Periscope Depth

the floods is threatening my very life today

A few years ago, Joel linked to a New York Times article on a famous experiment by Dr. Stanley Milgram. And no, not the one you’re thinking of:

Quickly, however, the focus turned to the experimenters themselves. The seemingly simple assignment proved to be extremely difficult, even traumatic, for the students to carry out.

“It’s something you can’t really understand unless you’ve been there,” said Dr. David Carraher, 55, now a senior scientist at a nonprofit group in Cambridge, Mass.

Dr. Kathryn Krogh, 58, a clinical psychologist in Arlington, Va., was more blunt: “I was afraid I was going to throw up.”

More than three decades later, the memories are still surprisingly vivid, testimony perhaps to the trauma of their experience …

The experiment? Boarding a crowded subway train in Manhattan and asking someone to give up a seat.

This article struck me so hard that I still remember it more than seven years later. Just reading about the process – a healthy man asking a stranger for a seat – makes my pulse race. I suspect if I had to actually carry it out, I’d have a reaction similar to Milgram’s: “The words seemed lodged in my trachea and would simply not emerge.”

This is probably why I have such a hard time asking for help.

I attended a talk given by Barry Eisler last week. After the Q&A, people circled around him, eager to talk self-publishing. One education writer lamented his experience with a publisher: feuding over the title, changing the cover. Eisler sympathized. The writer concluded by mentioning another book of his and giving Eisler his card.

I felt that same quickening of nerves that I described above – and I wasn’t the one talking! I was standing six feet away. But just seeing someone lay out their need like that was like watching surgery. And he wasn’t even asking explicitly for help! Not an introduction, or a recommendation, or even mentioning his book on a blog. Just making a connection. That alone terrified me.

But the odds that Eisler will remember that guy are greater than the odds that he’ll remember me. So the educational writer made the smarter play.

Why does asking for help bother me so much? Why does it bother anyone? Because it’s an admission of lower status. People consider Chinese culture exotic because of its obsession with “face”, but the same jockeying for position goes on in Western society. Passing someone on a narrow stairway, inviting someone to your house, getting a friend to pay back a loan: there are a thousand subconscious calculations about status that go on there.

The problem: if I want to succeed as a writer, I need help.

The good news, as anyone who knows me can tell you, is that I’m not a complete shut-in. I’ve asked people for help in the past. And it’s worked, too! Not always, but often enough that I’m making progress, both as a writer and as a person capable of asking for help.

When I do get over myself and put my hand out, it’s usually because I’ve done one of the following:

  • Own up to your lower status. The only thing worse than being a six is pretending you’re a ten. Acknowledge that, in this situation, you’re at the feet of a more experienced voice. I owned up to my need for guidance when I asked Tess Gerritsen for advice on my unfinished novel (and you think Gerritsen doesn’t get this question a thousand times a year?). And it netted me some useful advice.

  • Visualize the end, not the means. David Lieberman pointed out this behavioral quirk: we break down things we love into a few steps and things we hate into a lot of steps. Going shopping can be “drive to the mall, find what I want, bring it home,” or it can be, “go to the mall, fight over parking, try on a million things, find the cheapest one, get my friend’s opinion, etc,” depending on how much you like shopping. So, as much as I hate asking for advice, I try not to focus on the asking process. Instead, I focus on the expected result. That pleasant “Eureka” sensation I’ll get when they say the one thing that clears the fog*. Focus on the finish line instead of the process. No one runs marathons because they like waking up at 4:00 AM and waiting at a registration table.

  • Practice the pitch. People get nervous about asking for help because they feel like it’s an imposition. Well, they’re not wrong. It is an imposition! Time is precious. So if you’re going to impose on someone’s time, ask in a graceful way. Rehearse the approach if you can. Work on an elevator pitch for your idea so you’re not fumbling and improvising. Buy a book on business writing: they’re easy to find, and they always have sections on how to write a request for help. Which dovetails into …

  • Be willing to pay. I think this is cheating, because paying for help isn’t the same as asking for it. There’s probably some good sociology on how transitioning to a currency economy atrophied our race’s ability to ask for help**. But real effort costs money. And if you get the opportunity to work with an expert and have to pay for the privilege, don’t dismiss it out of hand. Money spent on access isn’t wasted.

To that last point: I signed up for Brazen Careerist’s boot camp on building your blog, hosted by founder Penelope Trunk. The first day’s webinar was on generating great content, the key to creating a successful blog. Trunk’s most important piece of advice: “be vulnerable.” A compelling blog should be about what you’re learning, which means showing the world where you’re vulnerable. Not mopey or helpless or overly confessional, because that shit’s boring. But people like to read stories about growth, because everyone’s trying to grow***.

Being vulnerable. Admitting to lower status. Asking for help. Well, here goes.

* Or, if they don’t have anything useful to say, the smug sense of superiority I’ll feel afterward. “Ha! They think they’re so great …”

** Not that that’s an argument for going back to barter, mind.

*** And yes, this post is an attempt to follow through on that tip, along with others she gave. Clever of you to notice. Put your hand down; you’re already getting an A.

Comments are closed.