Follow up or forget it


5/20/2018 5:42 p.m.


I remember five years ago I asked if I could maybe help you out or simply watch in the workshop to see if I can’t learn a thing or two about carpentry. Although I ended up not being able to come in at the time, I’ve become more interested in the trade, and was wondering if there’s any chance I could learn something from you provided it doesn’t interfere with your work.


Jacob (not the writer’s real name)

5/21/2018 8:09 a.m.


I would be very happy to talk with you about your interest. I’m not in a position right now to give any instruction because my schedule is jammed. Simply watching me (or anyone else) work is not how you would learn this craft; it’s completely hands-on, a matter of training eyes and hands to work together, in addition to learning the principles behind joinery, how to use hand tools, and how to use machines. There is also much to learn about wood and other materials, such as adhesives and finishes. Aside from this, I don’t let people come and watch me work because it’s distracting; this translates to increasing the likelihood of errors, not to mention danger.

If you’d like to come to the shop and have a chat over coffee one day this week, let’s set up a time. I can make time on Tuesday or Friday. Let me know.


5/22/2018 10:16 a.m.

Hello again. I’m writing out of avuncular concern (or whatever the feminine version of “avuncular” might be). Please understand that the following is not a reprimand, but advice from a friend of the family who has known you for many years and wants to see you succeed in whatever endeavors you undertake.

When you contact a businessperson to ask for what is essentially free advice or help, it’s important to respond to his or her reply in a timely manner. It doesn’t matter whether his or her answer is “sure, let’s do this” or along the lines of what I wrote yesterday morning. If you want to be seen as a responsible, considerate adult, you should acknowledge the reply promptly and respectfully. I don’t know what is going on with you this summer; I don’t know how you’re feeling about life in general, whether you’re excited (as you have much reason to be!) or anxious (which would also be understandable…). Your state of mind is immaterial to the importance of responding. This is the kind of situation where you must learn to act regardless of how you feel. (Trust me, it gets much easier with practice. I’ve had a LOT of practice.)

The other point I want to make is that you have expressed an interest in my line of work on two occasions, and I have offered what I could in response. The first time, a few years ago, I offered to start work an hour earlier each day, at 7, to give you an hour of free hands-on instruction. I have not made such an offer to anyone, though had [my stepson, who attended the same school as “Jacob”] been alive today and interested in learning about my line of work, I would have done so for him. People from around the country contact me for advice and help, and I don’t have the time to give it to them. Others pay to take classes with me in woodworking schools. I was offering you instruction at no charge. It was totally fine that you decided to spend that time with the [local theater group] instead. Selfishly, I was happy not to have to add another hour to my [shop part of the] workday. But to contact me again about your interest in my kind of work, then not respond promptly to my reply, makes you appear less than serious in your interest. Honestly, it looks bad. If I were a prospective employer, this lack of response would make me choose someone else instead. Who knows? Maybe you got some great offer in the past 24-odd hours that you decided to take, in which case, yay! But that still does not obviate the need to acknowledge my response to your note, or that of anyone else in a comparable situation.

Let me offer a snippet of my own experience in contrast. When I was 20 and living in a rural village in England I decided that I wanted to learn to build furniture. I signed up for a City & Guilds course at the local vocational college. I didn’t drive; I couldn’t afford a car, let alone driving lessons. I rode my bicycle in all weather. You lived in England for a year; you have some idea of how miserably chilly it can be. I got chilblains, a precursor to frostbite, on my fingers and toes. But I showed up every morning at 7:45 and did the work along with the other students, then spent the afternoons working on a cobbled-together worktable in the dining room of the house my boyfriend and I were renting, so that I could earn some money to pay bills. That yearlong course was just the beginning of my education in my field. You really don’t start to learn seriously until you go to work in someone else’s shop and get some experience of the economic realities in this (or any) line of business. This is just a tiny peek into what serious interest looks like. It requires dogged perseverance and existential investment. And it is essential to be courteous to everyone with whom you come into contact, whether or not he or she is able to provide the kind of help you would like.

