A Plus, Is Greedy

Miri has an interesting post (h/t Kate Donovan) on the relation between depression and isolation. I've never been diagnosed with depression, or had any internal experience that felt as debilitating as what people who have say it's like. This paragraph describes something pretty recognizable to me anyway:

Depression is really nothing but a huge negative feedback loop. The worse I felt, the more I became convinced that I have nothing of value to offer other people as a friend, partner, or anything else. I found that I could barely stand messaging with friends online (something that’s normally my lifeline) because I felt like I had nothing to say. People would ask how my life is or what’s up or how I’m doing or whatever and I had no way to answer that question. My life is bad. Nothing is up. I’m doing shitty. And you?

I've certainly had times when I felt like I had nothing to answer "What's up?", because not much was going on. And as I've written before, it's not unusual to have trouble with this, even if you're not feeling terrible.

A lot of my social interactions got a lot better, easier, and more valuable when I connected these four things I already knew:

  • It makes me happy when other people ask me for things, especially advice or information.
  • Sometimes I want things from other people, especially advice or information.
  • Sometimes I don't know what to say in a conversation.
  • What makes me happy is likely to make someone else happy.

Instead of just letting my unmet needs, unanswered questions, unasked requests, and unresolved confusions simmer inside me, I decided to start asking other people for what I wanted - especially if what I wanted was advice, sympathy, or information.

At the CFAR workshop, if someone giving a presentation said something I didn't understand how to use, I didn't worry about whether I'd already put enough thought into figuring it out for myself. I just asked them, and if I didn't understand their answer, I kept at it, until we figured out where the confusion was. As a result, for the first time since before high school, I asked an instructor a question where I was genuinely confused, and got an answer that actually helped me learn. For example, I figured out that one reason some of the emotion-based techniques weren't working for me is that I have a limited emotional vocabulary, so if I want to use them I should work on building that capacity first.

(I asked questions in high school and grad school, of course - college doesn't count because my tutors weren't supposed to be serving as subject matter experts. But either it was a smartass question meant to show off, or a leading question meant to clarify a point I thought might confuse others. In the few cases where I really needed an answer, I got no help at all. I learned that the only way I'd get past the confusion was to read the textbook or work on the next assignment.)

When my grandmother died, I wanted to talk about it, so I contacted a few people who were online who I was sort of friends with and told them. I got to think through my feelings in a low-stakes conversation, and as an added benefit, one of them became a much closer friend as a result.

If I'd used this approach last time I was looking for a job - or when I was considering grad programs - I would have made much better choices, and performed a much more effective search. I remember one time when I was considering doing a PhD program in finance, and had the following two problems:

  1. A mentor of mine had introduced me to a professor at a well-regarded local finance program, and I was supposed to talk to him, but wasn't sure what to say to him or what questions to ask.
  2. I wasn't sure whether I had enough mathematical background to jump straight into a finance PhD, what my skill gap was, and how to close it. I didn't know how to put together a plan to do this, how to assess what skills I'd need, etc.

In hindsight, I should have used the second problem to solve the first one, and asked the professor all my questions. It would have been something to talk about, gotten us into an object-level discussion where we could work on a specific problem together, and gotten him used to being on my side. It would also have answered my object-level question about how to bring myself up to the mathematical level needed.

The key principle in all of this is to be greedy. Have a clear idea of what you want, and ask for it.

I'm mainly talking about requests for information or attention. This doesn't quite work for requests like "Can I have $1,000?", or "Will you help me paint my walls?". Requests for information or attention flatter the other person, which makes them mutually beneficial.

The other caveat here is that you have to be prepared for them to say no to your request, or to try to help you ineffectively. The point of this interaction isn't to have your problems completely solved with total certainty by the end. The point is to create an opportunity to make any dent in it at all, even if the only progress is that you learn about something that won't get you what you want. I find that this lower-pressure attitude makes it easier to think of things I want to ask for.

By the way, if you are looking for a job - first, do lots of informational interviews. This should be your primary search method, starting with people you have some direct connection to if possible.

Second, especially if you're just coming out of school or for some other reason you have a deadline, it may be tempting to just focus on wanting "a job," or "a job in field X." This won't help you bond with the people you talk with, it won't help them help you, and because of this it won't make them feel good about the interaction or put more work into helping you. Instead, try to figure out what you'd ask for if you were being maximally greedy. A billion dollars a year, sure. But also, maybe you find writing really fun or want to learn how to build models in Excel or want to work with people who speak a foreign language. The more specific things you know you would like, the more and better questions you can ask, and the more ideas the people you're talking to will have. You may not get all of them - but you might get some, and you'll likely do better finding "a job in field X" too.

You can also get greedy about the things you don't know. What's your workday like? What are the other roles where you work? Basic questions are fine, especially if you're new to the field and you've done the obvious reading of the easily available information.

Similarly, if you're in an interaction with a friend or acquaintance, and you don't know what to say, specific questions and requests at least give them cues for what they should be saying or doing to make the interaction go well. (Did you think you were the only one who didn't know what to say next?)

Now, how do you apply this to "What's up?" Remember that "What's up?" is not a literal query about the objectively most important thing in your life, or a demand that you impress the asker. It's an opportunity to bring up a topic of conversation you want to talk about.

Now, if what one most needs is to brag about something (and sometimes one does), then you can go ahead and do that. But if you're feeling boring and lonely and useless, then you might be well-served by keeping a list of things you want. For example:

  1. I have some free time and am looking for book recommendations.
  2. I am trying to write more, but keep not doing it. Want to meet up for a writers' study hall?
  3. I am feeling shitty and need some cheering up. Can you send me some cute animal pictures / social validation that I am liked / happy music?
  4. This stressful thing happened to me and I just want to complain about it to someone.

