Learning

The Challenges Of Asking For Help (And What Can Be Done): Demons, Debt, Listening, Action, Importance and Qualifiers.

Asking for help can feel brutally hard. The higher the stakes, the harder it feels.

Why then, when it seems so simple, is it so hard?

When I deconstruct my own experience in asking for help, I’ve noticed a few patterns.

Demons

Everyone has demons. Here are some of my “friends” that show up when I need to ask for help:

“They’ll find out I’m a fraud.”

“They’ll think I’m desperate.”

“It’s a waste of their time.”

“I’m not good enough.”

“I should have figured this out for myself by now.”

Regardless of the ask, I find the more important the situation feels to me, the more intensely I experience these.

Debt

Debt is another insidious aspect of asking for help – the idea that, even before I ask, I might “owe” this person.

There’s a fascinating book called Debt: The first 5000 years. In it, David Graeber writes about the social and psychological impacts of credit – owing money, favours, work, items to other people.

He writes about the discomfort of obligation that can positively form community relationships or turn sour to toxic behaviour and power dynamics or even the dehumanisation of the debtor.

Listening

I remember sitting in a mentor’s meeting room high in Brisbane’s skyline to ask for help with a new business right when COVID had hit. I felt exposed putting the truth of the challenges on the table. My “friends” were out in force.

To sit with these and then actually listen to the advice was hard.

It’s hard to hear uncomfortable feedback, pointing out obvious things I’d overlooked. It’s a struggle to stay quiet and truly listen rather than make myself feel better and smarter by going through all the things I’ve already tried.

I had my notebook and pen ready to go.

I know having an agenda, script and key questions is best practice. But on this occasion I didn’t. I was struggling to even find the right question to ask.

So I needed to be present and stay present to have a chance of hearing what I was looking for.

Action

I’ve been blown away by some of the counsel I’ve received from incredible people by simply asking for their help.

This is where debt plays out. Because if I’m going to ask for help, then I better be ready to do something with it.

This is the hardest part. Because it means I’m going to have to change. I’ll need to do something differently and I know in advance that’ll take effort and energy.

To that end, I try my best to do two things once I’ve asked for help:

  1. Send a thank you email/text/note/gift to the helper. Different scenarios and relationships require different gestures.
  2. Keep the helper in the loop of any progress made on the back of their advice even if it’s a dead end.

I’ve found that if I’m truly willing to do the work, then this is the best way for me to repay the debt and clear the sense of obligation.

It’s also helped me build some amazing relationships.

Importance

I’ve been fortunate. I unknowingly stumbled across asking for help a long time ago.

I’m a nerd at heart. In year 12 maths, I asked my teacher if they’d be willing to help me for 20 mins before school. They were. Every week. I put in the work and had my best results.

I had some great water polo coaches throughout my career to the Olympics. Each had strengths and weaknesses. My realization though, was that if I had a specific challenge, then I needed a specific answer.

When I wanted to put on muscle, I didn’t speak to my water polo coach. I spoke to my strength coach, Chris Gaviglio a discus and shot put guy who had put on more weight, faster than anyone else I knew.

When I was excruciatingly nervous before my first world championships in Fukuoka Japan in 2001, I asked my captain, Nathan Thomas how he dealt with it. He’d played Olympics, world championships and professional club competitions internationally. I learned from his pre-game routines.

When I wanted to improve my swimming speed and endurance, I went to train with Shannon Rollason, the coach of Jodie Henry and Alice Mills – some of Australia’s fastest swimmers at the time.

My observation here is that, in each of these examples, there was clear importance for me. Reconnecting to importance is a powerful way to work with the obstacles that stop me asking for help. (You might find this 3 min Momentum exercise useful.)

Qualifiers

Asking for help is one of my favourite life/time/productivity hacks.

And sometimes any help is good help.

But not all help is equal. So who should I ask?

Here are my qualifying criteria:

  1. I trust and admire their work.
  2. I trust and admire them as people.
  3. They have already done specifically what I am trying to do.

