This is a linkpost for neelnanda.io/blog/40-help

Introduction

I really suck at asking other people for help. I find it very anxiety inducing and aversive to think about. It sits at the intersection of a bunch of biases I have. Some part of me is convinced that I can do everything myself - that it is weakness, or being a burden to ask anything of someone else. Part of me is convinced that any cost to myself is fine, but a cost to someone else is a really big deal - a strong anxiety around bothering other people. Asking for help is rarely necessary, often I could get by without someone’s advice, or get it done on my own. There’s no urgency, and it feels much harder to value my time and welfare over other people’s. I feel afraid that my request or question will seem dumb or obvious, or that it’s a waste of their time. Especially if the other person seems high-status, or unfamiliar.

This triggers even when asking for help is the obviously correct thing to do. When I want a favour from a friend that I know they’ll enjoy giving, or could give effortlessly. If I’m working somewhere, and am confused, I feel a high aversion to asking my mentor, even though that’s the entire point of having a mentor.

Anecdotally, this bias also seems common in many of my friends. And when I’m people I respect for life advice, they often point to a general failure to ask for help. I think this is really, really dumb, and at times a pretty major bottleneck on my life. In this post, I want to make the case that asking for help is clearly the way to maximise total value, tips on getting the most out of help, and ways to be a fun person to help.

Some of the most common places this triggers for me are below. This advice applies across all of these examples, though I find it generally helpful to take a different perspective for eg asking friends for help, vs asking someone high status for career advice.

  • Asking a friend for a favour
  • Asking people for feedback
  • Asking for emotional support
  • Asking someone for career/life advice
    • Especially if they seem busy. highly-qualified, high status, or all of the above!
  • Asking people for an outside view/advice
  • Asking questions, trying to learn

This is an annoying topic to write a blog post about, because this advice can obviously be taken too far. Some people don’t ask for help enough, some people ask for help too much. And there are many times when asking for help is not the right thing to do. If, eg, people often get annoyed with you for bothering them, then this post is not for you! And always ask, should I reverse any advice I hear? But I conjecture that this is valuable advice if you’re the kind of person who tends to insecurity, fearing being a burden and to trying to do everything yourself. And that for many people, asking for help more on the margin is a really good idea.

You should ask for help

The first step is convincing myself that this is an issue at all. That my reluctance to ask for help is a problem, and worth putting in effort to overcome. And my core argument here is that asking for help is universalisible - that I would much prefer to live in a world where everyone asks for help, than one where no one does. You should ask for help when it maximises total value. Most of my reluctance comes from struggling to step outside of myself, and put my welfare on an equal level with other people - it feels much easier to spend an hour of my time than to ask for 5 minutes of somebody else’s. But I think this is just clearly wrong. A useful hack, other-ise: If you have something you’re agonising over, imagine a friend in a similar situation asking you what to do. If the answer is obvious for the friend, it’s also obvious for you!

Some concrete ways asking for help obviously increases total value:

  • Getting an outside view: It’s often much easier to notice problems and flaws from the outside, without all the preconceived notions, and bias. Ask people for feedback and advice!
    • This especially applies with emotional situations, anything involving difficult trade-offs, defensiveness, sunk costs, or any other kind of classic bias!
      • A pretty good life strategy is, before making any high-stake romantic decisions, ask at least 5 friends for advice. If they disagree with your thoughts, you’re probably being an idiot.
    • Similarly for getting feedback on drafts, etc
    • Sometimes my mistakes are blindingly obvious to others, but I’d never have noticed them on my own
  • Diminishing returns: Generally, when thinking about a problem, some ideas will feel obvious to me, and can be given effortlessly in the first 5 minutes. I can get more ideas, but it takes a lot more effort. If I ask many other people for their first 5 minutes of thoughts, this is vastly more efficient
  • Sharing knowledge: If I already know something, it’s effortless to answer questions, but often very hard to find answers without this context. On net, this massively saves time and effort
    • This goes especially in areas with lots of tacit or hidden knowledge, or something highly technical. Eg, personally, if one of my friends has a questions about the finance industry, or something mathematical, it’s obviously far more efficient to ask them for it. And it’s often fun to answer a question where I have relevant expertise, and can feel useful!
    • It’s easy to feel anxiety about seeming dumb, or not knowing something “obvious” here. And sometimes people suck, and will try to shame you for it. But I think it’s really important to be able to ask about things you don’t know about, it’s super unrealistic to know everything! And if you can pool knowledge with friends, everyone is better off
      • Getting good at this has massively accelerated my learning
      • Personally, there are a bunch of “obvious” things I feel I know nothing about - fashion, romance, exercise technique, etc. But because many of my friends do know about these, it’s easy to compensate for
  • Advice can be high leverage: Often good advice can drastically change how I prioritise my time, high stakes decisions that I make, which career opportunities I pursue, etc.
    • This means that even if someone’s time is much more valuable than mine, it can be a great use of their time to give me advice. Especially when you’re a student/recent grad, a bunch of your decisions are really high leverage over the rest of your life. If someone else influences them, that means their advice is even higher leverage!
      • I’ve found this goes even more so when asking for career advice within the Effective Altruism community - there’s the shared goal of doing good, so there’s no longer even the asymmetry of them taking on cost to help me. I personally think that giving career advice to anyone trying to do good is an exceptionally good use of my time, no matter how busy I feel - the leverage is just so high!
  • Reciprocation: Asking for help can help other people ask you for help back, if they have similar problems
    • Even if you can’t really help them back, it’s often nice to let someone else pay it forwards. Eg, I’ve asked a ton of people for career advice over the last few years, and rarely been able to properly reciprocate. But it’s nice to then be able to pass it on and help people who want my advice, and I imagine mentors I’ve had have felt similarly
  • Things I can’t really provide for myself, like emotional support.
  • Being helpful can be fun! It’s pleasant to feel useful, and to feel valued. Your mileage can definitely vary here, and I sometimes find forms of being helpful to be effortful and dull. But sometimes, when I get a chance to provide high quality and high leverage advice, and can see how it helps someone, that’s the highlight of my week
    • More on how to be fun to help later
    • I feel a lot of insecurity about whether people enjoy helping me, especially when I feel unable to appropriately reciprocate. Sometimes, explicitly asking ‘was that a good use of your time?’ can help with this a lot (though only in situations where I trust them to be honest!)

