Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

An Ask Too Far

By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 10, 2011

In the past year or so I’ve become aware of the verb “ask” used as a noun. I simultaneously like it and am appalled by it. It’s honest. Probably way too honest.

An “ask” is a request for an action or a favor. I was reporting the contents of a long e-mail to a friend; she interrupted: “What’s the ask?” Meaning, “What does the e-mail writer want?”

“Ask” originated, I suspect, in the publicity biz. The difference between advertising and publicity is you pay for advertising but you try to get publicity for free. Hence “ask.” Schmooze schmooze schmooze ask.

Many moons ago I worked at Ted Bates Advertising in New York. One of Bates’ rules of copywriting was, “Always end with a call to action.” That’s the ask. “Buy now.” “Call this number.” “Log in to win.”

There are legitimate asks and not-so-legitimate asks. Have you read Josh Olson’s immortal “I Will Not Read Your F*%king Script!” That’s about an illegitimate ask.

I get a lot of asks. Write a blurb for my book. Write a foreword. Hype my stuff on your blog. Here’s where I come out on asks:

1. If it comes from a real friend or a legitimate colleague, I do it.

2. If it comes from someone who seems like a decent person (or virtually anyone in the serving military), I do it. The good news here is that quite a few real friends have entered my life this way. You can tell a good ask from a bad ask.

3. Everyone else, I pass.

There’s an ethic to the blogging world. It goes something like this. “For every ‘ask,’ you must first produce twenty ‘gives.'” (Some would say a hundred.) A give is the opposite of an ask. I suspect that the heavy give-to-ask ratio is because what I might call a give (say, this post), you might consider a waste of time, a pain in the ass, spam.

I take my own asks very seriously, in the sense that I cringe when I do them and I try to balance them by as many gives as possible. Recently when The Profession was published, I did a bunch of asks. Buy this book. Tell your friends. I hate doing that. The way I justify it to myself is by saying that a person who reads an ask from me on this blog at least had to voluntarily come to the blog in the first place. Still, asks suck.

There are outbound asks and inbound asks. The trick with inbound asks is learning to say no. For most of us, this is not easy. I’ve been trying for years and still don’t say no half as often as I should.

My problem is I like to think of myself as a nice guy. This is not good. I’m working on becoming more of a prick. There are people out there who are what I would call social sociopaths. They’re not actual murderers or criminals; they won’t hurt you. But, for whatever reasons of character or upbringing, they are utterly without empathy. They have no sense of the value of another person’s time or hard-won skill or hard-earned reputation. If you’ve got it and they can use it, they want it. They want it now. They want it free. And they want it again and again.

I mentioned, a couple of posts ago, the guy who sent me an e-mail asking for thirty free copies of The War of Art. There’s another person who (because of a colleague-in-common) I’ve said a courteous no to more than once. He doesn’t stop. Each ask is followed by another ask. The most recent was an ask to read his book. “It won’t be a problem,” he assured me. “It’ll only take two hours.”

Two hours?

When you respond to an ask from one of these social sociopaths, expect no gratitude. Instead the initial ask will be succeeded by a follow-up ask, and if you’re dumb enough to respond to that, a third ask will appear hot on its heels. One guy wrote me out of the blue; I did a long interview for him, wrote a foreword for his book, and even gave him an intro to my agent. Finally he started asking for favors for his friends. This was an ask too far. When I said no, he wrote back: “I always knew you were a Hollywood asshole.”

Dude! I don’t live anywhere near Hollywood.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

34 Responses to “An Ask Too Far”

  1. August 10, 2011 at 2:21 am

    Oh man I love this post. My first book is coming out in september and the “blurb” asking thing was horrible. Now I have the “buy my book” and “come to my reading” asks to look forward to. Oy.
    I do try to balance with gives though. I share your feeling about finding it necessary to have a very high ” give to ask ” ratio.
    Thanks for writing about this kind of stuff. Helps so much to know I’m not alone. War of Art was a big reason I was able to write my book. And btw, I thanked you in the acknowledgements. Since I don’t know you, and have never asked you for anything, I count that as a “give.” 😉

    Jamie Rose

  2. August 10, 2011 at 5:18 am

    “I’m working on becoming more of a prick.” Me too, although probably with too much success.

    Love this post Steve. And thanks again for all you give on this blog.

