On asking for help
My parents tell me that when I was a little girl, all they heard from me was ziji, ziji! (myself!)
when they tried to help me with anything. They said I was so stubborn in insisting on doing everything myself.
When I was in college, I holed myself up with problem sets, scoffing at classmates who gathered in study rooms with their snacks and gossip. They need help because they can’t do it themselves.
I wanted all the work to be my own—at least then I would know I deserved the grade I received. I stayed away from office hours where you could go ask TAs for help. Although once one of my TAs signed an email that was just to me “Love,” so I may have avoided him because of that too.
Another time, a then-boyfriend offered to help me with a Number Theory problem set. I felt disgusted with myself when I handed in homework that I didn’t fully understand. I ended up dropping the course.
Once I signed up for a application-based graduate-level course—the professors said I would be fine. I got put in a smaller group with this fellow, a self-proclaimed LaTeX god, who asked me if I knew OpenGL. Not very well, though I had used it a bit in my Graphics course, mostly filling in empty methods. “It’s super easy to learn. I can help you.”
So he scheduled to meet me at a computer lab, loaded up some template code, and told me to do a few things. I asked a few questions because I was rusty in C++. He blew up in the middle of the computer lab, “THIS ISN’T SOME 200-LEVEL CS COURSE, YOU KNOW,”
he screamed at me. Well, ok. After speaking with the professors, who tried to keep me in the course, I dropped that course too.
So maybe you’re getting the sense that I haven’t had a lot of success or positive experiences around asking for or receiving help, and that would be correct.
More recently at Medium, I’ve been working with a coach and some peers about exactly that—asking for help. I realized I haven’t been asking for help. Even if I can identify things that someone is great at, that I could certainly benefit from if I asked them for their insights, I don’t. I put it off, or I don’t want to bother them.
I realized that I had equated asking for help with weakness in myself. But certainly not in others. Once a colleague asked me for advice—he said he admired how effective I was at work while not letting work consume my life, and if I could help him identify ways to keep a healthier work-life balance. Well gosh, I sure could, and I didn’t think of it as a weakness on his part—I thought it was great that he had the self-awareness to recognize that it was an area he could improve in. And it made me feel great that I could help him out.
Asking for help, to me, was an admission that I couldn’t do it on my own, and that I needed help. And when you think of it in that way, it feels very vulnerable. When I first started full-time at Google straight out of school, I knew barely any practical software engineering concepts. I had filled my course-load with AI, Discrete Math, Advanced Algorithms, and Data Mining, but basic concepts like REST APIs and HTTP protocols had escaped my cobbled-together theory-heavy curriculum. I nodded along and caught on eventually. But I never asked for help. I felt like by not knowing these things already, I had done something wrong. What if someone found out?
I’m beginning to see things differently. What if instead of staying quiet, I had gone to my manager or mentor, and said, “I’d like to ask you for help with something. I’m realizing that though I have a strong foundation in algorithms and CS fundamentals, I have a lot of gaps to fill in with basic application knowledge. Do you have suggestions on a good way to familiarize myself with the basics? And is it alright if I ask you super basic questions as I come across unfamiliar concepts?”
It might have reminded them of how many gaps they had when they first graduated (CS programs notoriously do not cover much applications-related material). And they probably would have been happy to help me ramp up more efficiently.
At Medium, I am surrounded by amazing colleagues with different strengths. I could ask for help in figuring out how to best prioritize my time across different roles in the organization, so that what I spend my time on is the most impactful. I could ask for help in technical designs, so that my designs improve through collaboration and the codebase benefits from having more people familiar with a component.
Another concern I’ve had is that I don’t want to burden others. Everyone is busy. But I think we can get around that with being ok saying No, and being ok with receiving No. If we trust that the people around us will say no when they can’t help and don’t take it personally, we can theoretically let go of the concern of overburdening others.
If we all could ask for help, we could all improve together, rather than sitting in our own silos of insecurity. So, here’s to more asking for help.