“I live my life by two mantras. One: if you don’t ask, you don’t get. And two: most things don’t work out.” (Rirchard Saul Wurman, founder of TED)
They taught you at school — if you have a question, raise your hand and ask. Speak up. Don’t be afraid to look dumb.
It’s crazy how important this lesson is for life in general.
Simply asking can make a huge difference: in education, business, personal life. And yet, so few of us actually do ask.
We are afraid to look dumb and stupid. We are afraid that people will judge us by the content of our question and by the way we asked it. We think that we should know the answer and not knowing it plays a bad game with our self-esteem.
But let me tell you a story.
It’s about how I looked for a pencil. And didn’t find it.
The lost pencil
I was once a college student.
During my first week — the orientation week — at Babson College (yup, that’s the place), we were assigned into teams and given a mentor (usually it was a senior year guy from the same college). We were doing a bunch of team-building activities, getting to know each other and generally, breaking the ice.
And one activity taught me a valuable lesson.
My team walked on the green grass on Babson campus and was told to spread out and get ready for the next exercise. I took my place beside the two guys from Germany.
“Now, close your eyes, everyone”, the mentor said.
I reluctantly closed mine and listened for what was next.
“I am going to hide a pencil on the grassy area you are standing in.”, he said, “Once I say ‘GO’ your job is to start looking for the pencil. You can only do so using your eyes only, you can’t touch it or pick it up. Once you’ve found the pencil, just silently raise your hand and step away from the field…Understood?”
“Yup!” — someone said.
“Good. One, two, three…GO!”
We all started looking.
For 30 seconds or so it was very quiet, everyone was busy searching the grass with their eyes. Finally someone found the pencil and raised their hand. A competitive burn hit my chest: “Shit, I want to find it too!”. So I started looking more fiercely. In 30 more seconds, I found the pencil too.
I was glad, I ‘won’.
“That was easy” — someone whispered.
“Good job to all of you. Now, Round 2. We are going to be looking for the pencil once again, BUT this time, you have the option of ASKING for help. To do so, simply look at me and I’ll give you a hint. Got it?”
“Yup!” — I heard again from the crowd of students standing behind me.
“Remember: you can ask for help whenever you need it… one, two, three, GO!”
This time, it really felt like a competition. Everyone started searching around faster, trying to ‘beat’ the others. I tried very hard: looking on my left, on my right, running, and almost falling by tripping on the other person’s leg.
But the pencil was nowhere to be found.
30 seconds passed.
I pressed even harder, analyzing the green area below my feet. At one point I even fell on my knees and started searching the grass with my hands.
“That’s why he said we can ask for help”, I thought. “This one is going to be harder… but I’ll do it! I’ll find the motherfucker!”
Another 30 seconds passed.
For some reason, I desperately wanted to win. It seemed that everyone else wanted that too. This wasn’t the least surprising — we were at the #1 business school in the country and everyone was an A-Type, “over-achiever”, “go-getter”. Everyone wanted to beat everyone else. And everyone wanted to do that by themselves, without asking for help.
Help is for losers. We were future entrepreneurs.
Another 30 seconds…still no pencil.
I saw that some people started to give up. For some reason they chucked, smiled and went off the grass. I continued looking. Giving up is for suckers.
30 more seconds…
“Where are you?!” — I screamed in my head. I went over the grass area for the 10th time, pushing others aside and couldn’t find it. It seemed that it just wasn’t there. But it was supposed to be here, right?
“What if I ask for help…NO! I can do this, how hard can it be?!”
…30 more seconds…
Finally, I saw that it was only me and 3 more kids. Almost everyone else gave up and stood on the pavement, looking at us, arms crossed, laughing out loud.
“What the hell”, I thought. “Oh, fuck it. Let me just ask for a hint and get this over with”. I looked at the mentor, trying to get eye contact to ask for a hint.
What I saw shocked me. The pencil was behind the mentor’s ear. It was there all along.
I couldn’t help but smile. I stepped off the grassy area onto the pavement and looked at everyone else — they were laughing. I looked back at the people still searching for the pencils on the grass. They looked so funny and desperate, trying hard to find the silly thing. I joined the laughter.
