Ask for help

I’m in a group called /dev/color, which is a professional development group for black engineers. I’ve been a member for the past three years, and I’m kicking off my fourth year in the program. Membership has impacted me in numerous ways, but I want to highlight one thing I’ve learned that is applicable beyond this specific network:

Ask for help.

/dev/color has a private Slack network, and in that network, there’s a channel called #askforhelp. It’s exactly what it sounds like. But it took me a while to being getting the most out of it. Turns out, it’s not so simple for me to ask for help.

Going it alone

I’ve come to realize that I have internalized a “figure it out myself” mindset. This probably derives from not feeling safe being publicly incorrect during my childhood, which in turn might come from anxiety and environment.

I grew up a black kid in a overwhelming white community. My family taught me that being black meant working twice as hard for opportunities and making a strong first impression to overcome the implicit assumption that I’m not as qualified—also known as prejudice. That taught me to come into new spaces knowing answers. Being informed and prepared has served me well as I have navigated adult life.

But sometimes, the strengths we lean on become maladaptive in certain situations. In my case, I advanced past the point where I could succeed on pure intuition. When I first became a engineering manager, I struggled with the transition. I came into my role with problems conceptualized and solutions planned. I led from the front, like a hero engineer, instead of focusing on setting my teammates up to drive the work forward. Deliverables went out on time, but my team wasn’t happy. I found myself having to work my way out of a rut.

Changing it up

Fortunately, /dev/color came to New York shortly thereafter. I joined and began finding ways to leverage the organization to help me in my career. I realized I didn’t have figure out everything on my own. Receive and applying wisdom from the group helped me come to grips with my new job.

Fast forward to the beginning of my second year in /dev/color. As both professional and personal development tasks came up, I realized I was doing too much in my own head before simply posting my issue to #askforhelp. Take, for example, the task of getting my household financial situation in shape. I floundered on my own for a year simply trying to figure out where to start before realizing I should reach out to my network for advice. I did so on January 22, 2018, which yielded a couple book recommendations that unblocked my progress. By February 11, I had the first entry in the Our Financial Planning Voyage series up, and I was off and running. At the end of the year, I felt like my family was in command of our financial plan. Who knows how much value was unlocked by simply asking for help.

It finally dawned on me that I’m programmed to ask for help as my last option. I realized I had more work to do to break out of this habit. I needed to change my mindset.

Systematizing it

I now consciously try to override my tendency towards solitary struggle. I still do my independent research before I ask a question. After all, people help those who help themselves. But, I’m already planning to post my question in advance. My research is meant to help me craft a better question and be a good participant in the subsequent discussion. So there’s actually a little bit of nuance to the technique.

/dev/color is one of several networks I belong to that serves this purpose for me. These networks center around all sorts of identities, affiliations, and shared experiences. Shared contexts help create the emotional safety to publicly not know something. I’m in networks of shared former employers and networks of more-or-less random chains of acquaintances. This technique is applicable anywhere. If you’re brave, you might even have success asking in a public space, like Twitter.

Passing it on

My “ask for help” technique has helped me get better information faster, but it also has side benefits. First of all, it makes these networks stronger. I have noticed a virtuous cycle of help requested and given the more I participate. I realized I was contributing to an environment of psychological safety and knowledge sharing. Secondly, I’ve noticed that good questions lead to valuable discussions, with follow-up questions from others and productive tangents. Often, a lot of people end up getting helped from one initial question.

This all might seem obvious to some folks, but if you’re anything like me, maybe it’s actually a pretty big shift. It’s part of a broader shift I’m making towards being comfortable in vulnerability, but that’s a topic for another day.

I hope you, too, begin to find better answers, quicker.

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