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The Art of Asking

The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer

Some of my favourite excerpts…

Often it is our own sense that we are undeserving of help that has immobilized us. Whether it’s in the arts, at work, or in our relationships, we often resist asking not only because we’re afraid of rejection but also because we don’t even think we deserve what we’re asking for.

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I’ve had a problem feeling real all my life. I didn’t know until recently how absolutely universal that feeling is. For a long time, I thought I was alone. Psychologists have a term for it: imposter syndrome. But before I knew that phrase existed, I coined my own: The Fraud Police. The Fraud Police are the imaginary, terrifying force of “real” grown-ups who you believe—at some subconscious level—are going to come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, saying: We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING. You stand accused of the crime of completely winging it, you are guilty of making shit up as you go along, you do not actually deserve your job, we are taking everything away and we are TELLING EVERYBODY.

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hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand. And you feel stupid doing it. There’s no “correct path” to becoming a real artist. You might think you’ll gain legitimacy by going to art school, getting published, getting signed to a record label. But it’s all bullshit, and it’s all in your head. You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.

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In both the art and the business worlds, the difference between the amateurs and the professionals is simple: The professionals know they’re winging it. The amateurs pretend they’re not.

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I can imagine a seasoned brain surgeon, in the moment before that first incision, having that teeny moment where she thinks: For real? I dropped my cell phone in a puddle this morning, couldn’t find my keys, can’t hold down a relationship, and here I am clutching a sharp knife about to cut someone’s head open. And they could die. Who is letting me do this? This is BULLSHIT.

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Sometimes I would get home and have a nice little breakdown, having no idea what to do with all the loneliness I’d collected.

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Asking for help with shame says: You have the power over me. Asking with condescension says: I have the power over you. But asking for help with gratitude says: We have the power to help each other.

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what about the people in the ninth, tenth, and twentieth rows? I couldn’t see them. I imagined them all standing there with their arms crossed, rolling their eyes at our gay mime antics, waiting to be sufficiently impressed. Signing fixed that, because we got to meet a pretty decent percentage of the audience every night. They weren’t judgmental hipsters. They were just sweet, human, smart, fumbling people like Brian and me, all of whom had kind faces and, usually, their own strange stories to tell. After hundreds of nights of signing, my instinct to fear the audience was worn away, like running water smoothing down a jagged rock. It was an epiphany: Holy shit. They’re not scary at all. They’re just…a bunch of people. It just wasn’t possible to feel that anxious anymore: I’d MET them. But I never would’ve known if I hadn’t made the effort to stand at the merch table every night; I might have stayed afraid for years. And when you’re afraid of someone’s judgment, you can’t connect with them. You’re too preoccupied with the task of impressing them.

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Those managers seemed really reluctant to believe that if you just trusted and listened to, talked to, and connected with the fanbase, the money and the profits would come—when the time came. Managers kept telling me to stop twittering and get back to work. I broke up with a lot of managers. They didn’t understand. That was the work.

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Brené Brown has found through her research that women tend to feel shame around the idea of being “never enough”: at home, at work, in bed. Never pretty enough, never smart enough, never thin enough, never good enough. Men tend to feel shame around the fear of being “perceived as weak,” or more academically: fear of being called a pussy. Both sexes get trapped in the same box, for different reasons. If I ask for help, I am not enough. If I ask for help, I am weak. It’s no wonder so many of us just don’t bother to ask. It’s too painful.

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In the early days, The Fraud Police seemed to keep pace with my career. Despite write-ups in bigger magazines, airplay on radio and TV, and playing larger venues, the growing fame and all the outside eyes just made me feel more insecure, like I was pulling a bigger one over on everybody. On a bad day, the success did the opposite of reassuring me. Instead, it compounded my fears of not being real.

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Twitter is the ultimate crowdsourcing tool for the traveling musician; it’s like having a Swiss Army knife made up of a million people in your pocket.

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It all happened on just half a day’s notice, and it had the camaraderie of an international outpost bar, like a fleeting whiff of Rick’s Café in Casablanca. I enjoyed enough Icelandic vodka that evening that I didn’t even bother to make a mailing list. The country is small. If I came back, it seemed a single tweet would probably suffice to gather all of Iceland on a moment’s notice.

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As everybody else glumly queued for the shuttle bus, I felt like some kind of lottery winner when Indiana jumped out of the car, hugged me, threw my luggage in the back, and whisked me away me into the lunar Nordic landscape. You’re a friend of Hera’s! she shouted over the Jethro Tull. So I love you! Where do you wanna go?? You’re in Iceland! You have never been?? You make music?? I’ll take you anywhere!!! Let’s go to those thermal baths! I shouted. Yes! To the Blue Lagoon!!! she shouted. Who are you!? I yelled back. And what are you supposed to be doing today instead of babysitting an American stranded by a volcano erupting on your island?! I’m a grad student!!! My thesis is late! Fuck my thesis!!!! she replied, and proceeded to host me for the entire day, asking me about the music I made, taking me to the thermal baths, and enlightening me with stories—over

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When you are looked at, your eyes can stay blissfully closed. You suck energy, you steal the spotlight. When you are seen, your eyes must be open, as you are seeing and recognizing your witness. You accept energy and you generate energy. You create light. One is exhibitionism, the other is connection. Not everybody wants to be looked at. Everybody wants to be seen.

