Recently a good friend, L, emailed me about how she was nervous to ask another good friend of ours for help. That maybe our friend would think L is pushy, or wasn’t worthy of her help.
I paused before responding, a little baffled, because of course it wasn’t pushy, and she was definitely worthy of help. I gave L my most honest, and what I hoped would be the most helpful, advice.
“I think if you don’t ask for what you want, there is a much smaller chance of you getting it. Ask her. The worst thing she can say is no. And then what? What is the worst thing that could happen? You go through other channels. You ask someone else. You move on.”
Good advice, right? So L asked her, and our friend was, unsurprisingly, happy to help. L got exactly what she needed, and in the fastest way possible, simply by admitting that she couldn’t do it all on her own. I, in turn, was thrilled for her—both in the success she achieved, and in the fact that she was able to overcome her fear of asking for help. Because I usually cannot do the same.
How is it that we’re so comfortable giving advice to others that we can’t take ourselves?
I don’t like asking for help.
In typical first-born manner, I have been called “independent” my entire life. I have always wanted to do everything myself, without help from anyone else. Tie my shoelaces, master algebra, get into college, start my career. My mantra may as well have been “I can do it.”
I skimmed directions, confident that I would just be able to figure out how to put together that chandelier intuitively. I ignored other people’s suggestions, sure that my way would work best for me. I insisted, “Oh, I’ll just do it”, rather than delegate or explain or offer directions, because it just seemed easier that way. I even had an astrologer explain that this was just in my nature due to how the planets were aligned when I was born.
I got by—without a little help from my friends.
Throughout the past year, however, I’ve noticed how little it was actually paying off. It was a little like relying completely on the navigation system in my car: I usually got where I needed to be, but often not before driving in circles or 10 miles out of the way first. Wasting time, wasting resources, because I was too embarrassed to admit that I actually needed help.
This mindset followed me on my trip overseas this week. I breezed through the flight, pushing all of the buttons before eventually discovering how the seat actually worked rather than asking the flight attendant. Striding through the Hong Kong airport, pretending I knew the way rather than asking for directions. Figuring it out on my own while playing the part of seasoned traveler. This worked, mostly. I reclined my seat, and got to my connecting flight with plenty of time to spare.
And then I got to Vietnam. In the middle of the night. To find a closed airport, no Americans, and virtually no English. I had five hours to kill until my 6am flight, and I had absolutely no idea what to do with myself. I couldn’t figure this one out. But how could I let anyone know that??
I felt the panic start to rise inside of me, and I knew that this would not be a situation that bluffing would get me through. It felt like a scene from the beginning of a horror movie, where the dumb American travels abroad and gets kidnapped outside the desolate airport in the first scene. I’d had moments of doubt about taking this trip, but for the first time, I felt it may have been a huge mistake.
There was only one thing to do: start asking everyone I could for help.
I trailed after the flight attendants asking if they knew the layout of the airport (I would have gladly jumped in their van with them at the slightest invitation). I questioned the immigration agent (who spoke about ten words of English) where my next flight was located. I asked nearly every person in a uniform along my way outside and to the neighboring terminal what I should do with my layover.
I didn’t get any good answers. The airport was closed. I could leave and find a hotel to wait it out in the nearby city. I could wait outside like the families who were sleeping on benches and underneath them. I could sit at the closed outdoor café and count the minutes next to the weary backpackers until the doors re-opened and I could retreat to the relative safety of the terminal.
So there weren’t any great options offered as a result of all of my inquiring. But what I did get was a little more peace of mind.
The more people I spoke with, the more people who might possibly be invested in preventing my abduction into the black market sex trade. The more smiles I offered and eye contact I made, the less likely it might be that someone would run off with my luggage.
The more people I connected with, the less alone I felt.
It didn’t stop the fear when I walked out of a stall in the women’s restroom to find two men standing there, staring blankly at me. It didn’t stop my heart from beating more quickly when they turned off most of the outdoor lights around 3am. It didn’t make the clock tick by any faster. But it did give me a little more hope that things would work out, and that there might be people in my corner.
And there were. When the airport re-opened around 4am, one of the security guards I had talked to approached me and motioned for me to come inside and get into the proper Vietnam Airlines check-in line, where a gate agent met my relieved smile with her own, and pointed me in the right direction. Crisis averted, lesson learned the hard way, as they often are with me.
Not asking for help didn’t make me stronger, or smarter, or better. Quite the opposite actually. It was only in admitting that I needed help that I was able to get to where I needed to be.
And when I saw that first sunrise on my first morning in Qui Nohn, I knew it was all worth it.