It’s not about saving an hour here or there. It’s about saving me potentially years to get to the outcome I’m looking for.

It all seems pretty obvious, but being specific about the challenge I face and then finding the specific person best in a position to help me, has accelerated my learning enormously. It would be nearly impossible to quantify how many hours this saved me as a student, athlete, entrepreneur, father, husband – in any role really.

And it’s not always necessary for it to be in person. In fact it can be as simple as finding the book, podcast, video from someone who fits those same criteria then doing the work.

Because now, even knowing the discomfort in advance, I’ve come to realise that for me to make progress, it’s just too important not to ask for help.

“Who Am I?” (v15,493) – How To Regain Momentum In 3 Mins

If you’re anything like me, you might like to just get straight to the “how to” part.


So here it is.


I’ll explain the backstory afterwards.

Regaining Momentum

As an experiment, I’ve tried this exercise recently with people feeling stuck in different situations: intense negotiations, family troubles, stepping down from their business and assessing job opportunities.


They found it useful. I hope you do too.



Do What Matters Exercise [3 mins]

  1. Open up a new note on your phone.

  2. Title it Daily Practice.

  3. Write in a sub header: Do What Matters

  4. Then allow yourself only 30 seconds to write your responses to each of the 6 questions below in the note you just created.

[NB: I say 30 secs for 2 reasons – firstly to stop perfectionism taking over, secondly to get you up and running as quickly as possible. You don’t need perfect answers here. If you don’t know an answer just write something down. Something is infinitely better than nothing. In my experience, you’ll have a very good gut sense of what matters to you. You can always refine it later.]

Questions (copy these directly into your note)

  1. What are your values?

  2. Who is important to you?
    It can be specific people or groups of people. An important note: I find people often don’t include themselves. This is an exercise in self awareness. Without you, there are no other relationships. So please make sure your name is on the list.

  3. What is important to you?
    This can be broad or specific. They might be goals or more generalised concepts. Up to you.

  4. What is your purpose?
    If you don’t have one, take a guess.

  5. What would you willingly do for free?

  6. What energises you?

Then check this note ideally every day or, if not, then at least whenever you’re feeling stuck.

Add to it and edit it as you see fit. Then use it to guide your decisions and actions.


That’s it.


[If you choose to give this a crack, please let me know how you go in the comments or contact me directly.]



I’ve found that connecting to importance is a pathway to regaining a sense of momentum. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed. Other times acceptance and mindfulness are a required part of the process too.


Bringing some definition to who I am and then reconnecting with it helps me create an internal locus of control and helps me distinguish between my reaction to the situation (which I can’t control) and my response (which I can).

The Backstory

When I resigned recently, I was trying to decide what to do next. I had identified so strongly with my role in my business that when that was removed, I felt I’d lost a part of my identity. I felt stuck.


“Who am I?”
wasn’t a question I could easily answer.


When I did begin to think about it, there was a risk of my response becoming a philosophical swamp.


I opted for extreme utility instead.

Decoupling

I drew this sketch one day and it helped me to think about the situation.

Obviously, the circle in the middle represents who I am.


The radiating lines represent, at a macro level, the expression of who I am into the relationships I have in the world as a husband, father, friend, coach, founder, colleague and into various areas of my life – work, spirituality, health, fitness, social, leisure etc.


At a micro level, a line might represent the expression of who I am into very specific situations like a difficult conversation or my choice to do my work outs at home rather than going to a gym.


(I realised through COVID that the opportunity to train at home was in service of role modelling exercise for my daughters. This has been the single most important factor that has helped me stick to my strength and mobility program.)


Seeing things in this way allows me to decouple who I am from what I do.


It also allows me to choose how I engage in these various activities.

Definition

Once the decoupling became apparent, the next step was to bring some definition to answering “Who am I?”. (Some would say there is no “I”, but that’s for another conversation.)


There are a myriad of ways to do that and I’ve tried a bunch.


