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Advice on Seeking Advice

‘Tis the season of goodwill.
It is also Ebeneezer Scrooge’s time in the limelight.

So I’m going to play the grumpy old man part for a couple of posts. Too much Christmas cheer becomes a bit galling after a while.

Before I went on my first expedition I had so much to learn. I needed to learn from people who had already done the things I wanted to do. So I read as many books, magazines and websites as I could. I filled notebooks with lists, tips and “To Do” pages. I emailed people who could teach me things. I wrote letters to those whose advice I sought. I bought beers for a long distance cyclist and interrogated him in a pub in Oxford.

It is now fourteen years since my first big trip, since I left home to spend a year in Africa. I’ve been on the road solidly for more than five of those years. I’ve spent the last three years making my living from this stuff.

So now I am in a position to be able to help other people on their way. I receive quite regular emails, asking for advice and information or asking me to meet up for a coffee and a chat. I am really happy with this. It’s my way of thanking those who helped me get going. It’s rewarding to be able to encourage other people.

But some things about the way a few people seek assistance really rile me. So here are my Top Seven Ways to Annoy Someone who is giving up their time to help you:

– spell my name wrong. This sounds really petty. But I hold it massively against someone if they don’t take the time to read over what they have written, nor take a moment to check the spelling of a name. It’s a tiny detail, but the tiny details sometimes tell you all you need to know.

– ask for answers that are readily found on my site.

– ask questions that Mr Google can answer perfectly well. I’m doing you a favour; I am not your secretary.

– asking crazy open-ended questions such as “please suggest a route for me to cycle round the world (including distances, timings and where I can stay along the way)”. This is a verbatim quote from an email I received recently.

– take, take, take. I’m not asking for anything in return. I am happy to help. But some people give the impression of being on a simple mission to hoover me dry, to grab every piece of information, every contact, every introduction, with a really greedy gleam in the eye. Think a little bit about how can you give something back. How can you pass the help on? Not to me, but to somebody.

– turn up late for meetings. My time is valuable too.

– not emailing to say “thank you for your time” after meeting. Didn’t your mum teach you anything?

This has been more of a negative post than I like to write, but I hope somebody will use it positively.

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  1. The open ended questions are tough ones. How exactly do you respond? Should you respond at all? What’s the proper protocol?

    But the name one, I half way agree with you. Misspelling a name is bad, but YOUR name in particular is tricky. You are the only Alastair I know. Heck, I’ve probably spelled your name wrong at least a dozen times (Have I? I’m sorry if I have.). I guess I just understand the name thing because I can be really bad with names sometimes (especially names I am unfamiliar with) and people spell my name wrong all the time as well (My last name especially), so I kind of understand.

    (If I had to spell your name the way it sounds , it would look something like this: Alister Humphries. Does that look like many of the misspellings you get?)

  2. Thanks Alastair for touching on this sensitive subject.

    I was just geting riled up by this incredibly annoying advice seeker who contacted me. Here’s a direct quote from her email:

    I was wondering do you know and touring bike brands and how much they cost?, how to get sponsors? How much weight should I carry how much money I should bring?

    The gall of such people.

  3. How to respond? I respond honestly by motivating/encouraging them to get out and take the first step. But at the same time trying to help them in every way possible, sometimes this is letting them know they don’t have clue of what’s ahead.

    Here’s my number one on my list. (-Drum Roll please-) Being taken out for dinner and two hours later hearing …”I forgot my wallet”. I picked up the check and never heard from the COUPLE again!!!

  4. Yes a negative post. But the positive side is that you are reaching people and inspiring them. Even some really dumb/rude/illiterate people!!! Well, I for one am grateful for your books, your blog and for replying to my emails with helpful encouragement. Hope you and yours have a fantastic christmas and keep up the good work!! PS the careterra austral is fantastic, everything I had imagined and more!!!

  5. Although you are dubbing this post negative, it is actually a positive one, because you are hoping that by pointing out the negative people will use it to make positive change.

    Thanks for the post it’s always good to get a reality check sometimes.



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