I asked the favor on the worst possible day for a teacher. Monday dawns and each educator feels less like Plato and more like Sisyphus gazing wearily up a gargantuan hill. I knew this, and yet, I still made my request in a crack-of-dawn e-mail: "Can you possibly write a letter of recommendation for me? Today? I need to send it off tonight."
I knew it was an unreasonable request and I hated to even ask it. It revealed both my vulnerability and my utter dependence on her good will. I forced myself to do it, though, because I really wanted her recommendation, and I knew the act would stretch me. I didn't consider that my appreciation of her willingness to comply with my urgent request would be rivaled by her own gratitude at having been asked.
After she'd completed my letter and I'd sent off my application, she confided that her initial thought had been: "How can she ask me this on a Monday?!" But by successfully completing the letter, she'd learned so much about herself. My asking her to do something that she thought initially impossible gave her a renewed confidence in her abilities. Her letter was a triumph for each of us: I was admitted to the program and had a fantastic educational experience, and she wrote one of the best recommendations of her life — under the gun, on a Monday. She realized in a new way that she really is a good writer and a truly loyal friend. Such a humble and yet daring act — on both our parts — took on much grander meaning.
It is difficult for many of us to ask for help; we often fear that our requests will be denied. Frank Flynn — associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business — and Jessica McCrory Calarco — assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University — published a paper in 2008 that revealed that people tend to grossly underestimate how likely others are to agree to requests of assistance.
In one of their studies, participants sought help from strangers by asking to borrow a cellphone or seeking complicated directions that required the strangers to walk them partway to their destination. Participants consistently overestimated by 50 percent the number of strangers they would have to ask to get a certain number to agree to help. As Flynn recalled, "they'd bound back to the lab afterwards with big smiles, saying, ' I can't believe how nice people were!'"
Calarco and Flynn assert that this phenomenon of underestimation of others' altruism has to do with our inability to "get in the mind of the one being asked for help." There are strong feelings of social obligation at play, and people generally want to do the socially correct thing and give assistance.
Sometimes our reluctance to ask for help is masked by our own drive for self-sufficiency. Many of us pride ourselves on our do-it-yourself mentality and gumption. And let's face it, many of us are — in the words of my dad — "just cheap."
I prefer to say "thrifty" but I am starting to understand his way of thinking. Several years ago, we planned to insulate our attic ourselves. After trying to load the surprisingly heavy insulation blower into the back of my aging Volvo, and realizing — as I saw the exceedingly patient worker at the hardware center raise his eyebrows — that I really had no clue how I would wrestle it out on the other end, I had to admit defeat. But, frankly, happily so. Paying the local professionals to insulate our attic was some of the best money I ever spent. I don't want to be cheap with my money, but more importantly I don't want to be stingy with my confidence in others' superior skills and experience.
Last week, the same friend who'd written such a superb letter of reference for me asked — on relatively short notice — if I would write one for her. I loved the symmetry of it all and the seeming ease with which she asked the favor. The more we ask for help, the easier it becomes to see the strength in our vulnerability.