Again, this is emphatically *not* intended to criticize or reprimand you. I am writing in the spirit of helpfulness as someone who knows the ropes in her line of work, and as I said above, wants to see you flourish.

With the feminine version of avuncular affection,

Nancy–Author of Making Things Work

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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36 Responses to Follow up or forget it

  1. Jimmy Beamer says:

    Is it possible he was just really busy that day? I’ve done that and felt bad I didn’t reply sooner.


    • Roman C says:


      I’ve never been in a situation where I couldn’t reply to an important email within 26 hours. And there’s been times when I worked 20 hr days for three days straight. If this kid is reaching out to Nancy for free lessons when she’s busy, he should’ve made this a priority for him. To do less than is an insult to Nancy and her time.


  2. Luke Maddux says:

    Given that you put this on a public forum I guess you’re expecting people to read it and comment?

    Writing this email is one thing. Putting someone on blast, anonymously or not, on a blog like this is quite another, especially after only 26 hours of waiting for a reply.

    I, for one, think that this carries a very negative tone, and is unprofessional and mean-spirited, regardless of the author’s intent. As someone who buys LAP books, appreciates the company’s mission, and checks this blog regularly, I’m disappointed to find this here.


    • I thanks it’s actually more than professional and courteous. It’s to the point and not meant to degrade or devalue. It’s solid advice on the importance of respecting people’s work and time.


    • tsstahl says:

      I don’t see it the same way. I’ve stepped back from the personal view to the generic where the story is instructive. Kind of like the first 39 or so books in a Christian bible. It is suitably anonymized and the take away for me is professionalism has to be taught before someone can learn it.

      But, I’ve been wrong before.


  3. mike says:

    Chip, meet Shoulder.


    • mike says:

      My comment above is a bit flippant… I do get it, you are busy. You gave this gentleman 2 days in the current week where you could find time. He let 20% of the week slide by without responding. In school letting 20% slip will move you from an “A” to a “C”. He seems to be a family friend so you have some context we don’t. But it still seems like airing dirty knickers (and who wants that)?

      In terms of female version of avuncular…

      (but for the record I like your style and Making Things Work is on my short list…. I tend to buy books in anticipation of having the time to read them, so when time permits….)


  4. Kevin Thomas says:

    I find this to be a great piece. Manners are something that is desperately lacking in the current generation. You get a big Thumbs Up from me, Nancy.


  5. boclocks says:

    materterine, is the word you’re looking for.


  6. Rachael Boyd says:

    Good for you Nancy, I think you told it like it is. I leaned the old school of woodworking from Roy and Chris, and power tool stuff from Norm and so many more. anyone can show you how to do some thing but till you put tool to wood it all for not. Thanks for being blunt.


  7. Bob Wheeler says:

    Very clear, concise comments. This may be some of the best advice this young man will ever receive and greatly help him in any chosen field. Would that more folks were willing to take time to pass along such vital information.


  8. Aquila says:

    I too have had people (of all ages) ask for time to watch me work. I have also offered them time to discuss their interest and on a very few occsions offered free lessons. I usually receive the same response – nothing, no answering email, no return phone call. I think you’ve written a great general response to anyone who does this sort of thing. It doesn’t matter what kind of work you do or craft you practice, it’s about the simple courtesy of a response. Our time is valuable, I would have been waiting for a response so I could adjust my schedule or not. I am saving this to pass on to my step-children and their kids, they have all complained about people who do this to them and I’m sure they’ll find it as useful as I will. Thanks.


  9. Anthony says:

    Well said. I thought no you are spot on with your comments.


  10. Bob Glenn says:

    It’s been my experience that if you really want something, nothing will keep you from getting it. I seriously doubt Jacob’s interest.


  11. gdblake00 says:

    Funny how some people place no value in decades of hard learned knowledge and skills in any vocation that requires training the hands to do marvelous things.


  12. Micah says:

    Dear Nancy,

    I have three comments to share with you.

