Tuesday, August 17, 2010

69. Be Shameless about Asking for things

I am going to tell you a story which may disturb you, or even more, completely discourage you from what I am about to argue for, but its a good little story and I will tell it anyway. Who knows, if you are still convinced of my argument after this story then I believe you are truly material for being a famous architect.

Back in the days when I was in collage, I had an interesting classmate named Andrew. Almost everyone in the studio seemed to have a certain aversion towards him. Very few actually described him as a friend, and even these so called friends of his always seemed to have a problem with him. It is difficult for me to count the amount of times a friend of his would come up to my drafting table and start a conversation that begins with the phrase "Andrew is my friend but..." and then continue on to tell of the latest conniving thing that he did to them. The other problem with Andrew was that he walked around the studio with a certain air of superiority about him. If you met him at a party and had a brief conversation with him, chances are you would walk away with the impression that you are somehow beneath him.

The most interesting thing about Andrew though is that he always seems to have people granting him all kinds of favors, or doing something on his behalf, or giving him something. Even me!. The lesson of Andrew is that he was never afraid to ask for help or for anything. In fact he was downright shameless about it. It would not matter if you were laughing with him or arguing with him, there was no wrong time to ask in his view. If he needed help with anything he would just come right out and ask. If you just bought the latest CD, he would ask if he could copy it. If you just bought the latest gadget, he would ask if he could borrow it. If a starchitect was teaching the course, or visiting for a lecture, and he wanted a job at that office, he just went right ahead and asked.

I remembered Andrew because I had a realization just the other day, and that realization this:

Famous Architects are unashamed to ask for things.

They are not afraid to pick up the phone and ask. They ask of their employees, they ask of their colleagues, they ask of their friends, they ask whoever they see fit and they do it all the time. They do not hesitate, they do not waste time agonizing over it, they just do it. When ever they need something, they make decisions quickly, pick up the phone and get on with it.

So you might say “oh, they are used to it, because they have many people working for them so its just something they got used to doing”.
Well, I am not so sure about that. In fact, I don’t think so. I think they got an office, and employees, and became famous because they had no issues with asking for help or for anything.

I had the great fortune (or great misfortune, depending on how you look at it) of either being taught by or working with quite a few famous architects. I also know quite a few rising stars.

I can say with complete certainty that this is one of the few traits that connects all of them, no matter how different their works or philosophies.

One friend of mine whom I worked with on a project some time ago is a rising star. For reasons of privacy I will simply refer to him as Joe. Joe learned through a friend we have in common that I was working on a project that was potentially beneficial to his office and would give him some free promotion. Immediately he contacted me:

“Hey Conrad, how is it going?

I had a conversation with Jenny, she said you guys are working on this project... bla bla bla bla ...

Of course I suggested my office could be involved as a participant.

She suggested I talk to you.

Maybe you could work out something for us?

And here is how it could benefit you too... bla bla bla ...

What do you think?”

“Yeah, sure” I answered,

“I will just suggest it to the rest of the guys on the team and see what happens”

Reflecting on the conversation some time later, I thought about how it would be if it were the other way around? What if Joe was working on a high profile project and I saw that there could be some free publicity in there for me? What would I do?

Well before I figured out how to ask, before I learned what I am about to tell you, my train of thought would have looked something like this:

  • Oh, I wouldn’t want to be a bother or impose on him.
  • I wouldn’t want to be patronized, I don’t need that, if I want publicity I will get it when I need it, on my own.
  • He is probably not going to do it anyway, so why bother?
  • That might be too much to ask... I don’t want to put him in an awkward position.
  • What’s this going to cost me? Am I going to be indebted to him... I don't want that.
  • If I ask him, it may seem like I am begging and gosh I don’t want to come off as weak or needy or even worse: desperate.
  • I am a giver; I am a kind giving person and I would much rather give to others than to go around begging and leaning on other people.

In short, I probably would have talked my self out of doing it. I think most of us would too. I think most people simply don’t know how to ask and that’s a problem. We don’t want to be demanding or leaching like Andrew on one hand and on the other we don’t want to appear weak, especially guys; you know the proud smart self-reliant type that drives around in circles and would not ask for directions because they don't want to come off as incompetent or stupid. I don’t know about you, but driving around in circles with your head stuck up your ass is not exactly my idea of strength, competence or self reliance. From where I stand, it looks more like an image of insecurity and cowardliness, not to mention stupidity. Yet we do this with our careers, and worse we do this with our lives.

But I have news for you. There is a vast difference between people like Andrew who goes around and take, take, take and never give back and the so-called proud-independent who drives around in circles for hours afraid to ask for help. There is a middle ground between these two extremes.