    Andrew

  3. August 10, 2011 at 5:33 am

    Thanks for this post, Steven. Like Andrew, my favorite line was “My problem is I like to think of myself as a nice guy. This is not good. I’m working on becoming more of a prick.”

    Your point that asks must be outweighed by gives is a great way to look at the dynamic. I really appreciate that asks are so difficult–I think lots of creatives are culturally trained to NOT ask because of that difficulty (the opposite of your over-asker, actually). It’s a hard step for many creatives to ask, but I love your approach to balance them with gives and to take them seriously.

    Thanks, Steven!

  4. Tina
    August 10, 2011 at 6:05 am

    Before reading this, I had just got off the phone with a relation who almost always calls to “ask” for something (money!). When I saw the caller ID on my cell phone, a feeling of dread hit me. Sure enough, another catastrophe — not going to starve — that has been used several times before — but a bind that was caused by my relations bad judgment. This time I just said I was not able — and that was the plain truth. How many times have I worried myself sick about my relation’s problems. No matter how much money or any advise, I think once a couple of “asks” were successful, I have cause the flood gates to open! No need to go on, just wanted to say that after reading Mr. Pressfields’ most enjoyable “An Ask to Far” it sure took the edge off what would have been a day of worry and fatigue!

  5. August 10, 2011 at 6:11 am

    Interesting that you pick up on “ask and give” rather than “give and take.” Properly understood, there’s an element of anavah (Hebrew for humility, but it means more than that) in the ask/give that doesn’t exist in the give/take. Of course, the “ask” can become a “take” – something you refer to. (In that case we say tsk to the ask-er – a nicer pun than the other one I thought of.) Jewish mysticism has much to say on this paradigm, which manifests in many ways. On the “ask-as-noun” phenomenon, there’s a rhetorical term for that. My friend Jay Heinrichs (here’s a give) writes about such things in Thank You For Arguing and Word Hero. In your case, as others have acknowledged, War of Art and Do The Work are massive gives – or we might call them “pre-asks.” Since we’re in football season, and writers love analogies, I’m reminded of what the vets say about rookies who are competing for the vets’ positions: I’ll give him all the help I can, because that’s what others did for me (pre-ask) and that’s what makes us a better team. So thanks for bettering us all.
    David Y.B. Kaufmann

  6. Tina
    August 10, 2011 at 6:48 am

    “An Ask Too Far” Now clever is that title!!!

  7. August 10, 2011 at 8:18 am

    I hope this makes the same rounds as Josh Olson’s essay–it could halt a lot of would-be askers and save harried givers. If I’d read this before blasting out requests for ARC blurbs, I wouldn’t have made such an ass of myself. Still an ass, no doubt, but not as much of one.

  8. Austin
    August 10, 2011 at 8:45 am

    Another great post. I continually find myself grateful for the insight and commentary I find here. Thanks for the time and effort, Steven.

  9. August 10, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Only now you’re aware of the word “ask” being used as a noun? Sugar, here in Hollywood we’re big on using verbs as nouns (and nouns as verbs, for that matter). “Give”, “ask”, “tell”…. (OK, so “tell” we stole from Vegas, but we just consider that fair use parody.)

    I worked as a Fox legal assistant on a couple of the contracts for BAGGER VANCE. I’m pretty sure there were a fair number of “gives” and “asks” in both of them. I’m surprised you didn’t learn about all this back then.

    :)

    ~A~

    • August 11, 2011 at 2:35 pm

      Amanda, I’m a little slow on the uptake.

    • Steve Lovelace
      August 12, 2011 at 11:24 am

      One of the things I like most about the English language is how easy it is to use nouns as verbs and verbs as nouns.

  10. Paul C
    August 10, 2011 at 11:32 am

    A guy who was a friend of a friend of Elmore Leonard sent a copy of his novel to Leonard to read in his “spare time.” I suspect they’ll find Jimmy Hoffa’s body before anyone can find his manuscript, unless they dredge the Detroit River for it.

  11. Tricia
    August 10, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    The other day I heard one friend say to another (who had been complaining about a third party), “who’s keeping score anyway?” And I thought, wow, couldn’t have been better said.

    If you’re keeping score, you’re not really giving in the true sense of the word and you are no doubt disrupting the natural flow of Real exchange.