    First, your reprimand seems very heavy-handed. If, out of materteral interest, you wanted Jacob to learn a lesson, perhaps you might have given him a couple of days to not respond. If he responded, albeit a little late, you could call him to task for tardiness but still be pleased that he responded. And if he did not respond after several days, then your reprimand would have been reasonable. But such a dressing-down as you gave him after but a single day hardly seems fair.

    Second, I have found that sometimes the person who asks a favor needs not only the favor but also a bit of a kick-in-the-butt. He asked. Great. But he doesn’t follow up. That’s bad. The thing is, maybe he’s just really, really bad at follow-through, and he will never get anywhere in life until and unless someone helps with two hands. Sometimes people need not only a helping hand but also an extra little push with the second hand. Maybe if you had sent him an email saying, with humor, “I told you to call me, you didn’t, now pick up the damn phone and call, you pipsqueak!” He asked for a favor but maybe you are able to give him a little more than that.

    Finally, you told Jacob that you would be very happy to talk with him about his interest but you declined his request for instruction or even the opportunity to watch. So, um, what’s there really to talk about? I think that perhaps you might have expressed your materteral interest not by spending time writing a reprimanding email but by thinking about–and telling him about–ways that you might be able to assist him even if you can’t give him lessons.



    • nrhiller says:

      There’s all sorts of advice I can offer over a cup of coffee to someone such as this young man: classes, perspective on the viability of furniture making as a profession, the list goes on and on. I appreciate your humor (the pipsqueak comment).


  13. Quercus Robur says:

    “Five years ago (…)” – Incredible.


  14. Jacque Wells says:

    An absolutely magnificent piece of advice. I only wish it were published in every high school in this country — and other countries as needed. Thank you.


  15. ctdahle says:

    I’ve been on my students about this same subject this week. Recent they each did a one day “internship” with local businesses. Some were annoyed when I told them they had to to write thank you notes. If you will permit, I’d like to print this out and add it to my “How and why we write thank you notes” lesson.


  16. Lolaoak says:

    Since its been five years since Jacob has exhibited interest in learning the trade, then I am to assume he is a young adult, and not a teen or child. I think your responses were perfect. I think Jacob was just taught what a direct response is. Unfortunately, and I don’t want to make an assumption, my experience is that you may only get a response when he/they want something. “Can I be a fly on the wall?”, “Can I pick your brain?” No. That’s not teaching or learning.


  17. I found this posting to be disappointing and disheartening.

    It is of course important to be prompt and courteous, as I like to say good manners are always in fashion. However, for several reasons, the posting here is not inline with the content I would like to see in the future.


  18. rogerthegeek says:

    My experience is that people don’t appreciate anything that doesn’t cost them something.


  19. mike davis says:

    This is what I see lacking in the youth today. I can’t say how many times I have recounted similar stories of my beginning years to younger folks and I always get that deer in the headlights look.

    My first real job that I got myself was a helper in a sign shop. I was 16 and had absolutely no experience. So I walked into a sign shop and asked the owner if I could sweep the floor and take out the trash til I could learn to do more. Fortunately for me he was in a busy spell and needed help. He gave me a roller and a bucket of paint and showed me a stack of plywood to paint. At the end of the day he paid me $20 cash and asked I could come back the next day. By the end of the Summer I was lettering signs and cutting silk screens by hand. (Yeah nobody does that anymore).

    I stayed in the sign business for nearly 20 years, learned hand lettering, sand blasting, silk screen both hand cut and photo emulsion, all the darkroom processes, offset prepress, typography/type setting, photography, and many other skills that are mostly gone by the wayside now other than a small revival effort.

    But the point is you have to be willing to take a chance, walk in and ask. Nobody ever got a job, a raise, changed careers, or made any money sitting on their hands.


    • nrhiller says:

      I am with you on this. The enquirer in question did not get that far. It really does come down to showing (by responding) that you are serious. And in this day of instant communication (esp. when the enquirer is not currently employed and is the one who initiated the contact), the passing of 24-plus hours appears to suggest that the interest is less fervent than claimed. That is all.


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