One of the best things about joining a book club is the fact that you are introduced to titles that you normally wouldn’t choose for yourself. Last month my nonfiction group picked Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking—or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Let People Help. Not only is it an entertaining and easy read, it is also filled with thoughts and ideas about honesty, feelings of adequacy, being a writer and other acts of creation, trusting ourselves, accepting love, getting paid for our art, and the power of social media. Going far beyond the difference between asking and begging, Palmer’s book is a manifesto on ways to look at the world from a position of connection and wholeness. It is stuffed with plenty of meaty ideas for a two-hour book club as well as a blog post or two.
In case you’re like me and have never heard of her before, Palmer is primarily known as a musician who achieved fame with the most successful Kickstarter music project ever funded at the time. Asking for only $100,000, she raised nearly $1.2 million. Following her Kickstarter fame, she was invited to be a TED Talk Speaker on “The Art of Asking” which produced a video now seen by over 5 million people. That success led to her being invited to author a book on her life, her music and her ability to ask.
How did she become such a fearless asker? She attributes much of that resolve to her nearly five years as a living statue street performer. As the “Eight Foot Bride” she learned the humble art of offering flowers to those people who put money in her basket. Was that her highest aspiration? No. Although a recent college graduate she knew she didn’t want a normal job—in fact, she wanted to be a rock star. As a way to eat and pay the bills along the way, and using her background in theater, she decided to try being a living statue. Not only did it pay better than other menial jobs on her rise to stardom, she liked it.
Palmer discovered at the core of her experience as a living statue that most people want to be “seen, understood, accepted and connected.” She saw herself as an artist and her “act” as a gift of her art to those who would take the time to pay attention. In so many ways that gift or art is similar to what any writer, blogger, musician or artist does when they create something out of nothing and offer it to the world. And as Palmer learned, out of the hundreds that would pass by on any given day—only a small percentage would see her, appreciate her, and accept her gift by putting money in her basket.
“Feeling gratitude was a skill I honed on the street and dragged along with me into the music industry. I never aimed to please everyone who walked by, or everyone listening to the radio. All I needed was…some people. Enough people. Enough to make it worth coming back the next day, enough people to help me make the rent and put food on the table. Enough so I could keep making art.” ~Amanda Palmer
Like most of us, Palmer struggles with feeling adequate. She calls that ongoing inner-critic The Fraud Police. But she is quick to say, “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 sometimes achieving a bit of success only makes the Fraud Police even scarier because they have more ammunition to use against your doubts. Palmer is convinced that whether you are a business person or an artist, amateur or professional, we all struggle to believe we are good enough and have something of value to offer others—and give we must.
Eventually, Palmer began to realize that she was hiding behind a “personality” as a living statue. What she really wanted to do was to make music—her kind of music—loud and personal. She started in a group called The Dresden Dolls and continued to use the white face of her living statute. Gradually she dropped that and began writing and performing anytime, anywhere, she could get a “gig,” and often financed it by just passing the hat. She had learned from her living-statute-days that even if only a small group of people understand and liked her music, that was enough.
However, she didn’t just perform her music. After every concert, Palmer would spend time talking and “signing” anything just to connect with her fans. And her community loved it. From there she built a huge email fan base and learned to ask and trust that someone would step up and help along the way when needed. They did. Everywhere she traveled she couch-surfed (in other words she slept anywhere people would offer) and often relied on the fans for meals and transportation. A Twitter fanatic, she continued asking despite her growing notoriety, because she saw the asking as an invitation to deeply connect with others.
Slowly Palmer came to believe that at its core, asking is a collaboration. Palmer says, “Those who can ask without shame are viewing themselves in collaboration with—rather than in competition with—the world.” In other words, when we ask for help with a sense of connection and gratitude in our heart, we are recognizing that we have the power to help one another. She never wanted to force or coerce people into helping her—she wanted to let them help her. That sense of trust and vulnerability grew as she built a fan-based community built on connection.