    Give because it feels right. Ask because you need to ask. And then let go, and stop keeping score.

  12. August 10, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    Great article Steve. Hate to tell you though… you got a _long_ way to go in your goal of becoming a prick! Keep working on it.

    Also, I have an ask for you right here: I’d like to ask you to feel free to ask for more asks on your own behalf!

  13. August 10, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    I think most of us guys in their 50’s and older were taught as kids to never ask for anything, it was considered a lack of character, better to go without. My grandmother had a saying she used to describe the weather, “Cold as Charity,” that reinforced the concept that receiving something in want was a negative thing. A gift freely given is another matter because it’s given to recognize or celebrate, it’s the attachment of need to an ask that, for me at least, has such a loaded meaning. I know there’s a place for “the ask”, but with my upbringing, it’s never an easy thing to do.

  14. August 10, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Great post, Mr. Pressfield. For the record, I think your efforts at becoming more of a prick are in vain; you are too nice a guy. I’ve emailed you twice to ask for permission to use excerpts of Gates of Fire in my high school English classes, and you answered me both times and not only gave me permission to do so, but also took the time to actually answer my email and thank me for using it in my classes. Thank you for all the “gives” you’ve provided to your readers over the years. I’d say you’re way ahead in that category.

  15. Sonja
    August 10, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    I totally get it. As a creative, I actually have a hard time “asking” even when it relates to feedback on my WIP. (but that just might be resistance.) : )
    I agree, balancing out the “gives” is the best and most gently way to approach the terrifying “asks.”
    And btw, Steven, you are one of the most generous authors I know.

  16. jt
    August 10, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    It is always the nice guy who been taken advantage of.

    Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you: For every one that asks receives; and he that seeks finds; and to him that knocks it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

    Therefore all things whatever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

    Matthew 7

  17. August 10, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    Perfect timing. I just started my blog last week, and I’m still learning the “blogging etiquette”. It’s nice to know that I’m right on track so far. After reading Seth Godin’s talk about the gift economy, I created my blog to “share” my work with people. Right now, I’m just trying to give, so that when it comes time to ask, I won’t come off as a sociopath.

  18. August 10, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    Steven, I loved this post. Like many others, I struggle with how to deal with the many “can we just jump on the phone for 15 minutes” or “grab coffee” kinds of asks that arise during the week while also striving to be a nice guy. I’ve learned that time and attention simply don’t scale and that to be effective I have to say no much more than yes, even though it sometimes creates tension. Most self-aware people realize that it has nothing to do with them and just move on. Those who aren’t? Well…that’s a dodged bullet anyway. :)

  19. August 10, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    I’m afraid that the “self-publishing” genre has created a horde of ME-MES. Like me and I’ll have two hundred followers, like my page and I’ll be successful, buy my e-book and I’ll reach 2,000 sold! … me, me, me. I’ll like your blog – if I LIKE it. I’ll retweet you if I feel it’s worthy. I’ll buy your book if it’s well-written and error-free. I’m not going to promote a book I’ve never read or “like” you just so you can have 200 fans. What about paying it forward? What about creating relationships with individuals?

  20. August 10, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    Great post. I just published a novel and have been working on getting the word out. The only asks I’ve done so far is to ask come to bookstores and libraries to do book talks. I try to be more of a contributor to an event than a giver, often helping readers to find out more about the subject of my book and their relative’s involvement in it. Or offer to come to a book group with no strings attached.

    I feel like I have to earn the trust of someone before I do a big ask. Networking and being sincere so far.

  21. August 11, 2011 at 1:03 am

    Great post, I love it. (And it’s good to know that since I’m military that I’ve got a free “ask” to use in the future ;^)

    Hmmmmm….

  22. Scott
    August 11, 2011 at 8:25 am

    In a recession, true gives are currency.

    And when you can authentically position an ask as a give, you have (ahem) a win-win.

  23. Dan N
    August 11, 2011 at 11:08 am

    First, thank you for writing “Do the Work” and “The War of Art.” They have helped me improve my work and personal life.

    I have some close relatives whom I refer to as “takers.” One of them is even very, very accomplished at fake gratitude. I grew up learning give and take. I give. They take.

