The problem with asking for favors
Nobody ever truly arrives. If you think you have, wait a day. That feeling never lasts long. Tomorrow, you’ll hop back on the ladder, reaching for the next rung. Successful people — however you define that — already know the fleeting nature of their accomplishments.
We’re all trying to level up. So we’ve all felt the temptation to ask favors. Or hover nearby, waiting for them. Like pigeons.
Personally, I hate asking for things. Most people do. We hate the vulnerability it opens. Meanwhile, we’re told “ask and you shall receive.” But it’s a trap. You don’t always receive. Asking for a favor at the wrong time, or from the wrong person, can do all kinds of damage.
We can’t get rid of favors. But we have to accept the confidence and resolve they take. Also, we have to prepare for rejections.
And sometimes those rejections hurt. Bad.
Plus, some people grant favors only to make themselves look good. Just last year, someone did me a small favor — one I didn’t ask for. And I never stopped hearing about it. He brought it up at three different meetings.
Honestly, I would’ve given him my firstborn. Just to shut him up.
Some ass holes don’t want your thanks. They don’t want you to return their favor. They just want to show off. Or they want you to kiss their ass for the next ten years.
Struggling artists and entrepreneurs fear the favor. And for good reason. We hear this saying, “The worst they can say is no.” But that’s a lie. Someone can always do worse.
They can insult you. Demean your work. Make you feel like shit. If you think someone might respond that way, then don’t ask them for anything. Ask someone else. Or don’t ask at all. It doesn’t matter how much clout or prestige a person carries. Nothing’s worth your self-respect.
That lesson came to me the hard way.
In grad school, MFA students went out for dinner and drinks with professors every other week. They had us over for wine. Flew in their best-seller friends to rub elbows. Or is it rub shoulders? I forget.
Once, my thesis chair invited me out for tapas. Just the two of us. He spent an hour talking about his European vacation. An award he’d received. The new book he was working on. Lunch with his agent in New York.
Finally, he started telling me about the favors he’d done for alumni. He’d put them in touch with editors at major magazines. Gotten them jobs at universities. They were all so talented, he said.
Talk about awkward. It was like an elite form of trolling. Or maybe he wanted me to ask for a favor. But I was too nervous. He was known for his temper. If you wanted his help, you had to woo him. Or maybe you just had to sleep with him. Who knows?
A week later, I took a shot. Asked my thesis director in a very indirect way to mention me to his agent. I worded my email carefully. Peppered my request with hedges. Just told him I was going to be shopping my novel around, now that I’d graduated. If he could recommend anyone, could he?
If he wasn’t too busy?
If he couldn’t, I understood.
Mr. Rogers would’ve been so proud.
For two days, I waited. Reminded myself that he’d loved my manuscript. He’d said that much during the defense. For a year, he’d told me I was going to make a big splash. So why not? The worst he could say was no.
What a fateful mistake. In truth, there were way worse things. And he said them. First, he said how dare you. Then he accused me trying to use him. Finally, he asked if I’d even read any of his books. And if I hadn’t supported his career, why should he help me?
Mortified, I wrote back explaining I had read his books. I loved them. Why hadn’t I professed my love for his writing? Because it seemed self-serving. Because my opinion of his work didn’t matter compared to the long list of newspapers and magazines that sang his praises.
In truth, I didn’t like his books. Sure, I’d bought them. Or at least I’d bought three of them. Tried to read them. Put them aside for other authors. In case you’re wondering, I left that part out.
Anyway, I managed to repair the relationship. Sort of. He never referred me to an agent. But that didn’t end my career. No, I still published as much with or without his help. The experience left me better off. It forced me to realize something important. If someone expects you to make a shrine to them in exchange for their help, they aren’t worth it.
Unless you like building shrines. Then it’s a win-win.
It would’ve been nice for one of my professors to refer me to someone. An agent. An editor. A pimp. But that never happened. Instead of weeping, I went back to my original plan. Earn my PhD. Log my 10,000 hours like Malcolm Gladwell says. Hope for the best. Submit to journals. Write stories on the side. But at some point, I knew I’d have to quit if nothing came from my efforts. I’d have to try something new.
My thesis director wasn’t the first or last writer to savage me for asking a favor. I’ve lost count of the times someone’s thrown a tantrum when I asked for something. Other times they’ve said yes and then forgot. You get used to it. The silver lining — you learn a lot about people that way.
Networking isn’t totally worthless, but it’s overrated. Knowing someone never helps as much as you think it does. Connections didn’t help me publish in top journals in my field. Instead, publishing in top journals in my field helped me form connections. The only thing that really advances your career is the quality of your work.
Or the size of your bank account. There’s always that. Oh, and it helps if your dad’s rich and/or famous.
Maybe you grew up in Manhattan. Or you went to an Ivy League college. That helps. It’s true, some people can skip that 10,000-hour rule. The rest of us can’t afford to take short cuts.
You can’t chase favors. They have to come to you willingly, like a cat. If someone does you a favor, great. It entitles them to nothing. True favors don’t come with a price tag. Or a receipt. They come in unmarked packages. Actually, that sounds sketchy. Don’t open anything without a return address. Even if it smells like perfume.