No such thing as a free breakfast

I posted a poll on Twitter recently, after having some thoughts about my career that I wanted to share:

Even on my low tier level – you can see there’s a winning option. People have heard the Red Cross is “bad”, but they’re not sure why. Neither was I. My grandpa was a Marine in World War II, or possibly after it was over. He was stationed in Okinawa and came home in 1949. I’m not sure how long he’d been there. He taunt me to count to ten in Japanese – or as I discovered when I grew up, almost, but not quite. Up to 5 or 6 were right.

He also had a grudge against the Red Cross, but I never knew why. Their being a “bad” organization was just one of those things you “knew”, because you’d heard it. He definitely didn’t talk about his time there, and you knew not to ask. Asking about the Red Cross would have counted. And so years later I found this story here from NPR:

During World War II, the Red Cross had comfort stations for soldiers overseas, with free coffee and free doughnuts. Then, in 1942, the Red Cross started charging for the doughnuts. Soldiers have held a grudge ever since.

There’s also an audio player in the story, in the left column – it’s about 5 minutes, and worth the listen I think. It’s interesting that even now you’ll hear people from that generation complaining about the Red Cross – 70 years after. Just because they started charging for something in the same way everyone else was.

This is an important lesson to learn, and one that I’ve learned in my professional career, or at least in my career and applied to my private life – if you do something for free, people expect it. If you do extra work to accommodate their failures, they will grow to expect you to do it. Even if it’s not your job; especially then. There’s no such thing as a one-time favor at your job. Not only that, but they don’t appreciate it as much. They start to take it for granted.

Research backs it up – and you can probably think of examples from news stories of the past few years. I remember people being furious when Pandora started charging. Or charging for plastic bags at grocery stores. Current speculation I’ve seen is that Uber is subsidizing their rides by $10 a ride from their venture capital money. We’ll see how that one shakes out in a few years and if they really double their prices.

So, I guess that’s my lesson here, not just for young developers or tech support, but for anyone – in your professional career, there’s no free lunch and no free one-offs. If you do something once, people know you can do it, and will ask you to again in the future. It can be as complicated as polishing a report and proofreading, or simple things like putting out a bowl of candy or bringing bagels on a Friday morning. I know the impetus is there to help people out, and helping people feels good. You want to do a good job and take care of things that you can accomplish. It’s not just helpful; it can be empowering to be the hero. But even when they’re people you like and respect – even your friends – you can’t just do it once. You’re doing it for life. And we’re all guilty of it – even our soldiers, over something 7 decades ago – over some donuts and coffee.

Do you have a serious career question, or would like some advice? Visit my curiouscat profile and ask there, and I’ll give you a serious, thought-out answer – something like the above, but not necessarily as long. I promise not to reply to your serious problems in the voice of my boisterous twitter character – or voice, or whatever you want to call it. It’s not really a “character”, it’s just a Thing I do. Or if you want to say something dumb, that’s okay too.

I promise not to start charging you for my advice. For now.