How To Ask For Help

March 9, 2020

There are many ‘obvious’ life lessons that seem almost too common sense to write about. But I’m always reminded of the question a mentor once put to me, “Yes it might be common sense, but is it common practice?” It’s with that spirit in mind that I want to share one of the most valuable lessons I was reminded of in 2019 — asking for help.

Of course, we all need help throughout our lives. We need help changing our diapers when we’re babies, we need someone to transport us to school as kids, we need friends to hold the beer bong while we were in college (sorry, Mom!), and much more. It’s evident that we rely on others, and they rely on us.

Yet I found that as I’ve grown up, I’ve become hesitant about asking others for help. In reflecting on why this is, I’ve come up with three ideas that could explain this hesitation.

First, perhaps it’s due to my nature and a more independent personality type. Second, it could be a result of conditioning from a society that can make it seem that asking for help is weak, or that it’s not what smart, strong, or successful people do. Third, I think part of my hesitation arises from fear of rejection and worrying about others saying no. As social beings, our fear of rejection runs deep.

All of these questions and doubts were swirling in my head last summer when I finally made the decision to apply for a new visa that would allow me to stay in the UK on my own terms for another five years.

I knew I’d need to rely on the help of others to make a successful application, but I still felt hesitation when I thought about the process. Asking for the help I needed was simple in theory, but harder in practice.

The Tech Nation Visa describes itself as a visa for “the brightest and best tech talent from around the world to come and work in the UK’s digital technology sector.” Reading through the requirements, I wasn’t sure I was qualified.

Further, when I looked at the recommendations and supporting evidence I would need to provide, I felt a familiar pang of dread at the thought of how I’d get the letters and documentation I needed. The mixture of anxiety and unworthiness created a nice procrastination cocktail, which I happily sipped on for a few months.

Finally, I realized I needed to make a move. I took a dose of my own medicine, and reminded myself to start small and focus on one part of the bigger project first. So I sent an email to a colleague whose recommendation would make a big difference, asking him for a meeting to discuss getting his help.

Taking the first step

You know what drove me to take that first tiny step? Remembering the power of commitment devices, which are essentially choices you make now that control your actions in the future.

By sending a simple email, I was now forced to start building my case for the visa. Sure enough, when the meeting rolled around a week later, I had set out the main accomplishments I wanted this colleague’s endorsement for, and I had picked up some momentum.

I used that initial bump of momentum to send out my next ask, which my teammate quickly agreed to. Now I was moving, and before I knew it, I had finished the full application packet. What took months to begin only took weeks to start and finish.

Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness

Now, I realize that this particular example is not going to be directly relatable to all of you. However, it is the underlying message which I believe is universal — we all need help and while asking for it can be hard, it’s an essential part of our growth.

I’m inspired by these words from former President Barack Obama on asking for help:

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new.

I believe that we are put on this earth to help and serve each other. Deep down, we all have an ingrained sense of connectedness to each other, and that comes to life when we’re able to help.

Just think about the last time you were able to help someone. Maybe it was donating spare change to someone in need, or simply grabbing a coffee for your colleague. How did it make you feel?

We are wired to help others. Yet too often, we’re afraid to ask for help ourselves. Society has championed the idea of self-sufficiency, independence, and personal achievement. But it’s easy to forget that any individual victory is not just the work of one person.

Tips for asking for help

Be specific with what you need. The more you can drill down into what your ask requires, the easier it will be for the person you’re asking to consider your request. If you have a deadline, be honest about it.

Be prepared and make their lives easier. If you’re asking for an introduction to someone they know, have a short bio about yourself written and ready so they can easily send the introduction. If you need a recommendation, outline the projects and achievements you’d like them to comment on.

Give praise to the person you’re asking. You’re asking that person for help likely because you respect them, look up to them, or see their knowledge or connections as valuable. So inherently, you have some admiration for them. Let them know! Being genuine with praise is not only kind, it can make them more receptive to your ask.

Listen carefully to the person you’re asking for help, and take their ideas and their response with gratitude. Imagine if someone asked you for help or advice, but then didn’t listen to what you offered. Don’t do that. Simply listen, be open, and be curious.

Ask yourself — where could I use help in my life today? Who around me could best help? How can I take that small, simple first step and ask for the help I need?

When you ask for help, you'll be surprised at how often others will say yes.