Business Tip for Culture Makers #531: Ask for Way More Than You Need
Written by Kelly Diels
Okay Culture Makers and Feminist Marketers: Let’s talk about Audre Lorde.
Let’s talk about her book, A Burst of Light (aff)
In A Burst of Light, she’s writing about creating great work and fighting injustice and raising children and loving and reeling from cancer. She’s writing about living. She’s writing about dying.
Obviously, as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”, Lorde knows things — including how to get things done. How to make. How to create — even and especially in a world hostile to your existence and your work.
One part of what I absorb from Lorde’s writing is inspiration and fortification on the macro level: as she urgently outlines — often in taut, sparing aphorisms that feel like a heart beat — the system we’re living in is intolerable and vicious. It viscerally underlines how necessary it is for me to do my part to change it.
And another part of what I learn from Lore is more micro. I glean from her writings and example many wildly practical, tactical strategies for making things in seemingly impossible situations and how to get more of your work out into the world.
Lorde, for example, was able to organize a significant international feminist conference hosted in the Caribbean with NO institutional financial /administrative support whatsoever.
How did she do that?
She knows, she writes, a secret for getting things done.
On page 124 of A Burst of Light, Lorde outlines her secret to being both an ambitious change-maker, for getting things done, and for making audacious things that didn’t exist before (like, say, an entire conference!).
It’s the secret for creating abundant, lavish, collectively-held projects on limited resources.
It’s the secret to collaborating with teams and colleagues to launch shared events and projects.
It’s the secret to getting by in daily life and surviving and thriving a system that is designed to overwhelm and consume our energy and time.
It’s something Lorde learned from her decades of writing and also organizing events and people and protests and collaborations — and it’s something she’s learned and relearned while trying to live with and through cancer.
Her secret, she writes, is this:
“One secret is to ask as many people as possible for help, depending on all of them and on none of them at the same time.
Some will help, others cannot.
For the time being.”
That leveled me. YES. Ask for more help than you need. Ask more people, as many as possible.
I know we already hear the exhortation a lot: ask for help!
But Lorde’s secret stretches further than that piece of advice. She tells us not only to ask for what you need but to ask for MORE than you need. And ask it of MANY people, not just one trusted person.
Do you see how far outside our boot-strapping success socialization that idea is? We’re trained to be independent, self-sufficient entities wherein it is a weakness for us to ask for or receive help.
I thought about it, and the only people who regularly, explicitly and shamelessly ask for my no-strings-attached/no-compensation help are my children.
Everyone else kind of apologizes for intruding. Me, too.
It seems to me, from my little corner of the world, that we collectively believe that unless you’re paying, the only people who are allowed to ask for help are kids.
And for those of us who are socialized as girls or women, it’s a radical deviation from what Jo Casey calls our “feminine conditioning”. As the socially designated care-taking gender, women are supposed to be the ones who help, not the ones who ask for help.
Which makes asking for help all the more radical and culture-making.
Still, many people — of all genders — who are raised in a culture that venerates individualism will often hesitate to ask even one person for help, lest we inconvenience them, or they can’t help and we feel rejected and they feel ashamed…
That’s the practical genius of Audre Lorde’s secret. AGAIN: Don’t ask only one person only for help. Ask more people for more help than you need.
It works in daily life, both domestically and in the workplace.
It also works with meaningful collective projects that have no institutional underwriting and require volunteer efforts.
It works with organizing people and coordinating events for good causes.
- If you need one great letter written to solicit funds for your good cause, ask three writers for help. If two say yes but then one backs out, you’ve still got the letter you need – and you’re not mad and they don’t have to feel bad. No bridges get burned.
- If you need one baseball coach, recruit three and let them have each other’s backs and a break, sometimes.
- If you need twelve essays for an anthology, don’t ask twelve people to contribute. Ask dozens. Ask every bright light you know. Put it out there, far and wide, to people you don’t know.
- If you’re putting together an online summit and you need 5 interviews, ask 20 people.
Asking more people for more help than you need seems like a form of self care, to me. It means you won’t burn out doing everything.
It also means you’re not waiting on a breakthrough or support from an influencer or institution (which likely wasn’t forthcoming anyway).
And more crucially, it means won’t burn your people out, either, because you’re not relying on the same three generous souls to do the work of 30, over and over again.
Instead, you’re relying on 30. Or 300.
And here’s what I’ve learned from deploying Audre Lorde’s secret-to-life: now I feel less like an intruder when I ask more people for more help. When I spread my needs across a network, I can’t overwhelm any one person – so there’s no shame in asking.
That was the second part of her tactical advice: rely on all of them and none of them.
That way, if someone or even several someones back out at the last minute, the project won’t collapse and you’re not going to be upset with them. No biggie. You’ve still got it covered. Asking for more help than you need, from more people, actually preserves relationships. It turns what we could think of as obligations into opportunities.
To care. To care for each other, to sustain each other, and to do great work in the world. Together.
Invite people – and meaning, and success, and justice – in.
Ask more people for more help than you need. Spread your needs across a network. That way you don’t burn out; they don’t burn out; and the thing gets done. That’s a boost for everybody’s bodies of work and for our collective. That’s the secret to getting things done as a feminist marketer: deviate from your social conditioning; divest from individualist shame; and invest in community effort. ASK FOR MORE HELP THAN YOU NEED.
And contribute whatever you can, whenever you can, if you can, when it’s your turn to receive the ask from your friends and colleagues.
When we don’t have institutions underwriting us, we have to underwrite each other.
And that is how we culture-make and invent the institutions of the future.
By making things. By helping each other make things that matter.
Because together we rise.
This Feminist Marketing Tip is part of a series. I publish a new one every Monday. You can find more of them here.
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