I have a guest blog up at Forensic Focus, a riff on the impostor syndrome topic I’ve written about previously. I want to add to those thoughts by talking specifically about a more hidden issue that goes broader and deeper than impostor syndrome: the notion of asking for help.
Far from being an affront to the concept of Rugged Individualism or an appalling cover for mooching off the hard-won efforts of others, asking for help can be the difference between a string of jobs and a good career, a good versus a great manuscript, or an overworked and stressed parent versus one who, while still overworked and stressed, at least feels a little more balanced.
And yet, one of the most oft-repeated pieces of advice you’re likely to hear at any new endeavor — job, parenting, school — is, indeed, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” The fact that it’s repeated so often indicates that many people are, in fact, afraid to ask for help.
Why don’t we feel worthy?
It isn’t just risking a verbal sneer from That Guy on the forums or listservs who always manages to treat you like you have no business leaving the kids’ table for the adults’ (although that’s never easy to take). That Guy is really just part of the much larger trend towards online shaming, which is, though shameful in itself, not personal.
For me, and I suspect for many others, the fear of being unworthy goes much deeper than that. It has multiple facets, all of which boil down to one thing: my own perception that I haven’t yet figured out how to reciprocate — to give back something of equal value, to make it worth another person’s while to take time out of their schedule for me.
When I’m in the grips of this perception, I think: “Nah, they’re way too busy. I’ll just be pestering them.”
Or: “This idea isn’t baked enough, I can’t figure out how to frame it, and the person I want to approach won’t have the time or energy to brainstorm with me.” (Folks, this is where good ideas go to die.)
Or: “Everyone will think I’m lazy.” (You know, when That Guy admonishes you for not Googling the answer yourself, without considering that maybe you didn’t find the answer you were looking for, or that you’re specifically seeking the perspectives of people you know and trust.)
(Underlying all of this: a fear that I won’t ever be able to reciprocate, which of course, goes back to impostor syndrome: a pervasive belief that I’m not good enough to be able to adequately reciprocate.)
Business blogger Liz Strauss put it a different way as she explained the difference between the outcomes of two separate business meetings in her professional past:
I realized that on the first trip I’d been talking to those CEOs and SVPs as colleagues and partners and on the second trip I’d been putting everyone in the room on a platform above me.
It’s hard to offer value when you feel smaller — when you put the rest of the world above you.
Liz framed this in terms of needing “a person who won’t let you fail.” In my experience, such people have been few and far between… but I think that’s because I’ve inadvertently set myself up to miss them, to miss the opportunity in working with them.
Making yourself worthy
There is no other way to find these people and opportunities than to put yourself out there. I’ve found this to be of critical importance as I search for a job following a layoff: striking up conversations with strangers — completely out of character for me — seeing where the path of conversation leads, trying to put together those pathways with the disparate threads of my freelance-to-marketing career.
I think too often that we get hung up thinking we have to have some kind of expertise to reciprocate, without realizing that sometimes, the reciprocation lies in the act of helping itself. You don’t necessarily have to know or be able to articulate what this other person might get out of helping you; sometimes, they just want to. Either they’ve reached where they are with the help of others and want to pay it forward; or they’ve seen something in you they like, and they’re willing to take the chance. (Be wary, either way, of those who would attach strings or otherwise take advantage.)
Optimize for the cost of saying “no”
You can’t predict what’s going to make a person say “yes.” One person’s cost of saying no isn’t the same as another’s. At that point, it’s in your best interest to have at least some idea of where your needs and their interests align. When you recognize that there is work to be done, that you’ve hit a brick wall and have no idea how to scale it, what is it about this other person that makes you want their help, specifically?
In a world where “Don’t take it personally” is sound business advice, in other words, make it personal. Don’t just contact them because they appear to be the kind of guru whose brain you want to pick; study their LinkedIn profile, their Twitter account, any articles they’ve written lately, what they’re interested in.
This shouldn’t take long! Just as a coworker once told me to stop thinking things through so carefully and go out on a limb more often with my ideas, don’t overthink your value proposition to others. Just be able to articulate it. Hypothesize why helping you will help them, and invite them to test that hypothesis together.
The result may only be transactional. The other person may even say no. But the more people you ask, the more willing you are to invite others into your life, the higher likelihood you’ll have of building long-term relationships with the very people who won’t let you fail.