Asking for help? Expect no relief

It’s embarrassing to ask for help.

It means admitting you’re struggling. It means acknowledging the fact that you are unsure and uncertain. It means you have to make yourself vulnerable.

So we don’t do it that often.

We labor on under our self-imposed burdens. We struggle in the shadows while condemning ourselves for our inability to overcome.

We must be dumb or stupid or not suited for this.​

Not so.

“Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?”

These are words from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Asking for help isn’t an admission of weakness. It’s a show of strength. It takes more strength to be open and honest and vulnerable than it does to be tough and stubborn.

But how do you do it? How do you ask for help?

There’s three steps:

1) Define the problem

You can’t ask for help if you can’t communicate the problem you’re trying to solve.

To do this takes some hard work and some heart work.

You have to think about the real problem. Not the symptoms. The root cause.

Your unhappiness at work could stem from problems at home. Your problems at home could stem from your own anxiety. Your own anxiety could be a manifestation of an insecurity.

This is perhaps the hardest step. But if you can define the problem then you can create a strategy to overcome it.

2) Do the legwork

“I feel bad all the time” is not a defined problem. Go deeper.

“I lose my energy and motivation whenever I’m doing xyz and I struggle to regain it for the rest of the day” is better.

If your problem isn’t personal, great. Problems like “I can’t get more customers” or “I’m losing ground to my competitors” are easier to solve.

Now you have a properly defined problem, you have to skip the urge to reach out for help immediately. Why?

Because if you’re not willing to spend even a little bit of time confronting your own obstacles, why should you expect someone to give up theirs?

In fact, if asking for help is your default option then you will be searching for a solution to your ailment—laziness—for a long time.

Instead of soliciting advice, first, look and listen and learn. Why?

Billions of people have lived and died and recorded their experiences. Your problem is not unique. Yes, the specific details may be, but the actual pattern is rarely unprecedented.

So look for other instances of your problem in books and blog posts and podcasts and other mediums.

See why it’s called “legwork”?

After searching around for examples and common solutions to the type of problem you’re having, you have to assimilate it. Bring it all together.

Sometimes you don’t even have to do that. Sometimes in the search for other stories of similar problems you come across or invent a solution.

3a) Ask, but expect no response

If your search doesn’t unearth a solution, then you ask.

This is the easiest part, but the one most often done incorrectly.

You likely know who you’d like to ask for help. Let’s say it’s someone who you’ve never met and lives on the other side of the world.

The best way to contact them would be via email.

I use a generic three step outline:

A) Have a genuine, sincere, honest problem that you need help with. Don’t ask just because you want to initiate a conversation or build a relationship.

If you’re question isn’t sincere, one of two things will happen: You’ll ask a question with an obvious answer and the recipient will see you as lazy and fake for not bothering to think and explore a little bit more. Or (usually, and) you won’t get a response.

It’s also worthwhile checking that the person hasn’t answered your question in their writing, in an interview, in their work, or in some other place that is public and accessible. You’ll be surprised how often this happens.

B) Now you have a question to ask, ask it. Don’t open with paragraphs of flattery.

Say hi. Ask your question. Briefly describe why you’re asking them.

C) That’s the hard part over.

You’re probably asking for help from this particularly person because you respect them or because their work has impacted you in some way. If that’s the case, take this opportunity to say thank you.

Nothing complex or fancy. Just give thanks for the work they do and the contribution they’ve made to your life.

Then end the email.

Now, you could do all the above and get no response, which is fine. People are busy. Some religiously answer emails. Some religiously ignore it. Some will read it and not reply. Some will read and briefly reply with a link or a comment. Some will come back at you with a question or a more detailed explanation.

Be prepared to ask, but do not expect a response.

3b) Ask, but expect no relief.

If you are going to ask someone you already personally know it’s easier. You already have an open line.

But here’s the problem.

The people closest to us often want what’s worst for us.

We, as human beings, are at our best when we are confronting adversity and solving problems. When we are facing uncertainty and put in situations that force us to evolve.

But we don’t want that for the people we care about. We want them to be happy and comfortable and shielded.

You have to remember that when you ask for help from your circle.

Often the consequence of asking someone close to you is you don’t get a direct answer, you get a point in the right direction.

They steady you and help you back onto the right path. This is usually all we needed in the first place.

By asking for help we solicit answers from people who have experienced and overcome problems similar to our own.

Several months ago, I saw a tweet from someone I can’t remember or find now.

It went something like this:

When you ask a question, you miss out on a chance to develop your thinking abilities. When you don’t ask a question, you miss out on a chance to build a connection with another person.

Whether you ask or not, you have to realise that though your problem is not unique, it is your own.

It is your responsibility.

That is perhaps the key.

Acknowledge responsibility for your issues, do the legwork, and as you rush off into the distance in search of a solution, ask people to point you in the right direction.