I’ve been having trouble sleeping recently — maybe for the last 3-5 weeks. Sometimes it’s related to my current job — it’s good, and I’m beyond glad I have it, but some days I worry I’m not contributing enough or helping the structure properly — and sometimes it’s related to random other things in my life. A couple of times, it’s been related to this persistent notion that bothers me a significant amount: why is it so hard for people to accept help?
I’ve been feeling this way for years, but in the past 24 months, it’s been heightened a little bit by a few different experiences:
- In the summer of 2013, I worked for McKesson (just for the summer). I wasn’t very busy in this job, and often, I’d go around to other employees — McKesson is, after all, a Fortune 15 company, so you’d assume people are working fairly hard everywhere — and ask if I could help them with different projects. Almost always, the answer I got was “I’m too busy to let you help.” If I followed up, it was often, “It would take me time to teach you what you’d need to know, and I’m too busy and don’t have that time.” Right, but if you sacrificed some time to teach me, you’d have less work later, right? Isn’t that the definition of a win-win?
- I’ve seen this a bit in my current job, too: I have people I work with who consistently tell me how busy they are, but when I offer to help (because I’m busy, but not other-worldly busy or anything), they say similar things.
- On a personal, emotional side, I’ve had a few things happen in this vein recently: a family member is pretty depressed, and another one recently got divorced. When I reached out to those families to talk/help/just show that I’m there, I get no response.
Now, this could be because I’m an asshole or people don’t trust me. Those are entirely within the realm of possibility.
I wonder about this kind of shit all the time, though: Why don’t help want help?
The No. 1 thing I keep coming back to is “pride.”
Pride is actually an interesting concept, if you think about it. Most conflict in world history came from some degree of pride being involved, and, inherently it’s a confusing concept. Christian thought condemns it: it’s “the original sin.” (More here.) Problem is, it often has positive connotations too: as a student, you’re expected to take pride in your work. When a minority group rises up, it’s Gay Pride. The word is caught between two masters — and as we should know by now, anything caught between two masters will probably confuse enough people as to become a bigger train wreck.
Accepting help, to many, is a sign of weakness. That clashes with ideas around pride.
For example, my mother-in-law will get depressed and tell people she doesn’t want to be viewed as “a package” (something that people carry, in other words). She’s looking at it as a sign of weakness, and pride interferes.
In the case of work stuff, sometimes I think the same ideas resonate. Look, no matter how you want to carve up your professional life, the fact is that being busy is the currency of the modern age. If you’re not busy, you can view yourself as a failure or less important or any host of other things. (I have thought about myself like this too many times to count.)
So if someone comes to you and offers to help with a project, that could in turn make you less busy — and if the project goes well and you had less of a hand in it, it can make you less valuable. That’s pride, fucking with ya.
Here’s the flip side to pride: some people are honestly happy where they’re at, and happy holding themselves back in the process. That’s an evolutionary process: we hold ourselves back because risk can be scary. Remember, in most places it’s very hard to think/talk about failure — and failure is often the next step after risk. We don’t want to go down that rabbit hole.
This is what worries me, and potentially what keeps me up at night: virtually every “new management philosophy” is around the idea of openness and transparency and discussing failure and all that. Now, ignore for a second that “new management philosophy” may never really come into vogue, and think about this:
- Are humans really capable of a work system where openness, transparency, and failure discussions are the norm?
That involves a lot of reducing pride and asking for help. Sure, you can ask for help on a simple thing — like clearing the copier — but a lot of people have a hard time asking for help on projects. You look at conflict in meetings, that’s rooted in the same stuff: people come in with suggestions on a project ultimately tasked to someone else, and the project lead gets defensive. This is his/her baby and his/her ass on the line, people!
Again, that’s pride.
You see all this same shit with drug users — look at this Fast Company profile of Anthony Bourdain. Dude was doing drugs for over a decade, including crawling around on floors eating things that looked like crack. That’s depressing. You might say to yourself, “Well, eventually a human knows they’ve hit a rock bottom, right?” No. That’s not really how addiction and stuff works — and again, people are reluctant to ask for help. They re-rationalize it in their head. They think they’re weak. Their pride interferes.
I’ve had addicts that are pretty close to me, too. I know. I worry sometimes about myself in that context.
An important aspect in these cycles is being specific. This article from Psychology Today points that out — people who might help aren’t mind readers, so you need to give them specific things to focus on. (This is potentially where I failed at McKesson. Maybe I should have gone and told people, “Specifically, I can help you with this.”)
This Inc article makes a good point — at the very core of human existence, we don’t really do anything on our own, so asking for help shouldn’t have a stigma attached to it at all. (The flip side of that argument is here.)
Final thought here: when people are afraid to ask for help — whether it’s from pride, a fear of weakness, a belief that they’re too busy to teach another person something, whatever it is — an interesting thing happens, both at work and in your personal life. You create personal silos. We talk all the time about professional silos, and they can suck too, but the development of personal silos is bad for society too.
Asking for help empowers others — a good thing! — and shows you trust/care about others — a good thing that many claim is lacking in our mostly-digital age! — and it fosters actual connection between you and another person or series of people. That’s good.
Being sheltered isn’t really the point of human existence. It’s not actually how we evolved as humans.
Now look, people have deeply personal shit that they don’t want to bring others into. I understand that, and it happens. A divorce, a death, an affair, whatever it is — it can seem damning to involve others.
But almost paradoxically to some, you can strengthen yourself and how you’re feeling by reaching out and connecting.
Have you ever had to ask for help or give help? How did you go about it?