June 14, 2020

Asking for Help As a Creative (Without Feeling Icky About It)

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There are those people who find it easy to ask for help. Then there are those who don't.

Which type of help seeker are you?

Me? I fall into the latter camp. I'm a terrible asker.

Asking for help or advice from another person... it doesn't sit right in my bones. You see, my default way of thinking is "why ask for help, when I can figure this out myself?"

How mini me learned 'how not to ask for help.'

I grew up with the prestigious title of first born, and in my family that meant playing second mum to rambunctious siblings. I played my part in rearing tiny humans, while still being a child myself. 

Don't get me wrong, I relished my role as chief bossy boots. I lorded it over my sibs, while at the same time doting on them.

I picked up some delightful skills along the way.

I learned how to solve problems - mine, as well as theirs. I learned not to be a bother to a stressed out, overworked parent. I learned how to cope with the pressure of being the 'responsible one'. And I blossomed into a self-reliant, over functioning (secretly sensitive) sister-mother.

In essence, I learned how not to ask for help. So it's no surprise that I'm rubbish at seeking it.

And I know I'm not alone in this.

I know of creatives who get knots in their stomachs at the mere mention of promoting their work. It's pushy, and salesy, and tacky. Because we don't like asking people to buy our stuff. Some creators don't get as much exposure as they deserve. The thought of asking for it feels... yucky.

Others grapple with soliciting feedback. Especially from family and friends. Because we're done seeing their eyes glaze over as we talk about our passion projects. We say to ourselves, "what's the point of burdening them with our requests for help? They're clearly not interested."And as for asking for financial assistance, well that's a whole 'nother struggle-bus.

Self-reliance begets self isolation

I prided myself on my ability to self teach anything I needed to know. 

Google and YouTube were my trusty teaching aids. They instructed me on how to build websites. Schooled me in digital design. And showed me how to sell my creations on the world's biggest marketplace. My sense of self efficacy was deeply tied to how much I could handle on my own.

I'm grateful for my resourceful, resilient nature. But damn, there were times I'd wake up and say to myself, "I have nobody to go to with this. I feel so alone."

Then I'd clapback - err, hello! You never asked anyone to help. Remember?

Why we resist asking for help?

This refusal to ask for (or denial of needing) help, is a bizarre mix of self-preservation and misplaced concern for others.

When you've built up the courage to ask for a favour, and you hear a hard NO, that shit stings. It makes you not want to ask again. Or at least that's how I used to feel.

My hesitancy to ask for help is down to me not wanting to put people in an awkward position. Like my asking is somehow an inconvenience to them. I even look for non-verbal cues signalling botheration - a sigh here, an eye roll there. When I find them, it gives me an excuse to revert to my default "don't worry about it, I'll do it myself" stance.

I'm not playing when I say my asking game needs work.

There are these types called matchers. This breed of resistor refuse help because it feels too much like 'owing a debt', and they don't like feeling indebted - "You scratched my back, so now I need to find a way to scratch yours otherwise I won't sleep well tonight." Feeling obligated to repay someone who's helped you out... well that's a stressful way of being.

There are also lowkey control freaks, like me (although I'm in recovery). We have a hard time letting go of control. We have the "yeah, but they can't do it as well as I can" syndrome. Only, that way of thinking is just as destructive to our well-being.

I remember the first time I hired a virtual assistant. I was glad of the support, but still harboured minor anxiety at the thought of someone coming in and rifling through files I'd carefully put together. Like some deranged micro manager on a covert mission, I secretly checked and double checked her work for way longer than any normal 'boss' would have. 

Hunting for confirmation she wasn't up to the job. Of course, I didn't find any. I mean it was a simple admin task that needed doing, not a bloody tax return.

For the most part, we don't like asking for help because;

  1. we fear rejection,
  2. we don't want to feel like a burden or give off user-ish vibes, and
  3. we don't want to look as though we can't handle ourselves for fear of coming across as stupid or incompetent.

But get this:

Your fear of looking stupid, is making you look stupid - RuPaul

Sounds harsh, but RuPaul is speaking truth.

Researchers from Harvard Business School and Wharton School back this up.

They found that the act of asking for help or advice doesn't make us look incompetent. It makes us look smarter to the other person, even though we don't see it ourselves.

We actually view people who seek our advice as much more competent than people who [don't]... because being asked for advice is flattering, it feels good - Alison Wood Brooks, Harvard Researcher

Every time you invite someone to help solve your problem it strokes their ego.

It's a sign you're selecting them as your go-to source, and that must mean you have confidence in their ability to help. Your willingness to court their counsel, bumps you up the smartness scale in their eyes.

To ask for help requires a readiness to be vulnerable and letting your guard down isn't easy.

But the alternative is to continue struggling alone, missing out on opportunities to showcase your work. Or to collaborate with people you admire, and you know, make money doing what you love. 

Performer, Amanda Palmer wasn't afraid to ask for help. 

In fact, she fiercely chased it.

Palmer went from standing on milk crates dressed as a freaky living-bride-statue, to couch-surfing with fans on the fly, to crowdfunding 7 figures for her band, The Dresden Dolls (her initial ask was for $100k).

She needed them, but they needed her to show up with vulnerability, trust, and the courage to ask for help in a powerful, unapologetic way.

Those requests for help involved a level of risk most people would shy away from - the risk of rejection and the risk of safety. But Palmer had faith her people would step up. 

She committed so much of herself, and her work to her community that when the time came for her to call on them, it was a given.

How do you ask for help without making things weird?

"Asking for help with shame says 'you have the power over me.' Asking with condescension says 'I have the power over you.' But asking for help with gratitude says 'we have the power to help each other.'” 

