On the Luas, a young man dressed in the latest hipster garb anxiously pores over his smartphone. He keeps glancing at the station map above his head, growing more agitated as each stop comes and goes.
He flicks and swipes at his device, desperately seeking the correct station.
Right next to him stand four burly Luas security staff, jovial and kind, joking with each other. They are inches away, but it never once occurs to the young man to ask them for help.
He continues to swipe and prod, eventually getting off at Jervis street, looking around him uncertainly, quite clearly lost in a foreign city.
Why does it take so much to ask for help?
It takes courage; we have to vocalise our vulnerability to each other. We have to admit to a need, and we’re scared of being rejected.
Yet we all need help from time to time, be it practical or in the form of emotional support or reassurance.
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Indie rock queen Amanda Palmer knows how to ask.
From five years spent busking as a living statue called the Eight Foot Bride before forming her first band, the Dresden Dolls, to her record-breaking $1.2 million crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter, the 38-year-old has spent her lifetime supporting her artistic endeavours by networking, connecting with fans, and asking them for help.
Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help), a New York Times bestseller, charts her own voyage through the fraught territory of asking for help and receiving it graciously.
“Asking is, at its core, a collaboration,” she says.
Having split from the record company whose practices she disagreed with – amongst other things, they tried to make her reshoot a music video where they felt she didn’t look thin enough – Palmer decided on an independent approach, sharing her music and asking fans to pay what they felt they should.
She reached out via her website, her blog and Twitter to her online community of loyal fans, sourcing everything from places to stay to pianos to practice on in far-flung touring locations.
With 1 million followers on Twitter, Palmer is a prolific tweeter, describing how she may have composed 20 tweets by the time she finishes her morning coffee.
IRELAND ! i return to you at last!! June 13 in Dublin @ Academy + June 14 in Belfast @ Limelight !!! tickets flying. http://t.co/2ACWEfUZKs— Amanda Palmer 🎹 (@amandapalmer) April 27, 2015
When she needed to fund a new album, Theatre Is Evil, she decided to use Kickstarter to do it.
Asking for help, and getting it, are dependent on what you bring to the table.
Palmer sees asking as reciprocal; her successful Kickstarter campaign was more than, as detractors claimed, “digital panhandling”; it was the culmination of 16 years of making herself accessible to fans, of playing pop-up gigs in people’s kitchens and signing for hours after gigs.
Palmer describes the connections she forges with her fans and funders as love, and the message of her book is that asking for help is a two-way street.
Palmer’s experience may be mostly within the music business, but there are broader lessons to learn from her book; whether the helper gets back a smile and a thank you, or whether they get the security of knowing that you’ve got their back too, asking for help is always a transaction between two people.
If you remember to thank people, and make yourself available when others are in need, you find a strong sense of community emerges, where people trade favours, time and energy willingly.
It’s all too easy for us to forget that most people actually want to help each other. When we ask for help, we are allowing others to show that they care.
“Instead of asking how to make people pay, maybe it’s time to start asking, ‘How do we let people pay?’” Palmer concluded in her phenomenally successful 2012 TED talk, which has generated 6.7 million views.
She stresses a difference between begging and asking.
Yet some kinds of help are more difficult to ask for. After asking 25,000 fans for help, Palmer describes in her book how she still couldn’t ask her own husband, fantasy author Neil Gaiman, for help; not when she ran into financial difficulties in the weeks preceding their wedding and not when she sank into a state of physical isolation following an abortion, finding it impossible to connect with Gaiman as he coped with his grief by retreating into himself.
Maybe it’s easier to reach out digitally than in person, or maybe some people find it easier to ask for help from strangers than from loved ones, or maybe it’s simply that the requests we make of loved ones are more complex and demanding than clicking a donate button and require different kinds of reciprocation.
It may be difficult to summon the courage, but Amanda Palmer’s message is clear and uncharacteristically biblical: Ask, and you shall receive.