Why don’t more of us ask for what we want or need? Deep down most of us feel we are separate and disconnected, and that aloneness makes us fear one another. Palmer also quotes author Brene Brown by saying that women tend to avoid asking as a sign that we feel inadequate or “not enough.” On the other hand, men avoid it, so they “don’t appear weak.” So rather than ask and risk that someone will reject connecting with us and meet our need, we stay silent. She says, “…we just can’t see what we do as important enough to merit the help, the love.”
A particularly helpful perspective included some background on Henry David Thoreau. I’ve always imagined him cloistering himself away at Walden Pond for a year while writing his timeless classic. What we forget is that none of us—let me repeat that—none of us ever achieves success on our own. Instead, Thoreau actually took three years to write his book and lived there at the benevolence of a wealthy friend who allowed him to use the property for free. He also ate dinner at his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s several nights a week and once a week his sister showed up with a basket of baked good including donuts. It turns out that while Thoreau was a champion of simplicity, self-reliance, and minimalism, he did it with a lot of help from friends and family. The takeaway? Accept the donuts!
Was Palmer’s level of trust ever challenged? Definitely. But what she continually understood is that the vast majority of people are trustworthy and want to share and connect. Those that aren’t—just let them go and move on. In fact, she was so committed to the idea of a sharing economy that when she learned about people offering their music for free on the internet she began to just ask people to pay what they wanted—if they wanted. It worked well for her. She began offering small private concerts, and again, people stepped up to the plate. Eventually, she decided to record her own CD and that led to the Kickstarter project. Each was a lesson in asking, trust and connection.
Palmer has taken a lot of criticism for her bold choices, but from my perspective, she works as hard or harder than other artists to achieve her success—but she does it in her own unique way. Critics couldn’t see why complete strangers would ever give her money to produce her own album. But as she says, “Effective crowdfunding is not about relying on the kindness of strangers, it’s about relying on the kindness of your crowd.”
As for me, as a writer who has been misunderstood in the past for “giving my writing away for free,” I resonated with much of what Palmer shares in the book. My writing is my gift to the world and the connections I make are the reward that continues to make it equitable and meaningful in my life. Sure, I am sometimes paid, but it is not a tit-for-tat relationship. I know, like Amanda Palmer, that not everyone will like or appreciate the gift of my writing. But for those who do, I accept the relationship I have with my readers in full reciprocity.
Palmer ends the book by saying that our “…job in life is to recognize the gifts we’ve already got, take the donuts that show up while we cultivate and use those gifts, and then turn around and share those gifts—sometimes in the form of money, sometimes time, sometimes love—back into the puzzle of the world.” And yes, “some days it’s your turn to ask. Some days it is your turn to be asked.”
I’ve always wondered why some Kickstarter projects seem to do so well. Now I know that it is more about who does the asking and how and why they are asking that works or doesn’t work. I also realize that if we use social media in the correct way, we can build a powerful community of like-minded souls who want to be asked and are ready to help when called upon. Recognizing and sharing our gifts while holding the Fraud Police at bay is essential. And yes, it’s SMART to remember that if someone shows up with donuts—take them!
Okay your turn! Is asking for help easy or difficult for you? Do the Fraud Police ever show up on your doorstep? And do you accept the donuts when offered? Please share in the comments below.
Karen Hume says
Sorry to be late to reading and commenting on your post. I’ve been immersed in the #A-Z Challenge.
I really appreciate you sharing the content and your thoughts about Palmer’s book. I had it in my “think about buying” section of my Amazon account for quite a while, but ultimately decided that Palmer’s background and interests were just too different from mine for the book to be a useful one for me.
