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How to Ask For Help

You alone are called, but you don't have to do it all by yourself .

Years ago I interviewed Richard Bolles, author of What Color is Your Parachute, probably history’s best-selling book about job hunting and career change. When the conversation turned to the subject of being self-employed, he said that self-employed people can hire out just about any skill, even, to some degree, discipline. You can get someone to call you every week and help keep you on track.

But the only trait you can't hire out, he said, and without which you’ll “die on the vine” is the willingness to ask for help. Self-employed, he said, doesn’t mean you’re on your own, and though you alone are called, that doesn't mean you have to do it all by yourself.

Resourceful people gather their resources, send for provisions, and join forces, whether they need help in pulling themselves through their own resistance, carrying the torch through the dark places on the journey, or letting go of one calling for the next; whether they need a loan, a contact, advice or material support. They aren’t above asking for help and seeking allies. From the first threshold to the last, they understand the need to draw on whatever will point them toward aliveness and illumination, toward fulfillment of the call. Any calling can be undone alone, but not all of them can be done alone.

Few people understand the dynamics of asking for help better than a man I met years ago named Percy Ross, who received 2,000 letters a day from people asking for his help. The reason he got so many letters was that he authored a (former) column syndicated in more than 700 newspapers, called Thanks A Million, through which this Minneapolis millionaire was trying to dispose of the fortune it took him nearly 60 years to accumulate, working to redistribute his wealth among people who wrote to him with their stories of need, and sometimes greed. Those that touched him he responded to with a check, a brand of philanthropy he considered “investing in people.”

But for every 2,000 a day who wrote him, he said, there were undoubtedly a lot more who thought about it but didn’t, and what held them back, he figured, was largely pride. “That’s what stands in the way of most of them, I’d say. They’re embarrassed to be in a position to need to ask for help, afraid of getting rejected, maybe even afraid of getting a yes that might force them to put their dreams to the test. Ninety percent of the letters I do get start out with an apology of some kind: ‘I never thought I’d ever write this kind of letter,’ or ‘I don’t need money, just advice,’ or ‘Finally, after three months of starting this letter and tearing it up......’

“If you don’t ask, though, and keep asking, you don’t get. But if you do ask, you just might get. If people say no, you’re only as bad off as you would be if you hadn’t asked at all. But if they say yes, you’ve got what you wanted. You’ve got to ask! Asking is, in my opinion, the world’s most powerful—and neglected—secret to success. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t convinced many, many people to help me along the way. The world is full of genies waiting to grant our wishes. There are plenty of people who will gladly give you a hand.”

Unfortunately, a lot of us have had off-putting experiences around being “helped,” like, say, having it forced on us against our wills, as in “I’m only doing this for your own good.” People often can’t tell the difference between help and manipulation. If they really wanted to help us, they would ask for our opinions. “Can I help you? How can I help you? What would be helpful to you?” There are plenty of people who, as Robert Furey describes in Called By Name, “blocked our view of God by pretending to be God.”

Many of us still have sore spots left over from granting others the opportunity to “guide” us, given how easily people can fall to acting like amateur preachers and psychotherapists, trying to heal, convert and fix us—or even take advantage of us—imagining themselves the instruments of our deliverance and the answers to our prayers, taking as their motto Gore Vidal’s comment that “there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

A natural antagonism can develop between ourselves and those in positions of authority relative to us, people on whom we’re dependent, whether parents, teachers, bosses, mentors, doctors, lawyers, or car mechanics. It's human nature to want to retain control over our own lives.

It’s also human nature to want to tell others what to do, especially when you stop seeing their struggle and only see your own reflected in theirs. What kind of help would you likely offer someone, for instance, whose calling is threatening to you in some way—your partner wants to take a job in another city, your kid wants to write a memoir. If you can’t set aside your own agenda, even temporarily, you won’t be able to see them except through fogged-up glasses.

One of the marks of a great intelligence and a courageous soul is the ability to prevent your ego from getting in the way of someone else’s growth. Self-restraint is love of the highest order, and a discipline that's gymnastic in effort. Even mullahs and mahatmas don’t always possess it. Good help is indeed hard to find, but you want to look hard for it, for people who have a good grip on themselves, and for whom the gracious bow is still in the book of etiquette.

