Ask for help…

For years I’ve had a rule with my engineering teams. It goes like this – if you can’t figure something out (or can’t make any headway at all) in 45 minutes, ask for help. 

Of course, most people smile but think to themselves, “I got this. I don’t need to ask for help. I just need a few more minutes.” And that’s when a few more minutes turns into hours and then days, and finally weeks.

All because we didn’t develop the special muscle that allows us to ask for help.

But asking for help isn’t just for situations where a developer doesn’t know how to solve a puzzle. Asking for help can be for anything.

  • If you don’t know how to read a room or know the context of the meeting you’re about to step into, ask for help.
  • If you don’t know where to find historical context for a decision you’re going to make, ask for help.
  • If you don’t know who might help you solve a problem and you need a referral, ask for help.

The list could go on forever. There are tons of places where we let our ego get in the way of simply asking for help. And the more we practice asking for the help, the better we get at it. It sounds silly, but it’s true. Because asking for help isn’t a skill. It’s a dynamic of pushing past our own insecurities, and that just requires enough practice that it becomes second nature.

Here’s the good news – every time I’ve ever asked for help I have either gotten it, received a recommendation of someone else to talk to, in order to get it, or been asked to come back later in order to get it. For the most part, people want to be helpful. They want to provide some help, even if it’s not all the help you need. But I’ve never been yelled at for asking for help. And that has allowed me to keep asking for it.

Tips when asking for help

Three things you should remember when asking for help:

  1. Be explicit and clear about what you’re asking for. Don’t describe a situation and then ask if they have any thoughts. At that point, you’re waisting someone’s time. Be clear. Be specific.
  2. Be human. It’s fine to express insecurity, frustration, or stress. Often the human part of the way we make our request is what encourages the person on the other side of the request to reply positively. If I say, “I feel stupid asking this question that I probably should know by now, but can you explain this concept for me,” it helps people connect to the moments in life where they felt equally dumb. And that empathy drives them to engage and help.
  3. Be aware of your timing. I said above that I’ve never been yelled at for asking for help. But that’s also because I pay attention to the timing of my requests. Not timing in terms of my own schedule. But timing in the context of the person I’m asking for help from. I don’t ask them for help as they’re walking out of the building to their car. I don’t ask them for help on the weekend while they’re enjoying family time. I don’t ask them for help 4 hours before they launch a new product. Pay attention to the things on their schedule, their priorities, so that you can time your requests effectively.

And with that, I’m simply encourage you to keep asking for help.