I mentioned earlier this year that I was reading Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help. I did say I would do a book review, and over four months after finishing it I’ve decided I need to get off my butt and do just that.
Let’s start with the obvious – if Amanda Palmer had given her TED Talk a year earlier it would have been part of My Year of TED. I said ‘probably’ in my previous post, but having an activity based around asking would have been a great addition to an incredibly vulnerable year. It’s true that I did have Thanks, Praise and Mindfulness, which had an asking element, but this would have kicked it up a notch.
A lesson in vulnerability
I gave an intro to the amazing talent of Ms Palmer in the previous post, but if I had to explain who she is I would say “a very open and talented human being.” The book is a brutally honest recounting of how she learned to ask – and ultimately how she learned to embrace being vulnerable to others. It’s fascinating because, prior to reading the book, I would have included the phrase ‘uncompromisingly strong’ to define Amanda – I still believe that is the case, but I now understand that there is a lot more bluff and bravado in that strength than I would have previously imagined.
And this is the beauty of The Art of Asking – well it’s the beauty of anybody being willing to share their inner workings with the world. I’ve mentioned before that I think this is a massive shift in our society; a shift towards being honest about our brokenness, moving away from the ‘perfectionism’ that has plagued us all for far too long, and a willingness to open ourselves up to vulnerability. My belief is that sites like TED have provided fantastic platforms for people to admit their weaknesses; admit their struggles and imperfections; and, to allow us all to realise that maybe we aren’t alone in ours.
By reading Amanda’s book I was reminded that even people who exude strength and confidence have to work at it. I was reminded that nobody is above feeling the sting of criticism and rejection; that true strength lies in being able to take the hits, dust yourself off and try again. I’ve spent too much of my life hiding from the world; hiding my true feelings, and hiding my creations. If you have a creative spirit that wants to share its brilliance with the world, Amanda’s book will remind you why you need to embrace vulnerability and be willing to ask.
A reminder of the best and worst
I also found the book was a great reminder of the best and worst of human nature. Amanda Palmer has always asked her community for support, she has an incredibly active community (online and off). The book recounts a range of anecdotes of Amanda trusting her community to house and feed her, and her band; and an equal number of stories of how she gives back in ways that are more important than money. Of course, not all of the stories are positive, she is dealing with human beings after all. But it is a great reminder that the positive stories far outweigh the negative ones, and the positive ones largely exist because she is willing to believe the best of people.
Of course, she talks about the Kickstarter campaign that she received a lot of flack about. Hopefully some of her critics have come to understand that it wasn’t money for jam – that she had to use that money to produce an album, tour and distribute what her supporters paid for. Some of the criticisms levelled at her for that activity definitely showcase the worst of human behaviour. The seeming anonymity of online critics is probably the greatest negative the internet has given us – well okay, online gambling and a proliferation of porn are up there too.
But, it is the positive stories that I remember months after reading the book. It is the generosity of spirit of her community, a generosity she pays back in many different ways. It reminds me that asking can be a simple act, if you have cultivated relationships that allow you ask without fear; that allow people to say no, without it being a rejection of you as a human being.
As much as The Art of Asking is about anything, it is about relationships. The two that feature most prominently are Amanda’s relationship with her husband, Neil Gaiman, and with her best friend, Anthony. It’s hard not to envy both of these relationships in Amanda’s life – although I think I envy her friendship with Anthony the most. I don’t know what my life would be like if I’d had an adult who believed in me and gave me the support and love that Anthony gave Amanda.
I’d like to think that I’ve been able to give some of that to people in my life, I certainly try to be supportive and loving, for the most part. As an adult I have found some amazing mentors and friends who have filled that Anthony role in my own life; but to have had it from a younger age? well, it’s one of those unknowable things now. I don’t envy her relationship with Neil, largely because I have a wonderfully loving and supportive partner in Derek. Actually, I should say I don’t ‘envy’ any of it, because there is a negative connotation with the word. It’s more that reading about her friendship with Anthony, I became painfully aware of something that I missed out on for most of my life.
As an awfully sad footnote to this, Anthony finally succumbed to his cancer about a week ago. It’s funny how many people in Amanda’s community felt a connection to him from the book, and her posts. I think we all felt like we lost a dear friend – it’s weird how that works.
Amanda Palmer has written a thoughtful, thought-provoking, and intensely personal account of how she learned to ask. Her story gives you all of the positive reasons you should embrace the vulnerability of asking for help, but it also provides the counterpoints when you are dealing with flawed human beings (and aren’t we all flawed in some way?).
If you are a creative person who is scared to share their creativity with the world – read this book! If you are someone who hates to ask others for help or assistance – read this book! If you find personal narratives intriguing – read this book! If you are considering creating a large online community, and being controversial (very honest with them) – read this book!
I don’t think you will be disappointed, and you might just learn something about the value of being vulnerable.