Amanda Palmer, Performer

While it's comforting knowing this is a common truth, it doesn't make the act of asking easier. We still have to somehow fight the resistance. 

We still have to open our mouths, and allow the words to flow past our lips.

But how do you ask without making things, you know... feel weird. 

1. Givers become the given

Long before Amanda Palmer won the support of her fans she worked on winning their trust. She gave music away for free, She took time to sign autographs, take photos, talk, listen, show up and respond to her fans. Even when she didn't feel like it. 

To her followers, Palmer was someone who'd given so much of herself. So when the time came for her to call in the favour, her people didn't give it a second thought.

As a society we're governed by the principle of reciprocity: you do something nice for me, I'll do something nice back. For the most part, this rule is well adhered to. And through giving we build trust.

Focus on becoming a giver first. And give consistently, not just as a way to get things in return, but because you genuinely want to help other people.

2. Know what you need

Sounds obvious, I know, but sometimes we haven't thought through what we want help with. It's the reason why certain requests for help receive a lacklustre response. 

Just the other day I was in an online forum, and a guy was looking for someone to re-design his logo. A conversation began to unfold between him and another member. It went like this:

"Hi, can someone help me with my logo?"

"Sure, what do you need help with?"

"Well, I got this logo back from my designer, but I'm not happy with it. It needs jazzing up a bit."

"OK, but what do you mean by 'jazzing up a bit'?"

"I'm not really sure. I was hoping for some suggestions."

There are two possible outcomes when it comes to a request like this:

Outcome 1: the guy gets a lukewarm response (if any) to his cry for help. 

Outcome 2: the guy ends up with a jacked up re-design of a logo he'll never use.

It's hard getting the right support if you're not sure of what you want.

Figure out what you need first, then ask for help.

3. Don't assume someone can't or won't help

Not sure they're the right person to approach? Ask anyway. They may know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone who can help.

But if you allow assumptions to prevent you from asking, you'll never know.

Ask the question: "do you know anyone who can help with XYZ?"

4. Take a deep breath and ask

I learned this one the hard way - telepathy doesn't work. 

When you're perceived as the 'strong one', the 'responsible one', 'the capable one', you give off vibes that say, "hey, I've got this. I don't need your help today, but thanks." All the while, you're struggling alone. Hoping someone will see past the persona, and lend a hand.

A question I usually ask myself is "how much time could I save if I just ask for help?" That usually gets me out of my head.

The worst that can happen is getting a no. Compare that to struggling alone, and it doesn't seem like such a big deal.

5. Be direct and specific

Most creators value their time. Me included. So when someone I barely know hits me with "can I pick your brain over a coffee?", it gets me feeling a certain way.

I don't hear hot beverage and a friendly chat. I hear this:

"Hello person I do not know, but would like to know because you seem to know things. You don't realise it yet, but I'm going to hold you hostage for one... maybe two hours while I ransack your brain, and deplete your energy. All for the price of a couple of frappuccinos."

I know that sounds over the top, but my inner introvert goes full-on red flag at the mention of brain picking and the C-word. I don't even drink the stuff.

It's always a good idea to provide a little meat on the bone before suggesting a trek to Starbucks.

Even if the brain picking is to take place over the phone or a Zoom chat, state your needs, and be specific ahead of the call. Pre-qualify whether you're even approaching the best person. It'll save time all round.

Do you need advice on getting a sponsorship deal? Do you want to collaborate on a project? Need feedback on your book or portfolio? Help with growing your audience?

Will this require much of a time commitment? If so how long do you need?

How urgently do you need help? What's your deadline? When do you need a response by?

The more information you can provide, the better.

6. Accept NO with grace

A while back, a guy I knew asked for my advice on starting a blog. 

My schedule was tight, but I agreed to help. For one reason or another we couldn't make it work. And his constant demands for my non-negotiable time were starting to drain and annoy me.

I ended up retracting my offer.

Demanding, begging, pleading with someone once they've said no is a huge boundary pusher. It leaves a bad taste in the other persons mouth, making it less likely they'll want to help in the future.

Remember that our priorities aren't other people's priorities.

When someone says no to your request for help, it's not that they're rejecting you. It's that their protecting their time and energy.

Start framing the no's in these terms, and you'll find they sting a lot less.

Pat yourself on the back. At least you mustered up the courage to ask.

And for the love of all things healthy, don't let a no (as long as you've asked graciously) stop you from reaching out in the future.

7. Ask again

In the past I've been guilty of assuming that once I received a no, I was never to darken that person's door again. I've since learned, that's not the case.

In fact, research suggests people who've said no the first time are more likely to say yes when you ask the second time.

As long as you've adhered to the tip above.

8. Say thank you

But don't over do it. 

Being heavy handed with the 'thank-you's' can make the other person feel weirded out or embarrassed. If you've ever experienced someone thanking you profusely for something you were happy to help with, you'll know what I'm talking about. 

I grew up believing the act of asking for help was a form of weakness, but over the years I've gotten better at seeking support. I'd be lying if I said it isn't still a struggle - I don't ask nearly as much as I could do. I'm working on that.

I know that my resistance is an ego thing.

Seeking help isn't a sign of weakness. It's a sign of strength. A sign that you're willing to admit you're not a freaking superhero.

The good thing about asking for help, feedback or advice is that it gets easier the more you do it. It's like building a muscle - it requires practice. 

So figure out what you need help with, and go seek the support you deserve. Yeah, it'll feel a little uncomfortable, but it beats the consequences of trying to do everything on your own.

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