Magic words

“I don’t know how to do this. Will you help me?”

These are words as magical as Open Sesame, I believe. Humbling yourself in front of another and asking for help. Let me tell you a story to illustrate.

I arrived on an autumn day at JFK for a Pluralsight board meeting at Insight’s headquarters in Manhattan. I’ve never flown into JFK before – on my earlier trips to NYC I’d fly into one of the outlying airports and cab it into the city. Generally I prefer riding the subway and being with the locals instead of hiding away in the cabs. So I took the opportunity to do just this. Only it wasn’t at all clear to me how to even get started once I was in the terminal at JFK.

So when the idea presented itself, I looked up and the first person I saw, I walked over to. He didn’t appear that approachable, but I was testing a theory and I was determined not to cherry pick who I asked for help. So I walked up to him and said, “Excuse me, sir. I’d like to ride the train to Manhattan but I’ve never done this before and I’m not sure how to get started.” Then the unexpected happened. His face brightened and he immediately sprang into action. It was almost as if he grabbed me by the elbow and personally escorted me to the proper train stop, along the way telling me everything I needed to know in order to get to the subway station. It turns out he was taking a different train, and as he boarded it, he shouted to me, “Not this one! The next one, to Jamaica station!”

His instructions were spot on, and I made it to the subway station without any trouble. But when I arrived there, I was faced with another hurdle – the ticket kiosks. It was quite busy and each kiosk had a queue of five or six people. Once again, I felt fear stirring in my gut. I wasn’t sure what train or stop I needed, but even worse, I had no idea how to use the kiosk. I watched over someone’s shoulder and quickly learned that the kiosk was designed for regular users, not newbs like me. I almost turned around and hailed a cab. But I stuck to my guns and got in line behind a well-dressed businessman. Once he had purchased his ticket and turned around to leave, I stopped him. “I’m trying to get to Manhattan, but I’ve never done this before. Will you help me?”

This time I didn’t get such a helpful response. I watched as his face turned from rushed, to annoyed, to incredulous, “I don’t have time to help you. I am a busy man, can’t you see that?” Shaking his head in disbelief, he walked away. As I watched him leave, I started to doubt the theory I was testing about people who help. But about ten seconds after that interaction, once the annoyed businessman had walked out of earshot, the denizens of the underground descended upon me from both sides. I couldn’t believe it. “What a jerk!” I heard from one side. “He should have helped you,” from the other. People were literally competing with one another to help me out. They must have remembered what it was like when they were in my shoes. Suffice it to say that I got the help I needed without having to ask a second time.

So many times we need help but are afraid to ask for it. How many paths have we chosen not to walk down because of fear? I have seen it confirmed time and time again that if you humble yourself and ask for help, people will come to your aid. And it’s a gift you are giving them, because people like to feel helpful, and it brings joy to someone’s life to care for another in need.

I don’t ask for help unless I’m really stuck, but I’m much more bold about doing it now than ever before. And I’m convinced that it’s a critical component for maturity.

The impetus to try this experiment in New York came after I was introduced to Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey. When you start taking responsibility for your life, following your dreams, putting yourself out there, and acknowledging your weaknesses, magic starts to happen. For one thing, helpers appear to assist you.

George Lucas wrote the screenplay for Star Wars based on Campbell’s work. Think about how many times Luke needed help along his path, and the unlikely places he found it. An old man, a little green dude with more hair sticking out of his pointy ears than on his head, a self-centered rogue with an unlikely looking starship, even a princess!

This is just one small part of what you’ll discover when you study Campbell’s work. Ask yourself, where am I on the journey? If you’re interested in learning more, a great place to start is the movie, Finding Joe. Joe’s work has given me the courage and determination to seek a fulfilling life for myself doing something that makes a real difference in the world.

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