Just jotting this down between toddler wrangling and chopping wood. It's going to be messy and a bit long, because I don't have time to edit it.

Was looking on the Boxcutters Podcast website and saw a comment by someone who said, "And if all I seem to do is complain, it’s probably because I don’t really feel the need to say anything about the bits I enjoy, I just enjoy them."

Now who it was, what they complained about, and the subject of the conversation is unimportant. It's this line that really stuck out to me, because it seems to be such a common attitude.

I love what you do, and I figure you know that. I only complain when there's an issue.

This is a remarkably common mindset, and it's also a completely fucked one. I've been a part of various volunteer groups over the years, been friends with literally hundreds of people who have been a part of other volunteer groups, and let me tell you something - it's never easy. Those people who volunteer time for anything, be it a convention, a panel, a podcast, support phone lines, local fire brigades, animal rescue, local radio, volunteer tourist staff, helpers at festivals, emergency relief...

So let me say this very, very clearly -

Every complaint hurts, and no thank you is ever, ever taken for granted.

This holds true in 99% of pretty much every job out there. But here I'm talking specifically about unpaid volunteer work.

Look around you at the things that are there. It doesn't matter if you never use them, other people do, and you may need them some day. But ignore that for the moment, just look at how many things there are out there that are done on a volunteer basis. From the small things, to the big important stuff.

Now imagine the world without them. No fan-run conventions, volunteer help lines, free podcasts, local radio, volunteer fire departments...

A lot of it takes training or at least a huge learning curve, some of the free volunteer stuff you enjoy actually costs the volunteers money to do, and every bit of it takes time in which these people could be doing other stuff. Hell, for many of them, their lives would be a damned sight easier if they weren't doing this.

Trust me on this. If when you do speak up it's only to point out mistakes, complain, or offer what you believe is constructive criticism, no-one takes the times you are silent as affirmation of their work. They don't sit there going "such-and-such hasn't complained, we must be doing a good job." They just keep working away, doing the best they can, and the next time they see your name on an email or letter to them they dread looking at it.

They dread it because you're going to ignore the personal cost in terms of time, and possibly money, to essentially tell them they're doing a poor job. Or you're going to helpfully suggest all the stuff they could be doing, suggest increasing the workload substantially, with no offer of help or suggestion where they can get the extra hands and minds to do the work. They dread your messages because you're going to hurt and frustrate them yet again, and make them feel like shit.

You're going to make them feel bad. For volunteering their time and energy free of charge for something you need or at least enjoy.

Now, I'm not saying you shouldn't complain about problems. The only way to sort out issues is to make them known. But before you complain, think for a moment about what you're going to say. These people are volunteers. Most of them aren't professionals. They do all this sort of stuff because it needs to be done, or no-one else is doing it, or it will make the world a slightly better, more interesting place.

These people care about what they do, they care about doing it as best they can, and they put in this time so other people can benefit. So don't hold them up to impossible or unrealistic standards, and don't treat them like they are slack, lazy, or stupid.

I've done a lot of stuff. And it doesn't matter how many compliments I get, I'm always hideously aware of what I got wrong, or what I didn't get to do, or what didn't quite work. Every compliment makes me feel happy, in spite of what I know I stuffed up. It makes me humble and makes me want to try harder to do it better next time.

One aggressive or poorly worded complaint can easily and permanently remove all the compliments and thanks I got from everyone else. And it makes me wonder why I ever bothered doing it in the first place.

And I'm one of the truly lucky ones, in that I'm usually pretty visible, so people notice me and think to thank me. Many people aren't that lucky, but they do just as much or significantly more than I do, and they only ever get to hear the complaints.

If you can usually find the time to complain, then you've no excuse for failing to compliment. Compliments set a benchmark far better than complaints will ever do. Complain enough, and people just stop listening to you, even when you're right.

It is important to tell people when they mess up, but it's way, way more important to tell them when they are getting it right. Because you're just the latest in the long, long line of people ready to find fault and complain about something.

So look at all the things that would be missing from the world without all the people volunteering their time, and try instead to be one of the rare few who ever think to say, "Thank you, I appreciate what you're doing."
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