When my then business mentor, New York Times bestselling author Michael Port, prompted me to explore this question, my answers led me to the single most important element of myself that I needed to change to get out of my own way and get my business moving in the direction I wanted it to go.
“Be the kind of person people want to help,” Michael said on a Think Big Call I was on when I first started my business. “Be the kind of person people want to help,” he said again before signing off encouraging us to think bigger about who we are and what we offer the world.
“Be the kind of person people want to help.” What the hell does that mean? I wondered as I ambled around the kitchen preparing dinner for my family after the call. I’m a smart woman. I’m practically a Ph.D. and I don’t know what he’s talking about.
“Be the kind of person people want to help,” the phrase haunted me. I went to bed thinking about it. I woke up thinking about it. I wondered why I couldn’t let it go. In between its recurrences, other stuff came up.
I’m the one that helps people, remember, I don’t need anybody’s help. I heard a defensive part of myself say. I stopped to listen, afraid I’d discovered something shocking about myself: I feared I wasn’t, and that perhaps I never would be, the kind of person people wanted to help.
“Because you can’t do this alone,” Michael had said and I recognized a huge obstacle in the way of my path to success. After a series of hurts that might have helped me sooner if I’d only looked at them differently, I had decided that I’d do it alone, that I didn’t need anyone. This stubborn-stance, I told myself, would make me stronger.
Turns out, that wasn’t true. Just like dichotomizing whether I was the person who gave or received help wasn’t true.
I thought about my long-ago incarnation as a doctoral candidate who’d gone into the program with teaching accolades and twelve years of experience. I cared about my work and it showed. I was also fiercely determined to appear the consummate professional. I didn’t mix it up with my peers, declined social invitations, and never shared my personal story.
Many of my peers were newbies; I could have been a great help to them but I was terrified of letting them get to know me. If they had, they might have discovered that I wasn’t any different from them, I’d just been at it longer which also meant I’d had more time to make some big missteps I learned from the hard way; I preferred to keep those in the closet.
My professors and peers didn’t see me sick to my stomach with every piece of writing I had to submit to Blackboard for public consumption. They didn’t know how long I’d labored to produce good writing. When they spent more time trying to take me down then they did creating something new, I never let them see how much it hurt; I appeared indifferent to it all. I worked harder.
I wasn’t the kind of person people in my program wanted to help. In fact, all of my efforts at perfection seemed to produce the opposite effect. By the time I passed my orals and left the program in 2008, I’d been unfairly judged, pigeonholed, plagiarized, and sabotaged. When I took a one-year unpaid maternity leave, aside from the few friends who’d been at my baby shower, no one called, e-mailed, texted or sent my baby onesies. People I’d worked with for four years, didn’t seem to wonder whether I’d lived or died in childbirth, when I was coming back, or if I’d heard the rumors that they suspected my career was over.
Michael’s prompt made me realize that, maddening academic politics aside, I’d co-created my situation by thinking I could do it alone, by never allowing myself to be vulnerable, by showing up like an expert, a consummate pro, All. The. Time.
No wonder no one wanted to help me. How could I blame them?
I didn’t appear to need help. I had it all.
I’d created a similar scenario at home. At the time of that Think Big call, with two small children, and a start-up business, I found myself saying “I have no help,” a lot. Why didn’t family and friends know how much I needed them? When I examined my own question, I had to admit it had been easier for me to create the illusion that things were going swimmingly than to ask for help or allow myself to appear vulnerable.
When people came over to see the baby, instead of letting them see me with spit up all over me or bags under my eyes from trying to figure out how to nurse through the night or my newfound need to leave the cat-puke where it lie for later–the baby needed me now–I put my son in the Ergo and cooked and cleaned and put on earrings and makeup and greeted guests at the door with four star hospitality and a goodie bag to take home. Then I resented people who visited for not knowing I needed help. Worst of all, I hated myself for being such a fake. No wonder I was alone.
“Be the kind of person people want to help,” Michael said and I listened. Putting it into practice every day isn’t always easy. Some mornings, I still have to remind myself, still have to map out a small course of what being that person will look like that day.
And, it’s totally worth it. Adopting this one piece of advice has changed every aspect of my life and business. I share it with you here in the hopes that you’ll be inspired to work as much at being the kind of person people want to help as you are at becoming a recognized expert in your field.
If you’ve got a reaction to this piece you’d like to share with me or you’d like to see how we might help one another, please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org I love hearing from my readers.