And help the helpers. Tell them exactly what kind of help you need. If you don’t specify, if you just tell people to help you, or that you feel stuck, they’re likely to try to diagnose what sort of help you seem to need, and administer it however they see fit. “You know what your problem is.....?”

Don’t give anyone that much rope. Tell them precisely what you need. “I need 15 minutes a day of listening and asking questions. I need the name of someone who teaches photography here in town. I want your advice on how to go about teaching abroad. I’m hoping you can loan me $500 to take a marketing seminar.”

While preparing for the rigors of full-time freelance writing, for example, I plied a lot of writers with drinks and food, beseeching them for the lowdown. I became the reporter I was. What is it really like? What do you love and hate about it? What skills are essential to cultivate before making the leap? What do you wish someone had told you?

Another suggestion is from Richard Bolles: make a list of what you think it takes to succeed at your calling—the skills, the know-how, the personality traits, the education. Then make another list of those that you possess, and subtract it from the first list, in order to figure out what you’ll need to succeed. Then either develop these or hook up with people who have them.

Percy Ross insisted that anyone coming to him for help present a good case. “Would you buy your act?” Start with the declaration of a clear need and a well-defined purpose. Certainty, he said, inspires confidence. Consider this letter he once received: “Dear Mr. Ross, I’m writing to ask if you would pay for the cost of helicopter flying lessons. I just may want to make a career of piloting after I earn my license. I figure the lessons are approximately $100-an-hour, with 40 hours needed to obtain a private license. M.M. Knoxville, TN.”

To which Mr. Ross responded: “Dear Miss M: I figure you’re asking for $4000 for something you might want to do. So now you figure out why I’m not mailing you a check.”

Always ask, too, Percy said, for essentials, not extras. “Ask for what truly delights, empowers or helps you grow. Ask for muscle, not fat.” Don’t ask, as one Florida woman did, for $80,000 for a big red car, a white mink coat, green alligator shoes, and a white poodle. Don’t write “Dear Mr. Ross, my fingernails look gross because I keep biting them when I get nervous. I’d love new acrylic nails, designed with pretty, real gold artwork. They cost about $600. Will you help a cute 17-year-old? C.B. Hollywood, CA.”

“I don’t give to self-centered individuals or causes,” Ross said. “Few people do. I want to know how the fulfillment of your request will help others as well as yourself. It’s also easier to ask for help, I think, if you feel like you’re serving a worthy cause, something bigger than just yourself. I also want to know that my help is going to be appreciated and put to good use, so give me some evidence that the help I offer will make a real difference.” Something like the following:

“Dear Mr. Ross, I’m imprisoned in Arkansas and have been writing a book about the effectiveness of punishment and the social reaction to crime. I’m doing everything in my power to better myself while incarcerated. I’ve alienated my family and have no friends. That’s my past, though, not my future. What I would like most is a good dictionary to help me in my writing. Believe it or not, this would be the most wonderful asset in the world right now to me, next to freedom. J.G.W., Tucker, AR.”

Along with a dictionary, Percy wrote, “You’ve been faced with a bad situation and turned it into a positive experience. More power to you! When your books get published, I’d like to buy a copy. Good luck!”

And finally, remember to say thank you. No one makes a career out of completely unselfish benevolence toward others, and though people don’t need a ticker-tape parade, an offer of thanksgiving goes a long way as a gesture of gratitude. “We all want something in return for our help,” said Percy. “We all want recognition. So it helps to be a little strategic, to give some thought to what someone will gain from helping you, whether it’s emotional, spiritual, practical or financial.”

I myself have always been fascinated by the “Acknowledgments” pages at the beginning of books, in which the authors thank those who gave them sustenance along the way, and what sort of sustenance was most vital to them. It's a clear, consistent indication of the kinds of help that are of the greatest value to people while pursuing the most ambitious undertakings of their lives. These include: “Those who believed in me.....who engaged me in soul talk.....who listened.....who helped bring clarity to my thinking.....who gave me the time to work.....who took an interest in my progress.....who restored me with their high spirits.....who never let go of their end of the rope.”

For more about Passion! visit