Of course, it’s easy to still have anxiety around things that are obviously good ideas, but I find it helpful to dwell on these ideas. I want to be the kind of person who is able to ask for help, and to depend on others.

Getting the most out of advice

Another route to dealing with the anxiety is to focus on optimising how I ask for help, making sure I’m getting as much out of it as possible, to justify the cost to the other person’s time! Here I’ll focus on getting the most out of advice, as I feel like I have the most useful thoughts here. Many of my thoughts on learning from conversations, and the section on ‘asking questions’ from my post on learning apply here.

The first, and most important, is to be clear about what you want. Be easy to help! Give them as much useful context on the situation as possible. Outline your key uncertainties, the relevant high stakes decisions, your current thoughts and biases. Be clear about what you want from the conversation.

Another helpful way to think about it is to minimise their intellectual labour when it comes to being helpful. Prepare questions and topics, give them as much structure and direction as possible. On the flip side though, don’t be too rigid. You’re asking for advice for a reason, they have a lot of context and tacit knowledge that I lack. I find it helpful to point to the topics I feel most confused about, and ask questions, but let them drive the conversation if they have thoughts. Another good hack is to try to use their intuitions to find good questions or topics, eg I like to end all conversations by asking “is there anything important I should have asked you about, but didn’t?”.

Another framing: They have a lot of intuitions I lack, but those intuitions are represented in their head as tacit knowledge. My goal is to gain surface area on those intuitions - do whatever I can to poke at them, explore them, and try to build a model of them in my head. Some tips:

  • Notice the feelings of confusion, or surprise. If they say anything confusing, poke at it. You don’t even need to have a concrete question, just “I am surprised you said that, can you elaborate?” can be valuable
    • Indeed, the times when I am sufficiently confused that I can’t generate a concrete question are often the times when it’s easiest to get surface area - just gesturing at the part that seemed off can be sufficient
  • Describe your current thoughts in as much detail as possible. Even if it seems dumb or silly. This gives them a lot of surface area, and can let them poke at whatever is most relevant
    • When seeking career advice, I find it helpful to write up my current thoughts and context in a Google Doc, and send it to people before the conversation (making it clear that I don’t expect them to read it in advance!)
  • Paraphrase back what I think they’re saying in my own words. It’s much easier to correct a misunderstanding than to communicate clearly in the first place
  • Try to give examples or analogies, and ask if they’re correct. Ask for examples in turn

I’ve found it helpful to be on the other side of this, it’s so much easier to give good advice when people use these techniques on me.

On a more meta-level, a major mistake is not asking for advice in the first place, or waiting too long! If I’m eg working somewhere and have a mentor, I find it super easy to procrastinate on asking for help. I feel like I need to try everything, wait until I am completely stuck. That I’m wasting my mentor’s time if I haven’t exhausted every avenue before asking for help. Or, worse, that I need to make progress before asking for another meeting. When, in fact, the times when I am confused and not making progress can be the most useful times to ask for help. My goal is to learn, and to learn to progress faster next time. The techniques for gaining surface area can be really helpful here, trying to gain surface area on ‘I am stuck, what should I do?’ is one of the best ways to improve. If possible, I highly recommend trying to arrange regular meetings with a mentor.