Values finders, strengths finders, psychometric profiling, vision building tools etc. I’ve always enjoyed these kinds of rabbit holes. Some reports really resonated. But more often, they have ended up buried as attachments in my email, never to be seen again.


The other challenge with these exercises is that they can take a long time. The time investment becomes a barrier to getting started and a barrier to putting the insights into practice. And to me, that’s where all the value is created.


So 8 weeks ago, rather than starting from a blank page, I opted to grab what I had – my values and a vision statement that I’d done in past exercises. I hadn’t created the Do What Matters exercise at that point.


I added them to a note to reflect on each day before I started work.

Editable

I found myself editing that note most days or simply highlighting parts that didn’t sit well or I felt needed updating. I also added some things like purpose and behavioural principles.


By having it editable, I’d stumbled across an empowering insight: I have the chance to change it every day if I choose; to make it more of who I am; to remove parts that no longer fit.

What my note currently looks like

This is different to how your note will have turned out. I didn’t have that exercise structure when I started this.

It absolutely captures the essence of my responses to those questions though. They’ve just been captured and rewritten in a different format.

Feel free to copy this too if you’d prefer to use this as a starting point. I’ll leave up to you.

Daily Practice

Version 15,493 [NB: I’ll explain this next]

Do What Matters

Purpose

  • To build a better world by helping people bring all of who they are to everything they do.

Values

  • Love ❤️
  • Gratitude 🙏
  • Humility 🌱
  • Exploration 🌌
  • Contribution 🌅

Vision

I earn respect by being deeply connected to my family, friends, work and life; by exploring ways to bring all of me to everything I do and helping others do the same.

People say that I am humble and a voracious learner; that I integrate all parts of life; that I’ve connected them with fascinating people and had a tonne of fun together.

I build trust by doing what matters; acknowledging when I’m wrong; listening and asking questions first; sharing my stories; living my strengths and walking my talk.

The highest standards I uphold are characterised by focus, patience, reflection and action.

My legacy will be that I loved deeply and was loved in return; that I impacted the lives of my family, friends and millions globally; that I made the world a better place; that I had an impact on the grand challenges of our time; that I contributed far more to humanity’s pool than I took away.

Behavioural Principles

  • Committed action I am all in. I bring all of me to everything I do. It’s hell yeah or not at all. Pressure, stress, fear, vulnerability are the price of entry.

  • Ideas are free, strategy + execution is everything. I pause and consider then execute fast to test and learn.

  • Do what matters I manage priorities not time. Importance is my compass, as is fear. Time is non-renewable.

Version 15,493

A few weeks after I’d resigned, a friend asked me: “How’s Toby 2.0 going?”.


It was the editability of the note that made me think that this wasn’t really version Toby 2.0.


How many versions had there actually been?


I realised that this note was an imperfect but workable definition of who I am today. And that there have been thousands of versions prior and hopefully many more to come.


I really like the idea of being an architect of who I am, so I found a calculator (link below) that would tell me how many days I’ve been alive.


Turns out it’s 15,493.


If versioning happens daily, and assuming I make it, then tomorrow I’ll be at version 15,494.


I realised that the work of being myself is never done, it doesn’t have to be perfect and I can always update it tomorrow as I reflect and learn.


Until death that is.


I find that liberating.



Associated Links

Calculator

Other posts about transition

Is Perseverance Toxic?

A founder had an extraordinary business. By any external measure they were hugely “successful”.


And yet, they’d hit a low point. They’d driven out for dinner and drinks then woken up at home in the morning. They walked outside and saw their car parked in the drive. They couldn’t remember how it got there. Couldn’t remember driving it home.


They’d been persevering at work, despite not enjoying it, for years. It was costing them enormously – physically, emotionally and in their relationships. They’d had enough. They’d decided it was time to go, they just needed to figure out how.


We had conversations about it. Where had the enjoyment gone? How would they navigate the transition out? What would they do next?


One day, they mentioned generosity a few times.


“What does generosity mean to you?”


