This post is mostly a memo to myself. But perhaps some of you will find it useful too.
Almost a year ago now, a good friend of mine moved abroad.
I knew we’d keep in touch, because she’s the kind of person I wouldn’t lose touch with – the kind I really wanted to keep in my life.
But, you know, it’s so hard to keep in touch with people who live in the same freaking city as me, let alone those who are a plane ride away.
So, I was worried. Not unduly, either. Life is busy, after all.
And then I got an email from her.
She was doing a teaching course, and as part of it they’d recommended that she set weekly goals for herself, and ask someone to help her stick to them. Check in with a friend or something once a week, and go over the goals as a way of being accountable.
She asked me if I’d help.
I gladly said yes. We set up a weekly Skype call to go over the goals. I decided I might as well set my own goals at the same time, so that we were both being accountable for things.
Some time later, the goals fell by the wayside a bit, or at least they stopped being strictly weekly.
But several good things have come out of our calls.
Firstly – and most importantly – I think our friendship has grown stronger. We were always good friends, but there’s something about meeting up with or speaking to someone on a regular basis that means you end up sharing more. Because we speak every week, we know the ins and outs of each other’s lives. And because of that, I think she’d agree, we’ve grown even closer than we were when we lived in the same place.
Secondly, we’ve tried a load of different ways of making ourselves accountable and achieving the things we want. We both work for ourselves, which means we’re both really busy but also that we both don’t necessarily stick to a “normal” schedule. Or at least, that we have a certain level of flexibility.
We’ve experimented with all sorts of stuff over the past few months: weekly goals, daily goals, sharing our to-do lists, quarterly goals, as well as our annual resolutions which have been a tradition for a few years now.
And in the process, I’ve certainly learned a lot about how I work and how to make myself both more effective and more efficient as a self-employed person.
I’ve also learned to look after myself a bit better. To take some time to chill the fuck out when I’m stressed, to remember to eat and go to bed, to just be a bit more human to myself.
Because sometimes, especially when we’re freelancing, we have a tendency to be the worst bosses to ourselves. When I managed a team, there’s no way I’d be as hard on any of them as I’ve been on myself over the years. But I only properly realised that when I was talking to my friend and she pointed it out.
It’s so easy to get caught up in your own head, all the shoulds and could-Is and what-if-I-fails.
So it helps to have someone outside your head to help you work out what to do.
But here’s the thing:
I never would have had the guts to ask the same thing of her.
It’d been something that’d been recommended to me in the past, in fact. I’d done a couple of courses that said I should set goals and ask someone to help me to stick to them.
But the thought of asking someone for something?
And yet my friend made it seem so easy.
She just… asked. Like it wasn’t a big deal. Which it wasn’t, because my reaction wasn’t “OMG someone asked me to help with a thing!”
It was more like “Oh, that’s an interesting idea, let’s try it!”
Followed by “Wait a second, isn’t this the thing I was meant to do a couple of years ago, that I didn’t do because I didn’t have the guts to ask this one simple thing of anyone?”
And yet I could have done.
This friend would have said yes, as would several others, I have no doubt.
Just like I said yes.
Just like that person you’re thinking about asking the thing of would say yes.
But asking’s really hard, though, isn’t it? Why is that?
Is it because we think it’s putting us in a lower position than another person? Does it play on our various insecurities about not being good enough on our own?
Is it because we live in an individualistic society that values independence and stiff upper lips?
Is it because we think they’ll laugh, or hate us, or say no?
Is it because asking makes us somehow seem vulnerable, and that’s the worst word of all?
Or is it just because we haven’t tried it yet, so it’s new and scary and we don’t know how simple it could be?
It’s something I’ve struggled with a lot over the years. Not only with stuff like asking people to help me with goals, but with general life as well.
I visited an old friend a while ago, and during the course of our conversation over wine one evening she told me how angry she’d been when I kept refusing her help as a teenager.
“I could tell you needed someone,” she said, “and you wouldn’t let me be that person! Why?”
She knew why, really: because of my shell.
Because peeling back the stiff outer layer and letting people see the bit that’s confused and sad and sometimes downright fucked up is really difficult, and it’s not something I’ve excelled at over the years, to put it mildly.
“You’re there for everyone,” she said, “they call you when they need someone, and it doesn’t make you think less of them, does it?”
Of course not, I replied, it merely makes them human. And draws us closer a lot of the time. In fact, I feel honoured that they trust me enough to ask me for help.
She looked at me and waited for my brain to catch up with the point I’d just made.
“And yet you don’t allow other people that same privilege,” she said.
Her words stuck with me for the next few years, and although I’m still not stellar at asking for help, I will sometimes text my friends when my ex is being a pain in the ass, or when my clients are being difficult, or when life is stressful.
When I got some bad news at the beginning of last year, I didn’t do what I normally would have done: gone home and sat alone with the feelings it brought up. I called my friend and asked him to come meet me for coffee.
And he did, and it helped.
I’d like to think of a nice clear way to round up this post, that includes some pithy piece of advice that’ll change everyone’s lives, but the reality is that life isn’t like that.
People had been telling me for years that you have to open yourself up to failure and not be a perfectionist about everything; that you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable sometimes; that you have to trust your friends even if it opens you up to the possibility of being screwed over later, because the number of wonderful possibilities it opens up at the same time are so very worth it.
And yet I didn’t listen until these things just sort of happened. Until I failed drastically at building a business, lost everything and had to start all over again. Until I was asked to help someone else, and ended up helping myself in the process. Until I had a crap year and realised how little I’d relied on my friends, and how much easier it would have been if I’d just let them… well, be friends.
If you’re at that stage where you’re not asking people for things, where the very thought of doing so sends goosebumps juddering up your arms, then this post isn’t going to change anything.
I guess all I can do is add mine to the cacophony of voices telling you that it’s OK to fall, and it’s OK to ask someone to help you get back up.
And when you finally do, you might find yourself standing taller than ever.