I’m still glad I didn’t purchase it, but I did learn from your post. I’m terrible at asking and am not a fan of social media, but there are baby steps I can and will take.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Karen! No problem. I haven’t been to your site either….I tend to be overwhelmed by all the bloggers I follow who do the A-Z thing because I get SO MANY EMAILS as it is. But I admire your commitment. And like I said, I doubt that I would have read this book without it being part of my book club. But it was a much more interesting and relevant read than I suspected. But with that said, one of my other book clubs has a book I am not even remotely interested in finding out if it contains nuggets of wisdom. As you say, there is only so much time and we do have to make choices. If all I did from my post is remind us all that “asking for what we want” is an important step in becoming interdependent–I’m glad! Thanks for stopping by! ~Kathy
Dr Sock says
Kathy, in this article, you have addressed an issue that plagues creative people, and, in fact, almost everyone. You wrote: “we all struggle to believe we are good enough and have something of value to offer others.” I know that I certainly struggle with a sense of inadequacy, but for the longest time, I thought that I was alone in feeling this. It was my shameful hidden secret. I like the way that you have connected people’s reluctance to ask for what they need with having an underlying sense of not being worthy of receiving attention, love, and help. That explanation makes sense.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Jude! Isn’t it true? I don’t know about you but it does make it easier for me knowing that all creatives struggle with this issue. As you say, tend to think we are the only ones but that isn’t true. It helps so much to learn about other people’s stories and even with someone so bold and “out there” as Amanda Palmer, she still struggles with it. Let’s support each other as much as we can right? ~Kathy
Lynne Spreen says
THis was such a powerful, powerful book. My fave scene was at the end when she comforted a living statue, a stranger, a man, who wept in her arms. The book was recommended to me when I posted in an author marketing group: how do you ask? How do you get comfortable telling people about your books? What an amazing story, and an amazing woman. Thanks for talking about this art/skill, Kathy. If you’re interested my review is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2243616868
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Lynne! I was pretty sure you did a post on this book a while ago but I couldn’t find it! I should have looked on goodreads!!! Thanks for sharing it for anyone who is interested. And yes, may we both continue to use the advice we found in this book. ~Kathy
Beth Havey says
Great post, Kathy. Sometimes when I say I’m a writer, I know people want some kind of proof. That’s part of why I blog, why I GIVE AWAY my work, my thoughts. Every comment is gift back and forms a connection. After all, writing is communication at a high level. As for donuts, I love them, but have stayed away for years. But, if you like my work and offer me a piece of dark chocolate–I’m there.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Beth! Hahahaha…yes, isn’t it funny how people want “proof” for our claims at being a writer? I suppose that actually says more about their own inner critic than anything to do with us. And good for you for continuing in spite of it, right? And I’m with you–donuts aren’t on my menu anymore either. But I do love the metaphor! Thanks for the thoughts! ~Kathy
Hello Kathy, nice to meet you and read your wonderful blog! I came here via a comment you made somewhere on a blog about minimalism and see that I find in you a like minded soul. (By the way, forgive me if my English is not correct, it’s not my mother tongue, I’m Dutch.)
I loved reading this blog post about Amanda Palmer and think she’s very brave to put herself in such a vulnerable position. To answer your question about asking: till a couple of years ago I found it very hard to ask or receive. It was just not something that one should do. It still isn’t for many people I know. But when I became a single mom and was very ill, I just HAD to receive the help and gifts that were given to me, plus I HAD to ask for help. It felt very humiliating at the time. But it has helped me appreciate more that we as human beings really want to help and give to each other, and we can’t do that unless there is someone asking and receiving gladly and gratefully. Over time it has become easier to ask and receive. But my Fraud Police still tells me that I am less worth and less self-reliant if I do ask and receive. So, how do we stop that annoying Fraud Police in our heads? 🙂
Thank you for your writings, Kathy, I will definitely read more of what you wrote and shared so generously. Greetings from The Netherlands, Wen
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Wen! So nice to meet you too. Thanks for introducing yourself and sharing your thoughts on this. I’m glad you found the post interesting and helpful. I know the book inspired me! And isn’t “The Fraud Police” a great name for our inner critic. But it sounds to me that you learned some of these lessons that she writes about from your own personal experience. And as you discovered, it does get easier. I’m not sure if any of us ever get rid of those voices…Amanda didn’t seem to do it in the book and I’ve listened to some more videos from her that suggest she (like all of us) still deals with them. It’s one of those “feel the fear and do it anyway” moments I think. Amanda certainly had fears but I think she learned by facing them and then recognizing the value of doing it anyway, that inspires her to keep it up. A good lesson for us all I think! May you (and all of us!) find the inner courage to ask for help on the little things, so when the big stuff shows up we know how to do it. Thanks again for coming by and I hope to hear from you again in the future. ~Kathy