They leaned forward.


“That was the time I travelled overseas to help in a charity. 


And, now you mention it, we used to have monthly events in the business where we’d bring in a local charity and raise money. We haven’t done that for years.


If we were to do that again it would be a growth strategy for us.


It would also be a great defensive strategy. The landlord at one of our locations is trying to kick us out. It would be much harder for them to do that if we had the local community onboard.


Actually… Can we go for a walk?”


The energy shifted. For 90 minutes we walked by the river, revisiting very specific behaviours in their past that brought generosity to life. Could generosity be brought back into the business and their day moving forward?


That was the switch. From throwing it all in, to not just sticking with it, but growing the business to increase their impact. Big time.


There was the performance conversation scheduled for that afternoon, leading and managing hundreds of staff, challenging conversations required with business partners, figuring out a new org structure to handle the growth…


The challenge, the effort, the adversity – none of that had changed.


But their relationship to it had.


Quite suddenly, the perseverance was in service of something more.


Generosity
.

Broken Glass

Before we go further, there’s a hypothetical I’d like you to consider.


+++++++


I smash glass on the floor in front of you.


I ask: “Would you be willing to walk over the glass in bare feet?”


No thanks.


So I change just one condition – same smashed glass, same bare feet.


Now I ask you to bring to mind the person most important to you in the world. They are in distress on the other side of the glass and they need your help.


Then I ask: “Would you now be willing to walk over the glass in bare feet?”


Typically there is the opposite response.


++++++++


What does the change in response show?


It shows that humans are terrible at suffering pointless pain. But, when we are clear about the importance of what it is on the other side of the pain, we won’t just endure it, we’ll embrace it.


The pain doesn’t change, but our relationship to it does. We are now willing to accept it in service of doing what matters to us.


The broken glass is a great metaphor for the thoughts, feelings and physiological sensations that show up in tough situations like stay/leave decisions or sitting in the void of transitions, or asking a “dumb question”, or challenging a boss, or holding someone to account, or speaking up, or stepping in…


Very rarely do we lack information about what to do in these situations or even how to approach them.


Nearly always we need to understand the importance of why we would attempt them in the first place.

Themes of Importance

When I reflect on the specifics of the founder conversation, I see a few themes:

  1. They reconnected to a core value: Generosity.

  2. They were immediately able to reflect on their past and point to specific behaviours and events when they felt they were bringing that to life. These were times of high energy and high impact that truly nourished them.

  3. They could see Generosity play out across multiple areas of their life: work, giving, travel, relationships etc.

  4. It was not about changing who they were or adding something new. If anything it was a realisation that one of their core values had been buried. Now that it was uncovered, it was time to bring it back to guide behaviour.

  5. As such, they were immediately able to see how it might be consciously brought back into present and future contexts and exactly what that would look like as behaviours or words in a conversation.

Persevere or Not?

I was asked recently what percentage of people choose to stay and what choose to go in these kinds of situations. I don’t know. And I’m not sure it’s useful to know – everyone’s circumstances are different.


I’ve found the more useful questions to ask myself are:

  1. What is truly important here?

  2. What is the short term pain, long term benefit of this decision?

  3. What is the short term benefit, long term cost of this decision?

As the serenity prayer goes:


Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.


I’ve felt the cost of persevering and have seen it in many others, regardless of how shiny the veneer or how many trophies in the cabinet.


I’ve seen people slowly lose themselves as they hung onto jobs, relationships, businesses, identities that buried their most important qualities and values.


I’ve grown up in a culture that said quitting was for losers.


I’ve grown up in a culture where the stories of perseverance in the face of adversity are celebrated and rightfully so. People are extraordinary.


But how often do we stop to consider the costs of perseverance? On ourselves, on our health, on the people around us, on what is truly important to us?


If perseverance is solely for its own sake or for the sake of ticking the next box, then I say hell yes. It’s toxic.


If perseverance is in service of values, of impact, of contribution, of something more important, then I’m all for it.