Just Ask

“The first step to a richer, happier, lovelier life is simple: Speak up! (from Oprah magazine, July 2014)


Several years ago I read an article in a women’s magazine by an older woman who took out a personal ad in which she, very directly, asked for sex partners. Her ad stated that she had not had either as much sex nor as many sexual partners as she had hoped in her life. As a woman in her 60s (if I remember correctly), she felt that these experiences were not forthcoming on their own. She hoped the ad might create more opportunities – which, according to the article, it did indeed.

Setting aside questions of morality or values or even those of health and safety (all of which could be amply debated here) what this woman did was, in my experience, unusual: she asked for what she wanted. Directly; unapologetically; without shame; without suggesting in the same breath that she probably didn’t deserve it anyway.

In her widely viewed Ted talk (titled “The Art of Asking”), alt-rock icon and crowd-sourcing pioneer Amanda Palmer discusses how others have repeatedly attempted to shame her for asking, as if asking for what she needs is lazy, exploitive, inappropriate somehow. But Palmer believes that real connection happens between two people when one asks and the other responds – whether what changes hands is a flower, a floor to crash on, or over a million dollars for a Kickstarter campaign.

What got me started on these musings was a conversation with my friend Kathe. It was a beautiful afternoon at Lake Calhoun, and we were enjoying both the sun and a little leisure time to catch up on recent hectic weeks. Kathe and I both moved to the city last year (Kathe from the suburbs and me from Iowa) and reset our lives. There’s no blueprint for recreating your life in your early 50s, so we’re both making this up as we go along. And we’re both learning a lot about our strengths and our shortcomings. Kathe’s new career in real estate requires her to continually reach out to others, expand her circle of connections, and ask them to consider her services. We had similar visceral reactions – clearly recoiling in distaste – to the idea of repeatedly asking others for what we need. I recommended Kathe watch Amanda Palmer’s Ted talk, thinking about the part where Palmer tells viewers to “ask without shame”.

Many well-known wise men and women have admonished us to ask. From Rumi to Jesus to Maya Angelou, we’ve been told that the first step toward getting or achieving what we really want is to ask for it. Whether we are asking a specific individual for a specific thing, we are putting an intention out into the universe, or we are making a supplication in prayer the act of asking – saying the words – is important. On an intellectual level, I get this – goals and desires stated aloud are more compelling than those kept quietly in our hearts; others cannot offer us the tangible support we need if we haven’t expressed our need. On an emotional level, the idea of asking tangles my gut in knots of fear and anxiety.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert, in a short gem of an article in Oprah magazine, suggests that this is a common experience for women. She says:

First of all, you must know what you really want, which can be hard if you were raised to please others. Secondly, you must believe that what you want is worthy – again, a tricky prospect for women long trained in the dark arts of self-deprecation. Thirdly, you must face the possibility of rejection. That’s the worst bit…and so, like trial lawyers, we often ask only questions to which we already know the answers. Which means: no risk. Which further means: no reward…

…I think men have always understood — that a glorious failure can sometimes be more life affirming than a cautious win. This is why men are constantly asking for stuff they night not even deserve or maybe aren’t totally qualified to handle…I wish more women would do the same. Because sometimes you get a yes, and even if you weren’t prepared for that yes, you rise to the occasion. You aren’t ready, and then you are. It’s irrational, but it’s magical.

Gilbert’s article closes with her assurance that there are many ways to ask, and that you may need to employ a variety of styles and tactics, but the bottom line is this: “Just freaking ask.”

My experience bears out Gilbert’s suggestion of gender differences in the approach to asking for what we want. When I am with male friends or relatives, I am sometimes astounded by their capacity for asking – for everything from free stuff  (t-shirts, bags, tickets) to people’s contact information to whether their organizations may have any positions opening in the near future. Usually, I am in awe – not only of the ask, but also of the end results. Often, a yes is forthcoming, but a no doesn’t incapacitate anyone.

Which leads me to the this: If I only ask for things I’ve pinned my hopes of success on, a no will be devastating. The hesitation to ask unless it is Something Very Important holds us back, and is part of what Gilbert refers to as “the dark arts of self-deprecation”. I don’t want to bother anyone, it’s not that important – that’s how the thinking goes. What it means is: I’m not that important, so what I want isn’t important either. Believe me, I’m not thrilled to discover that I am still thinking this way at my age. Not thrilled to discover the ways I’m holding myself back at a time when pushing forward is so critical to establishing the life I hope for. But I am willing to work on it.

What about you? We can either continue on the path of fear, small-thinking, and self-negation or we can change. And here’s the thing – we already know what all those wise people have tried to say. We already know that asking precedes receiving. We already know that true connection with others is achieved through the process of asking, giving, accepting – a river that flows in both directions. We invest ourselves in saying yes to those who ask for our support, for whatever we can uniquely contribute to their wholeness and success. Why can’t we allow others to invest in us? Isn’t it time, as Elizabeth Gilbert says, to just freaking ask?

What I point out to people is that it’s silly to be afraid that you’re not going to get what you want if you ask. Because you are already not getting what you want. They always laugh about that because they realize it’s so true. Without asking you already have failed, you already have nothing. What are you afraid of? You’re afraid of getting what you already have! It’s ridiculous! Who cares if you don’t get it when you ask for it, because, before you ask for it, you don’t have it anyway. So there’s really nothing to be afraid of.   — Marcia Martin




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