And finally, asking for advice is an excellent time to seek upside risk! Don’t just ask about whatever feels appropriate, or what’s on my mind. Most of the expected value from advice conversations comes from a small chance of a big change in belief. So you should try to optimise that probability, and ask open ended questions that make this more likely to happen. Personally, I find it easy to ask about things that I, on some level, already know. And instead, it’s valuable to make a list of my key uncertainties, or bottlenecks and focus the conversation on those, eg by emailing a list in advance. Especially if they feel embarrassing, or irrational! Some prompts:

  • If I left this conversation with radically different plans, what happened?
  • If this conversation turned out to be super insightful, what happened?
  • If I discovered I was making a big mistake in this conversation, what happened?

Be pleasant to help

Finally, a good way to overcome the anxiety is assume there is coherent logic behind it, and try to understand what it’s trying to tell me. And for me, the anxiety often stems from fearing that there’s a cost to the other person. But, rather than flinching away from asking at all, it’s often more productive to channel this towards minimising that cost - finding ways to both reduce the cost to them, and ways to add value in turn.

Some tips:

  • Give them agency - one of the biggest costs when other people ask me for help is that I feel an obligation towards them. It feels high-cost to say no, and the default path is to say yes. I think it’s valuable to minimise this
    • I try to always give people “outs”, reasonable excuses to say no, eg “no worries if you’re too busy!”
      • This one is hard, because people often give insincere outs. I try to only do this if it’s genuinely sincere, it completely stops working if people can’t trust your sincerity, and just becomes passive-aggressive
        • I highly recommend writing a blog post about the fact that your outs are sincere, it’s great signalling!
      • Another failure mode here is being nice to the point that it seems insecure. It takes me much more energy to say no to someone who’s clearly really insecure about bothering people, because I expect that to be higher cost to them. I try to make my outs clear and concise, rather than going over the top.
    • I try to clearly signal how important it is to me and let them make their own decision. This applies both if it’s high priority, and if it isn’t
      • Eg, if I want feedback on a draft, I often send it to a bunch of people and say “I’ve sent this to a lot of people, please consider this low priority and only have a look if you have the time, and consider this fun!”
      • Sometimes people will value my goals, and genuinely consider it a good use of their time to help! Helping out can be fun, and it’s good to give people fun opportunities
      • Related: I think it’s good practice to give a clear deadline when making a request. This lets them prioritise around it.
    • An interesting framing: I often feel the most anxiety when asking high-status people for help. But, the higher status and busier someone is, the more often they’ll get asked for help. And, there comes a point where you have to learn to say no in a low cost way, and prioritise among requests. So, arguably, the cost is actually far lower for busier people - they can just judge how good a use of their time it is
      • Relatedly, I think it’s fine to send follow-ups if you ask someone busy for help and never get a response. The busier they are, the more likely it is that they just forgot to respond
  • Respect their time - you are asking them to incur a cost to help you, try to make this as easy as possible. This goes especially for people who are busy or high-status
    • Do your homework - if you can easily get context or answer questions yourself, do this beforehand
    • Prepare, and ask good and insightful questions (see above!)
    • Learn about them, and figure out what they can help you with
  • Express gratitude - It’s fun to be helpful! It’s even more fun when the person you’re helping thanks you explicitly, and it feels clear that you made a tangible difference!
    • I try to give as many concrete details as I can of what stood out as helpful, and how my life was counterfactually different, I think this makes the thanks feel more satisfying
    • My weekly routine of ‘thanking people who improved my life this week’ works well for ensuring this is the default, and that it feels sincere rather than perfunctory
    • Another good way to express gratitude is by trying to find ways you can reciprocate, and add value to them back
  • Find win-wins - Look for ways of helping that the other person genuinely enjoys.
    • Often the most fun ways to help vary a lot depending on the person and the framing. For example, if someone asks me for feedback on a draft, this feels like work. But, if they ask for feedback on ideas during a conversation, and we bounce ideas off of each other, I find this fun and energising. While some people find it super low cost to give feedback on a draft, eg if they planned to read it anyway
    • Some people love giving advice by monologuing, others find that exhausting, but love giving advice to someone who asks concrete questions and drives the conversations.
      • Personally, I love to give advice that feels novel, eg someone is asking me questions that forces me to think in a new way, and learn something new myself
    • Get better at this by gathering data! Figure out which people enjoy giving which kinds of help, and adapt who you ask and how you ask accordingly. I like to explicitly ask people what forms of help they found it more or less fun to give.

