I do not like to be bad at things.
I suspect this is more or less a universal trait. But it has also always been my natural impulse to give up on anything that doesn’t immediately and easily come to me as a natural skill. It is a stubborn old habit of mine: I want to immediately be the best at something. If that doesn’t appear likely, I instantly lose the drive to keep going.
This has rarely presented itself as an advantage.
In fact, it has made many of my pursuits, from academic to athletic to social settings, immensely difficult at times; it is also a natural quality that I continue to have to fight tooth & nail.
The fight has become slightly easier for two reasons: first, I know the signs of its emergence and have taught myself some techniques to execute a preventive strike before it gains momentum; second, and most importantly, I learned to ask for help.
Like most stories of this sort, I learned “the hard way.” And I learned the hard way over & over again. Truthfully, I am still learning; I am sure I will continue learning to ask for help for the rest of my life.
There is, however, a period of my life that stands out as the moment I learned how important it is to ask for help; that it is unavoidable; that it is crucial; that it is a strength.
I was 21 and living in Brooklyn with my cousin and her husband while I participated in an intensive summer-long program to learn ancient Greek. It was essentially an “ancient Greek boot camp,” and I would later come to semi-affectionately describe it as “spending two months in a coma having constant nightmares and waking up to discover that you knew Greek.” I owe the person I am now and the place I’m in and the work I’m doing to this program; however, it was without a doubt the worst summer of my life, and the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
What’s more, I really wasn’t always sure I could do it.
The program was five days a week for twelve weeks from 9-5, with optional before-school reading groups and lunchtime grammar lessons. Every afternoon we would have a number of exercises to complete, and a whole new set of flashcards to make and memorize. It was A Lot – but, then, we were trying to learn the entire ancient Greek language in 12 weeks.
On our first day in the program our instructors gave us their phone numbers and told us that any of them would be available 24 hours a day to answer questions we had about assignments, and we shouldn’t hesitate to call them, even if it was after midnight.
My first week in the program did not go well. I had never taken an inflected language before, so I didn’t know what declensions were or what purpose they served. Moreover, I severely underestimated the pace of the program. I assumed I would have time later in the week to catch up on concepts we had learned earlier, but every day was a new chapter of grammar and an entirely new set of rules to learn. Before I knew it, I was drowning. I couldn’t catch up, I couldn’t calm myself down to try to move forward, and I felt ashamed. I was calling my parents regularly asking if they thought I should just quit, and voicing my concern over failure.
My rock-bottom moment of the summer came one morning when I slept through my alarm. I had never missed a day of the program. I sort of assumed that if you missed a day – a chapter of grammar – you would essentially be destined to failure and might as well not show up at all. I was stricken with panic and disoriented and crying on the train. I essentially dissolved into anxiety and shame. A stranger on a subway platform touched my arm and told me “whatever it is, it is going to get better. I promise you.” And whoever she was, I am grateful for her. But I showed up to the school still in a state. I ran to the bathroom to hide out and cry some more. Finally, one of the instructors happened to come in. She was an incredibly intimidating person, and I was afraid of her. Seeing her see me in this vulnerable state made me sick to my stomach, until: she grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me into a fierce hug.
“Hey,” she said “calm down. You are going to be fine.” She stared directly at me and said: “You are not failing. Okay? You are going to get through this.”
I pulled myself together.
I went to the head of the program and did something I had heretofore been too ashamed to do: I told him I needed help.
It is not surprising in retrospect that asking for help meant my work got easier. Admitting that I couldn’t understand certain things on my own by frustratedly re-reading the same paragraphs over and over at 2 AM was a turning point in the program. The head of the program told me things that, at the time, sounded radical to me.
“If you’re still up at 2 AM working on something, get some sleep. You can’t do this without sleep.” and “If you get stuck on a sentence from the homework, mark it as something you want to go over and move on. Don’t dwell on things you don’t understand; try to get as much of your work done as you can understand instead, and then go back to it. You might discover that coming back to it you have found the missing piece.” and “We didn’t tell you to call us any time of day for no reason. You should call for help, whenever you need it.”
But as shocked as I was to hear that I should give myself a break, coming from someone else it was an intense relief. I was burning the candle at both ends, and I was trying to do it on my own; the acknowledgment that this wasn’t sustainable was crucial for my own recognition of what I needed to do – not just to pass the program, but to stay sane.
I started going in for extra help every morning, and at lunch. I started calling instructors at all hours of the night, and then less so as I started to understand things on my own better. I found a partner to work with after class in the afternoons. I stopped being embarrassed to ask questions in class. And here’s the thing: I passed the course.
I know I’m not the only person who has this same issue with asking for help. I still have to remind myself to ask for help when I need it. I still need practice recognizing when I actually need help. We all want to prove that we can do things on our own – but it’s an incredible strength to admit when you can’t.
More often than not, asking questions and asking for help can help those around you. You can demonstrate that it’s not a weakness to need guidance or assistance with something. You could be asking a question that someone else is too afraid to ask.
As a teacher, I have tried to take my own lessons and help my students learn them in the not-so-hard way. I strive to encourage them to seek me out for extra help studying for exams. I urge them to feel confident and not to be afraid to acknowledge when they don’t understand something. I never want my students to feel afraid to come to me with any issues, and I hope that they don’t. A striking piece of advice from Stephanie McKellop on Twitter (@mckellogs) was to tell your students that asking questions counts for more than making comments towards a student’s participation grade, and I can’t think of a more ingenious system. Being in graduate school is a delicate balance between being a student, being a professional, and being a pedagogue. But the longer I stay in academia, the more I see how similar all of those positions can be. I see professors seeking advice from each other; I see professors treating grad students as colleagues; I see grad students asking one another for help and guidance; I see undergraduates treating grad students as professors and mentors. And I see that everybody struggles with imposter syndrome, and a fear of failure.
We can all always learn to ask for help. Hopefully it doesn’t have to keep being “the hard way.”