Joe is a good example. I learned a lot during the short time I worked with him. Like any emerging firms we usually worked very long hours. Joe would spend the better part of the days on the phone making calls negotiating with people (That's archispeak for asking for help). He did this constantly for hours and hours, it was only later in the evenings that he would seriously switch his focus on to architecture. The other thing that really surprised me was that for a relatively young guy who have worked for some of the most celebrated starchitect offices around the world, he did not have some basic skills that you would expect from a person with that caliber of experience. For example, he did not know how to render and his photo-shop skills were a bit shabby. But that did not seem to get in his way. He was adept at delegating and readily acknowledged when he did not know something instead of pretending to be an expert. He was driven and motivated and when things got tough he asked for help right away.

What Joe lacked in photo-shop and rendering skills he more than made up for in asking skills. This is the single most important skill I learned from him and I would like to share it with you. You can look at that conversation I mentioned I had with him earlier as a case in point. It has all the ingredients of a good way to ask for help.

Firstly, make sure the person you ask is actually in a position to help you.
I had a project that could give him publicity and I had some influence over who could be involved in it. So naturally Joe came to me.

Secondly, Be confident and straightforward
No I did not say cocky. You should not go around expecting people to do you a favor or help you no matter how much you have helped them before or how good a friend they are or for any reason. Remember you are asking not demanding. At the same time don’t grovel or be wimpy about it. If you go and ask in the tone of voice of Doubtful Tom: “uhm... ahh... you wouldn’t want to help me on this would you?”
That’s not asking for help, that's a weak prayer or kind of a little psychological trick to prove to yourself that at least you tried. That is not a sincere effort, that’s a cop out. If you are going to do it half assed don’t bother wasting your time. Neither should you try to drop hints and expect the other person to kind of read between the lines. Then what you are doing is trying to make the person you are asking feel guilty and help you out of pity. That’s just lame and manipulative.
Just get to the point and state in no uncertain terms what you are asking for. You can explain why or argue your case later in the conversation as necessary.
When Joe asked me, he simply and directly stated what he wanted “could you work out a deal where my office is a participant in your project” no demanding, no guilt trip hints, no groveling, just a clean, clear, honest question. Then he went on to explain how it could benefit me, in other words how this could be a win-win situation. This brings me to the third point.

Look for ways to reciprocate: read the tone of voice and body language of the person you are asking. Is there a hesitation or reluctance in their answer? If so respond accordingly, remember you are really negotiating a win-win situation. You want to come out with an amicable outcome for yourself and the person you are asking whether you come away with a yes or no or a counter offer.

Of course there will be occasions where there is no point in offering something in return. Now at the risk of sounding superstitious, I will say this: what goes around comes around. You will find that people will come to you to ask for favors too; maybe not that same person that helped you, but someone else. Help them. Get in the habit of helping other people. Not because you want to build good karma or because you expect something back, but because it is fun. Do it to train your brain that its about giving and receiving. Develop that reputation. Think about the kindest, most helpful or generous person you know. How would you respond if they came to you for a favor?

Recalling the days I was working with Joe and hearing him “negotiate” on the phone, these three principles were always present in those conversations, whether he was talking to a potential client, another firm he was seeking to partner with on a competition, a contractor, or student he was asking to intern for him.

And by the way, when the time came that I needed a favor from him and I asked, he was very accommodating and even went out of his way to make sure I got the proper help that I asked for. In fact this is what defines our relationship. Even though we live in different countries now and we don't see or hear from each other for long periods of time, I have no reservations about picking up the phone and asking him for help and he of-course doesn't either.

Anyway, I will leave you with the final scene from one of my favorite movies: My Cousin Viney. Its about an inexperienced lawyer who has a lot of raw talent but wanted to win his first trial on his own; without asking for help from anybody. In short he wanted to do things the hard way, and unnecessarily hard it was. In the end he begrudgingly received a lot help along the way from his fiancée and others to win his first trial case.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007


vincent said...

thank you conrad
keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Very good post!

Khanti said...

Good note, very helpful. I used to be the person who 'goes for the hard way', maybe to prove myself and the others that i could break all of kind of problems. In my first serious course at IUAV (Venice University of Architecture) we was called to design a tree house for a kid. Well, that's not a big deal, as you know. But helped me on figuring out that i was complicating the work by wanting no helps from my classmates. After few days they came to me and peacefully said that we were to learn together, and that's exactly what you post says, which i read a couple of month after.
In short, what you say is correct, as i experienced :)
Greatings from Italy

Khanti said...

PS: Come to Biennale of Architecture and say hello to Kazuyo & Ryue ;)

Gabriel G; said...

Wise and useful. Thank you.