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.