I did the second and it worked out really well and I felt awesome and interesting and got to hang out with a friend without having to try to be anything special or do anything impressive or say anything smart. We just went to the Kogod Courtyard and wrote for a couple of hours. It was great.

And you're not the only one who feels better if you do this. People like to feel needed. It feels good. It makes them feel valuable, smart, competent - all the things you wish you felt too. (Thank you notes are super powerful for the same reason.)

And what if you can't come up with a list, or don't know what to ask this particular person for, or are too confused or overwhelmed by your problems to come up with a specific request?

Then you get meta-greedy: ask for help with that.

The one thing it's better to be asked for than a minor favor, is advice. Most people love to tell other people what to do. For example, I read Miri's post on depression, and like an asshole, I am responding by giving advice to people whose problems I don't understand and likely never will. (This advice is not actually intended for Miri in particular, or even specifically for people with depression - it's more a bunch of stuff I wish someone had told me ten years ago - but it's still kind of a terrible response, and not at all what I'd do in a one-on-one conversation if I was trying to be helpful.) I'm writing this blog post, telling the generic reader how to solve their problems, if their problems happen to be identical to mine. I don't expect to reap any material benefits from this - it just feels good to write it, and it will feel awesome if anyone says they were actually helped by it.

Sometimes I do favors for friends out of obligation, or when it's a chore to do so. But if a friend asked me for advice - said that they wanted my opinion in particular, that they wanted it very much, that if I could help them think something through it would be very useful to them - well, then, there's not much I wouldn't gladly and easily give up for that, with no willpower expenditure at all, because it's simply a pleasurable thing to do. One of my more recent friends basically turned me from a friendly stranger to someone who considers her a fairly close friend, by asking me for lots of advice.

One of the things it took a while for me to really deeply grok about managing other people professionally is that telling people what to do isn't a guilty pleasure to be suppressed, or indulged only when absolutely necessary, but instead a necessary part of the job.

Recent requests I've made of a friend:

  • I want to do something to help mitigate existential risk but don't know where to start.
  • I got some bad news about a friend and I have limited control over dealing with it and I want to help them but I can't make decisions for them and I don't know what to do.

Examples of other requests one might make (and I've made modified versions of these requests too):

  • I am in a slump and don't know what will get me out of it.
  • I need something but I don't know what. Help me think - I need another brain!

Of course this requires a certain level of confidence to do, even over text. It requires confidence that your request is comprehensible. It requires confidence that you are asking for something that it might be possible to get. It requires confidence that you are valuable, and worth your friends' time - and that they're your friends at all. Sometimes one doesn't have this confidence. But if you don't have this confidence, you can write the email you'd write if you did have that confidence. You don't have to decide whether to send it until it's written - nobody has to see it - but if you write it, and it makes any sense, and it's not an onerous request - why not?

Sometimes people say no, of course. That's life. No need to pre-reject yourself, though.

Now, if only I could get myself to read this post, and follow the advice in it. 😐

11 thoughts on “A Plus, Is Greedy

  1. hamiltonianurst

    As someone who just got back from a CFAR workshop, this post really resonated with me, in particular because my CoZE work was on the exact topic of asking people things.

  2. aee87

    The title of the post made me think you were going to talk about regexes 😉

    (Although, in retrospect, I suppose that if that was really the case, the title wouldn't have that comma in it.)

    Putting that aside, I feel that you said some very important things. The world needs more of this kind of advice.

    If only it were as easy to put it into action as to read about it...

  3. Jon Kara Shields (@jkshields)

    "for the first time *since before high school,* I asked an instructor a question where I was genuinely confused, and got an answer that actually helped me learn"

    That sounds a little bit like an indictment of the tutorial system, (I'm thinking specifically, language,)...? obviously it wasn't moving fast enough for you....

    1. benquo

      That wasn't intended as a boast. It was frustrating that the technical questions I had were not at a level where the tutor or other classmates could address them productively.

      I often found I had to teach the foundational understanding that led me to the confusion - slowly, without disrupting the conversation, by asking questions I was pretty sure of the answer to, that I thought the group was ready for - instead of asking what I was actually confused about.

      On the other hand, I learned a lot from the questions other people had. This taught me patience and respect for the contributions of others who think differently, a quality I was correctly informed that I needed to work on during my first Don Rag. Mr. Casey said I came across as a know-it-all, and Mr. Kress said that I had an annoying habit of actually directly answering his opening questions. Mr. Holland took me aside separately during the second semester of Freshman year and said that I couldn't get the questions I cared about answered, because the greater good of the class required focusing on earlier steps people were stuck on. I would have transferred out after that if I'd thought there was anywhere else to go, but I still don't know of a better school and I didn't really know how to look for one and was reluctant to even think about this because it would have felt super arrogant.

    1. benquo

      Yeah, you kind of have to tough it out, in that case - but at least you're having a positive interaction, and by the Franklin Effect, making them like you more.

  4. Miri

    This is a really useful post! Thanks for writing it.

    In particular, I like the suggestion of having some ready-made things I can bring up either when someone IMs me and says "what's up?" (and I panic) or when I realize that I'd really like to interact with someone but don't know how.

    For the first case, something I might try is just honesty: "Hi! It's nice to hear from you, but I have no idea what to talk about right now. Anything on your mind?"

    For the second, I might try asking their opinion on something I think we both care about: "I remember you recommended China Mieville's novels to me. What did you think of the way Perdido Street Station ended?"

    1. benquo

      I am so very happy I actually managed to say something useful to you. Those both sound like good ideas. Let me know if this actually helps, or fails in some unexpected way.

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