What a fantastic post. There is something so difficult about asking for help and accepting help when it isn’t asked for. I really love the attitude of acceptance and giving back the book, and your post, puts forward. I heard a quote the other day – the more you love life, then the more life loves you – referring to being happy and open and giving and it will come back to you.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Laura! Thank you! And thank you for letting me know that I was able to communicate that sense of reciprocity that Amanda seems to live by. I think a lot of people like to think they live by the “Golden Rule” of giving out as much (or more) than they get back but when it comes down to it, lots of us are more comfortable giving than getting. I tend to see myself as strong and self-sufficient so this book was a book was a good reminder to me that letting others help us is a GIFT, not a burden. And yes, I love the idea behind your quote, “the more you love life, then the more life loves you.” ~Kathy
Thank you for another very provocative review and discussion, Kathy. I can be absolutely horrible at asking. Lots to think about here!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Donna! Thank you. I hope everyone is getting tired of all my reviews. But how can I not write about the things I am reading that trigger thoughts? And now that I am a member of two book clubs I’ve really ramped up my reading. A friend told me that she takes notes on the books that she reads that she really likes. Me? If I like the book I write a blog post! Isn’t that a great way to remember the best parts? ~Kathy
Tom Sightings says
This is an important lesson, esp. for those of us who have a tendency to be control freaks. We need to remember, both for ourselves and others, that people don’t want to be entertained or educated nearly so much as they want to be “seen, understood, accepted and connected.”
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Tom! Good observation! Amanda does have a particular talent for “going with the flow”of things. She loves what she calls “ninga gigs” where she tweets that she will be in a certain town at a certain location THE NEXT DAY and then any fans in the area will be there too. Sometimes 10 people will show up and sometimes several hundred. She doesn’t care. She just loves giving her gift and yes, at the core of that is how she remembers that people want to be “seen, understood, accepted and connected.” A good lesson for us all huh? Thanks for your thoughts. ~Kathy
Still the Lucky Few says
Glad to have you back, Kathy! Palmer had to have an enduring self-confidence to pull this off! But maybe she was scared and hesitant, but did it anyway! Asking is so hard for some of us—somewhere, down deep, we don’t believe we are worthy of receiving. But thank goodness there are people like Palmer, who demonstrate how important it is to receive, as well as give! This works to keep us in touch with our deeper selves, and to have the courage to ask for what we need in order to realize our gifts (which never, ever, should be wasted)!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Diane! As Thom and I always say–“Good to go! Good to come home!” And yes, Amanda does seem to have an amazing sense of self-confidence from the outside but I enjoy in the book how she continually says that she is challenged just like the rest of us. She just does pretty much what she wants anyway. And as a woman, she has taken a lot of criticism that I think wouldn’t have happened if she was a man trying the same things. Id she wild, crazy and over the top? It certainly sounds like it from some of her actions. But when compared to most male rock stars she is just one of the crowd. I admire that she continues to hold the awareness that her community of fans is so very important to her that she sees them as friends in a relationship rather than “clients” or mere customers of her art. I think that’s why her fans are willing to do so much for us. Certainly a lesson there for many of us writers too. Thanks for your comment. ~Kathy
I have always admired the statue artists! I hear often what I should do in my business solicited or not. Sometimes they are good ideas but often I have thought it or tried it before. If I asked for money too that ownership obligation would not sit well with me.I think kick starters for artists work because it is fun to tickle your artistic bones with your money.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Haralee! Thanks for checking in with this. And yes, here stories of being statue were interesting as well as her approach to music. I felt inspired and encouraged by her outlook on life and collaboration. And I even listened to her Youtube video which is good as well–although the book talks more about her personal relationships and that makes it even more interesting. I don’t think Kickstarter is in my future but I do “get” now why it sometimes works really well. Thanks for your thoughts. ~Kathy