Conclusion

Anxieties centred on asking for help continue to be a major bottleneck in my life. There are such vast gains from trade to learning how to appropriately depend on others, but it takes a lot of willpower to decide to do. But dwelling on the ideas in this post have helped me to get much better at this, and to do it far more often. And I feel satisfied that I’ve managed to channel this towards being a more fun person to help, and getting more from people’s time.

Worse, because deciding to ask for help takes so much energy, it’s never the default. It never feels urgent. It’s easy to macro-procrastinate about, even after internalising that it’s worth doing.

So, if the ideas in this post resonated, I hope that you ask for help more often. This is a really damaging thing to have anxiety centred on. But, further, how could you change the default of your life so that you ask for help naturally?

Exercise: Set a 5 minute timer. What are the current problems in your life? Who, specifically, could you ask for help on this? Then go and do it! And afterwards, reflect on how it went, and whether you want to be the kind of person who does this more often.

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5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:28 AM
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You wrote a lot about asking for help without speaking about the most important aspect: Relationships.

I have a school friend with whom I spent a lot of time in the first two decades in my life and now speak with once per year. He got a PHD in mathematics and recently I had an issue where the a mathematical perspective was valuable. It wasn't necessary to ask anybody for advice and there are likely a lot of other people I could have asked. Asking my old friend not only helped with the object level issue I was having but it was also a way to stay in touch with my old friend. 

If you ask a friend for help it's useful to think about how that influences your relationship with them. Is it something that makes the relationship deeper or is it something that takes away from the relationship?

Exposure is the most effective remedy for most forms of anxiety. It is also helpful to understand the thoughts behind that anxiety and consider to what extent they are valid or beneficial (there are good reasons to be anxious, but they may only justify it to a mild extent). 
Many techniques can help such examination. One that is particularly appealing to me is to imagine what I would tell a close friend who is very much like me ("double standard" technique).

A slightly different sort of benefit to asking for help: it gives an opportunity to potentially start a collaboration / mentorship / friendship. I find when reading older autobiographies that important relationships often started when e.g. they read a book and had a question, but no one they knew could answer it, so they eventually sent a letter to the author of the book.

These days the internet means that asking someone is much less frequently the most efficient way to find out some information. And even if you do ask someone they're more likely to send you an email than to invite you round for tea. But these opportunities to connect with people seem very important, so I think it's good to take this into account when deciding if it's better to ask someone or work something out yourself. It might also mean we need more explicit opportunities to connect with people than were necessary in the past.

I feel afraid that my request or question will seem dumb or obvious, or that it’s a waste of their time.

1)

Do you deep inside believe that only stupid people ever ask for help? Wrong! No one knows everything. Even within their area of expertise, almost no one is best. And even the people who are literally the best can benefit from someone sharing their burden.

Asking for help is sometimes actually the smart move.

2)

There is a chance that, ironically, worrying too much about not wasting someone's time or not appearing stupid, may actually make you waste more of their time. For example, if you work with someone on the same project, and you are unsure about something, it is better to ask for their help sooner rather than later, because if you indeed were wrong, now you have wasted more of the total person-time allocated to the project.

Even the disclaimers like "hey, I don't want to waste your time, and it's totally okay if you send me away, don't worry I won't get offended, I completely understand that your time is precious" can be a waste of the other person's time. Maybe answering your question would actually take less time than listening to the disclaimer. I am not advising competely against using the disclaimers, just to keep them simple and short.

As you've no doubt noticed, our anxieties don't often respond to mere reasoning.

Two of the most common sources for this type of anxiety related to behavior are:

  1. A judgment about the "kind of people who X" (e.g. ask for help, bother other people, etc.)
  2. A self-concept about what one does or doesn't deserve or have the right to

Narrowing it down begins with checking how you feel about other people doing whatever X is. For example, if you picture someone else bothering a person of high status by asking them for help, how do you feel?

If the response is a negative judgment, empathetic embarrassment, anxiety, etc., then it's very likely you have a learned "behavior X = bad person" type of rule in your brain.

Direct negative judgments are usually fairly straightforward to get rid of: in the simplest case, by just letting go of the rule if you no longer endorse it on any level. More complex methods for more stubborn cases include those of Crane ("releasing" technique) or Byron Katie (The Work).

If the judgment is more indirect or only applies to yourself, the techniques involved are more complex, and typically involve investigation into the specific circumstances that created the anxiety. The good news, though, is that usually some information about that will surface during the failure of the Work or releasing, which is why I try to start there first.

Successful intervention would mean that you no longer feel that particular anxiety when imagining the need to ask someone for help.

This is a different approach than the traditional one, in which one is told to fake it until you make it, i.e. keep doing the thing and maybe the anxiety will go away... eventually. Given my experience of dealing with various sorts of anxieties for years or decades with no change, I am not particularly satisfied by that sort of advice. It is definitely possible to do better: to change our minds in at least some areas, instead of just having to live with them.