There’s No Shame in Asking for Help

One of the first things that my current graduate advisor, Steve, emphasized to me before I even joined his lab and the graduate program is that there’s no shame in asking others for help. Of course, it comes with the assumption that you’ve made an effort to attempt the problem already.

Intuitively, it seems like most people who are high achievers don’t need to ask for help since they’re so intelligent that they can figure it out themselves. Asking for help exposes a vulnerability, that you don’t know something and are asking on a pay it forward basis for their time. However, the opposite of this is true, the most successful people are the ones that know who and when to ask for help.

Generally, scientists are an introverted group of people, working each day to solve problems of which they themselves are one of the few experts in the world. This personality is the exact opposite of what to lead to success. If you’re surrounded by the leading expert in that field and have a relevant question, the most prudent thing is to ask them. In doing so, there’s a positive feedback loop: since you yourself are also the leading expert in some topic, in return those that you ask for help will feel less resistance to asking you for help. This results in snowballing conversation and collaboration which will lead to success.

Recently I’ve found myself in a bind in my graduate research. I wasn’t sure what the results of my experiments meant, and I didn’t know what other experiments to conduct. Thankfully, Steve, being an awesome advisor asked me on more than one occasion to chat about my recent work while I should have been the one who should have proactively sought him out for help. After just 30 minutes of talking, I had a brand new list of experiments I hadn’t even thought of, and days of reading just to learn the background to properly probe those questions.

Now I’m not afraid to camp out in front of his door or turn around from my desk to bother my office mates about my latest troubles or ideas. Well, maybe not, but at least I’m trying!


Originally published at kevinformatics.com on 2012–12–10.

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