“Ok, enough!”, the mentor exclaimed. The people searching for the pencil stopped and looked at the mentor, puzzled. Then they all broke into laughter.
“Good job to all of you, again. What does this exercise teach us? I told you guys: ASK for help. Some of you did, but most of you didn’t. Some of you pushed until the very end, not getting the result at all…” — the mentor paused, looking at our team, trying to get eye contact with everyone.
Then he continued, “That’s something we all need to learn: ASK. There is nothing wrong with asking for help when it’s available to you. Remember that. Don’t let your ego get in the way of achieving what you want.”
There is nothing wrong with asking for help when it’s available to you…
Asking is NOT giving up
We all want to succeed. We think that getting there requires intense discipline, work ethic and energy. It does. But it’s also a path that includes other people.
And a lot of times, success is the result of having the right people, resources, and help when it’s needed. We just don’t have to do it all alone.
The Babson pencil exercise taught me that asking is fine. Asking for help is a natural thing — we are all not perfect and we all need help from time to time. And even though you might feel your ego telling you that you can push through and do it all alone, you just don’t need to go through all that trouble.
Asking is not the same as giving up.
There is no nobility in loneliness. Teams, other people, money, connections, resources — all these things exist simply for the reason that you can (and should) use them. Leave the story of the lonely genius for the movies.
Imagine this. We have 2 people going out for a morning run. Their goal is to run 5K and their run location is at the beach. They are both offered a lift to the beach by their parents. One of them takes it, the other doesn’t. The first one gets to the beach early, completes his run and goes home. The second one has to walk 2 miles to the beach, then go for a run and then come back again. They both did a 5K run. One of them is exhausted. The other one is not.
At the end, it doesn’t matter who took the help or who did it by themselves.
Movies and books portray a romantic picture of a lonely genius who did it all by themselves. And while we may have a situation when we need to just get our head down and work, most of the time it’s OK to take the path of least resistance.
What matters is the result.
Worst case — you’ll get a NO
Imagine you need help from someone. Help getting a client or just general advice on what to do next with your life or career. What’s the worst thing that can happen?
You’ll get a NO.
Painful? Yes. Deadly? Absolutely no. You’ll go on and ask the next one. And then the other one. And then some more.
When I dropped out, I wanted to continue learning. I did that by creating a YouTube show and interviewing top-10 entrepreneurs of Russia, asking them fundamental questions about life, business and education. Some of my guests built billion-dollar businesses, others had work experience triple my age.
Let me just say that I did a lot of asking to get those interviews.
When I finished the project, I had a lot of peers texting me: “Oh man, how did you manage to get HIM on the interview? What did you say?” — but the reality is, I just asked. I messaged these people on Facebook, called their assistants and asked everyone I knew for help to get to these people. And I did it honestly — without using any manipulative ‘tactics’.
It’s just like Kung Fu Panda. There is no ‘secret sauce’.
Did I get rejected? More than I would like to, yes. But when you want something — really want something, you just keep on going.
Rejections are like mosquitos: they sting, but they don’t kill.
No one ever asks
I just finished reading a book by Alex Banayan Third Door (great book, go check it out).
In Chapter 16, Alex tells a story of meeting Tony Hsieh (the founder of Zappos) and asking to shadow him for a full day at the office to see how Tony manages his business. At the end of the day, Alex had noticed strange looks in his direction from Zappos employees. It was as though they always wanted to be in a position he was in.
Alex thought it was unfair and decided to talk with Tony.
“I know this might sound weird,” Alex said, “but why don’t you let your employees shadow you?”
Tony Hsieh looked at Alex blankly and said, “I’d be happy to — but no one ever asks.”
No one ever asks.
Don’t be like Zappos employees. Don’t wait for the magic moment. Remember, that the worst case scenario — is that you’ll get a ‘no’, which isn’t a big deal. Will it matter in 5 years’ time that you got rejected? Probably not, just like 99% of the other things you worry about now.
Remember the wise words of the founder of TED: “…One: if you don’t ask, you don’t get. And two: most things don’t work out.”.
And go on ask.