    Because takers share some common traits, I have learned to recognize them fairly consistently. I know that a taker will accept everything they can manipulate me into giving. That often leaves me depleted and they have not changed one bit. When I’m out of resources, they go happily on their way and look for the next person to take from. (Sometimes they offer me an insult, first. “Really? That’s all you have for me? You selfish jerk!”)

    I refuse to become a prick. However, I freely exercise my right to say no, regardless of whether I have a plausible excuse to offer. I rarely give my time, energy, effort, money or stuff to takers. When I relent and say yes, I negotiate with them, either to make them participate in what they want, or to get them to do something specific for someone else.

    On the other hand, I give as freely as I possibly can to people for whom my help and resources will make a real difference. Here’s the amazing part: these people require a tiny fraction of the time, effort, interest, money, stuff or other resources, compared to takers.

    I say no to takers so I have something to offer the non-takers.

  24. August 11, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    Steven, I really like your work so I was disappointed to read this post. I read Josh Olson’s self-aggrandizing post long ago. It sucked. There is no need to push others down in order to raise yourself up. Josh unequivocally throttled the unnamed individual that was the primary subject matter of his rant. It doesn’t make Josh Olson or Steven Pressfield better or more important individuals because hoards of random and not so random people ask. Publishing warnings to those who might ask wreaks of the “I’m so cool all the while trying not to sound like my head is up my own ass”. There is an easy answer to the dilemma of the semi-famous who are put off by being asked for favors–cowboy up and resolutely say “no” without worrying whether you hurt anyone’s feelings! Judging by Josh’s post, the poo was on him for that situation. He just should have grabbed his balls and told the guy NO from the get go.

    • Jevon O.
      August 15, 2011 at 10:06 am

      I understand you wanting him to say “no” to such requests, but why is Steven’s attempt at open dialog concerning the matter something that makes you think that he is trying to bring himself up while pushing someone else down?

      Steven could actually be painting himself as weak as he explains that he is a ‘nice’ guy that is on a trek to become more like a ‘prick’. Any true asshole knows that is a sure sign of a man unwilling to embrace his true self. Steve’s a nice guy. He’ll always be a nice guy. The evidence of that is in this thoughtful blog post. Further evidence is in your reply where you belittle him for his niceness in a manner that isn’t even scathing. If Steven really was anywhere approaching an asshole, you would have replied with more of a “fuck you” tone, but instead you explained your position somewhat politely. That’s because, in your heart of hearts, you know he’s a nice guy, and your opinion is simply misapplied.

      That, and, I don’t think anyone grabbing anyone’s balls is going to help any facet of this situation.

  25. August 12, 2011 at 10:16 am

    Mr. Pressfield, finding a dull moment in your writings is like finding rain in a clear sky.

    As a suggestion, you should consider writing a post about “working on becoming more of a prick”? It’s a muscle- I think- people want to use more of but don’t know how to develop (as like me).

    Just a thought, your perspective would insipe a lot of people.

  26. August 13, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    Oh, thanks for this. It gives me backbone. The last bad asker to contact me actually said, ‘I resent paying for advice so I’m coming to you.’ She was someone who had read an article I’d written and, I think, the only thing that interested her about the article was that it was published. Being published confers fairy dust upon us and other people want some. Learning how to deal with this and not lose one’s humanity or humility – that’s a tough ask!

  27. Jevon O.
    August 15, 2011 at 10:01 am

    I have an Ask!

    When are you writing another book about ‘ye olden days’ again? The Ask is simply this: write another book about those oft forgotten times!

    Steven, I love your work. I’ve emailed you, you actually e-mailed me back. You’re too cool for your own good. I own all of your books, and they’re great pieces of literature. I’m very thankful for your work.

    Now, dammit, write me some more excellent historical fiction, and dammit, make ’em long and drawn out! Make me sit and read until my head hurts, I’ve got the time! Hell, I’m an engineer during the day, but I’ve got dreams to remember.

    Time’s a tickin’

    Great blog, by the way. I’m sure you caught the humorous tone yet actual plea of this message : )

  28. August 19, 2011 at 3:47 am

    You give more than your share with these wonderful blogs.
    Thanks.

  29. August 22, 2011 at 4:53 am

    Absolutely great website, thank you so much for writing the blogposts

  30. Danny
    January 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    Im 25 and your advice & explanations in your book “The War Of Art ” is making me a fortune…words to live by in that book

    Thank you…your a great man