptile back down to the river. When her professor asked what she was doing she proudly told him of her virtuous deed. He then explained the turtle was looking for higher ground to lay her eggs and that Gloria had just undone a month’s trek for the turtle.

Helping is good. But you need to make sure it’s actually helping. So ask the turtle first.

Are you moving turtles at work?
Although you may not be moving tortoises between cubicles, you might be doing some extra work that people not only don’t appreciate, and it’s actually causing them problems.  It’s wasting everyone’s time. Yet to you, the only problem is why you aren’t being lavishly praised.

Don’t ‘Do Unto Others’ unless you ask first
Yes, we’ve been told in Sunday School, kindergarten, and at home to do for others what we would want them to do for us. But unless the other person is you, you have no idea what they really want. Your idea of what the perfect TPS report is might be their idea of the worst 119-page PowerPoint presentation ever created. So stop wasting time unless you get the go ahead first.

Refrain from moving the legal turtle
I found myself in turtle-moving situation early in my copywriting career. An account executive asked me to proof some text for a banking client. I was insulted. I created commercials, dammit. I came up with concepts. I was not a proofreader. But to show I wasn’t a snobby creative person, I told him I would do it since it was late at night and he needed it in the morning.

I looked at the text. It was technically okay, but it was so dull, so boring, and such a snooze. I decided to go the extra mile and make it much snappier.

The next morning, I expected to have a shower of flowers and thanks rain down on me. Instead I got a shower of expletives. Why the hell did I change the text?  Apparently, this was the legal, cover-your-ass text that a financial lawyer had put together and — other than typos — not one thing could be changed.

I could have saved everyone a lot of pain, heartache, and heartburn if I had just asked the turtle first.

I’m not saying don’t help out or take initiative. I’m saying take the initiative to take a few extra seconds to find out if it’s actually going to help first.

Mojo Moves

  • Resist the urge to automatically help.  Yes you’re a wonderful, caring person.  And you have enough to do without taking on helpful projects that no one even asked you to do.
  • Don’t assume help is needed. Most problems end up resolving themselves on their own. Work on the problems where your help is specifically requested.
  • Interact before acting.  It takes 3 seconds to say, “Do you need help with that?”

Photo courtesy of

Got some stories on how being helpful ended up not being so helpful?  Spill here.


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