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The marketplace is messy; it’s loud and filled with disease and pickpockets and naysayers and critics. For almost any artist, carrying your work through the stalls of exchange can be painful. But there is another option, which is to yell from your window. You can call down to your potential friends outside, your comrades in art and metaphor and dot-connecting, and invite them to a private party in your garret. This is the essence of crowdfunding. It’s about finding your people, your listeners, your readers, and making art for and with them. Not for the masses, not for the critics, but for your ever-widening circle of friends. It doesn’t mean you’re protected from criticism. If you lean out that window and shout down to find your friends, you might get an apple chucked at your head. But if your art touches a single heart, strikes a single nerve, you’ll see people quietly heading your way and knocking on your door. Let them in. Tell them to bring their friends up. If possible, provide wine.

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Since ever, in China, bamboo farmers have planted baby bamboo shoots deep into the ground. And then, for three years, nothing happens. But the farmers will work, diligently watering the shoot, spreading hay and manure, waiting patiently, even though nothing is sprouting up. They simply have faith. And then, one day, the bamboo will shoot up and grow up to thirty feet in a month. It just blasts into the sky. Any small, sustainable artist-fan community works like this. Crowdfunding works like this.

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This is why some lesser-known people have had such real success with crowdfunding—they’ve fertilized over time, and diligently—and some better-known people who appear to have massive reach haven’t done well at all. Fame doesn’t buy trust. Only connection does that.

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And, fundamentally, all asking works like this. You must prepare the ground. If you’re going to be asking one day, you need someone to ask who is going to answer the call. So you tend to your relationships on a nonstop basis, you abide by the slow, ongoing task, going out there like a faithful farmer, landing on the unseeable bamboo shoot. And then, when it is time—whether you’re asking a bunch of people to preorder your album, or asking one person to hold back your hair while you’re puking—someone will be there for you.

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There was a distinctly familiar GET A JOB quality to all of the yelling aimed in my direction. I recognized the voice. You’re not allowed to ask for that. You don’t deserve it. You’re not real enough.

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we asked people to upload photos of images that connected to specific song themes—childhood bedrooms, treasured objects, lost loved ones—and we projected them onto a giant scrim above the stage. We communed.

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I didn’t need to do an experiment to find the answer; The Polyphonic Spree, an orchestral indie band, had already done it for me. They launched a Kickstarter that same month and offered a $1,500 option to come onstage with any instrument and join the band for a few numbers. They limited the number of packages to ten, and sold every one of them. There was no controversy. Why not? The conclusion I came to was that people are comfortable as long as there is money flowing in ANY direction, whether from the artist to the volunteer, or from the volunteer to the artist. People can understand a price tag, no matter what it’s stuck on. But some can’t understand a messier exchange of asking and giving—the gift that stays in motion.

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Effective crowdfunding is not about relying on the kindness of strangers, it’s about relying on the kindness of your crowd. There’s a difference.

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He never landed a record deal with a label, but he wanted to make a high-class official recording of his music, so he decided to crowdfund. He surpassed his goal of $20,000 with the help of 531 backers. Most of these people were Sxip’s friends and fans from New York, and a few hundred people from other states or countries who had seen him on tour over the years. I’d estimate that Sxip had, at one time, probably shared a drink with at least 37 percent of his backers. They just wanted to help him make his record and…Be Sxip.

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My theory: one of the biggest reasons people usually want to help an artist is because they really want…to help an artist. Not get a fancy beer cozy. If they make the decision to help, they will help at the level at which they are able, no matter what token, flower, or simple thank-you awaits them at the other end. I emailed a pal at Kickstarter to see if they had any hard evidence to support this, and indeed, they had the numbers: Since Kickstarter began, 887,256 backers have asked for the artists to refrain from sending them any kind of reward—which represents a little over 14 percent of their user base.

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Asking for help requires authenticity, and vulnerability. Those who ask without fear learn to say two things, with or without words, to those they are facing: I deserve to ask and You are welcome to say no. Because the ask that is conditional cannot be a gift.

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Here’s the thing: all of us come from some place of wanting to be seen, understood, accepted, connected. Every single one of us wants to be believed. Artists are often just…louder about it.

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This is exactly what I learned standing on the box, then while playing in bars in my first band, and, later, when I turned to crowdfunding. It was essential to feel thankful for the few who stopped to watch or listen, instead of wasting energy on resenting the majority who passed me by.

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Most of the time, though, “outside” appointment and approval (Congratulations! You’re an official Professor/CEO/President/etc.) in any field doesn’t necessarily silence The Fraud Police. In fact, outside approval can make The Fraud Police louder: it’s more like fighting them in high court instead of in a back alley with your fists. Along with all the layers of official titles and responsibilities come even deeper, scarier layers of oh fuck they’re gonna find me out.

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help; those who ask have faith in our capacity for love and in our desire to share with one another.

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When are you going to grow up, get a real job, and stop fucking around? What makes you think you deserve to earn money playing your little songs to people? What gives you the right to think people should give one shit about your art? When are you going to stop being so selfish and start doing something USEFUL, like your Sister the Scientist? If you take those questions and turn them into statements, they look like this: Artists are not useful. Grown-ups are not artists. Artists do not deserve to make money from their art. “Artist” is not a real job.

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Sometimes people will prove themselves untrustworthy. When that happens, the correct response is not: Fuck! I knew I couldn’t trust anybody! The correct response is: Some people just suck.

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These sorts of critics would write screeds online about how I was equipped to “find some other way” to put an album out. This is what struck me as particularly ironic. I had found “some other way” to release music: crowdfunding.

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The only thing I must not do is break the code of honesty and steady, forthright contact. You can fix almost anything by authentically communicating.