Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

An Ask Too Far

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 15, 2015

[The blog is hors de combat this week, as we prep for the launch of Shawn’s wonderful new book, THE STORY GRID, coming in a couple of weeks. Here’s one of my fave posts from a couple of years ago:]

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.

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 getting over that. 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 a*#hole.”

Dude! I don’t live anywhere near Hollywood.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

36 Responses to “An Ask Too Far”

  1. Mary Doyle
    April 15, 2015 at 6:10 am

    Thanks for rerunning this post Steve, but with your record of “gives” you could have hung out a “gone fishing” sign this week and no one would fault you for it. Good luck with the launch – there are a lot of us counting down the days out here!

  2. rikpepe
    April 15, 2015 at 6:13 am

    Never a borrower or a lender be.

  3. rikpepe
    April 15, 2015 at 6:16 am

    oops or is nor

    Polonius:
    Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
    For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
    And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
    Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 75–77

  4. April 15, 2015 at 6:26 am

    I very much appreciate the dilemma you have captured here – namely wanting to be generous and not wanting to be taken advantage of on the one hand. On the other, wanting to be successful and not wanting to be a jerk / user. And, learning how to be comfortable in your own skin, so that when you are misunderstood (and maligned) you can shrug it off … yet not so calloused that you can hear real feedback from authentic sources. I feel this dilemma all the time, and I am just a newbie. For established people, I fear it is so much more difficult. Thank you for your depth of thought – throughout the years. : )

  5. John henry McDonald
    April 15, 2015 at 6:34 am

    Hey Steve
    I got this new CD and if you’d just…

    • April 15, 2015 at 4:45 pm

      Too funny!
      bsn

  6. April 15, 2015 at 6:35 am

    This is an important topic that nobody talks about. Some people looking for referrals want to piggyback on your hard work of creating goodwill and building relationships, because they haven’t put forth the same time and effort to create and build their own.

    People are always eager, however, to assist those who DO work hard to give in advance, and DO develop their own strong relationships.

  7. April 15, 2015 at 6:40 am

    Dear Steve,
    I’ve struggled with this issue, but from a place closer to where your gracious example is/was.

    I know, too well, the disquieting feeling of being without power or means. The dishonorable reaction is to ask from those that have either or both.

    It comes from a lack of integrity. This word is impossible to understand without first knowing the values to which one strives to live. My asks, most of my life, have been without integrity.

    A lack of gratitude is another ingredient that births the dishonorable ask.

    Over the past few years, I have noticed that I am not without power or influence.

    I am very capable of doing things for others. I can make introductions. I can help another achieve their goals. I can add my imagination & creativity to help solve their problems. That is not worthless.

    The irony is that now people of more power & means than me have come into my life. They ask me, “Brian, how can I help?”

    Now the disquiet comes from the uncertain question I ask myself, “Am I worthy of their generosity?”

    Good post.
    bsn

  8. April 15, 2015 at 6:44 am

    Well said. This clicked big time. I re-evaluated my approach a couple months ago after realizing I was asking successful bloggers “just for feedback.” I would never take that approach with anything else in my life but somehow fell into it with my new desire to grow fast. I’ve reset and finally have the right focus of helping others first. I’ve realized it can take a long time to build something special and a foundation of helping benefits everyone. Simply, it’s the right thing to do.

  9. April 15, 2015 at 6:44 am

    Here’s part of a Fred Neil Blues lyric that seems apropos:

    You waltz in here with a handful of gimme
    A mouthful of much obliged
    I go home feeling empty
    From all you signify.

  10. Eileen Labrie
    April 15, 2015 at 6:44 am

    I think I’m in love. I recently “discovered” Steve Pressfield through an Oprah Super Soul Sunday interview. I immediately got hold of The War of Art from the library and devoured it. Now I must buy it because the library can’t seem to understand my need to keep renewing it. I can’t get enough of Steven’s common-sense and down to earthness. (if that isn’t a word, it should be.)
    The “ask” blog is a perfect example of telling it like it is. I can’t wait to read “The Story Grid.” I love this man!

  11. Steve Lowry
    April 15, 2015 at 6:50 am

    I have run across these social sociopaths (What a great term) too they are black holes of take with their gratification the most important part of the universe.
    I volunteer to help others and do not ask for it in return and am pleasantly surprised when help arrives unasked for. I think empathy is a dwindling resource.

  12. April 15, 2015 at 7:18 am

    Have you heard of the term “askhole”? I know a few.

    • Stacy
      April 15, 2015 at 8:09 am

      That’s a perfect term in its accurateness.

    • April 15, 2015 at 10:17 am

      Great! I love it!

  13. April 15, 2015 at 7:27 am

    An excellent piece of advice here, Steve. Women are especially vulnerable to the problem of learning to just say “no”. On the other hand, many of us struggle to be confident enough to do an appropriate, gracious “ask”. There’s a fine line between too much and too little. Like everything in life, it’s a balancing act. I’m a work in progress, a loooong work in progress, so thanks for the reminders.

  14. Devon West
    April 15, 2015 at 7:28 am

    Thank you for this post Steven; I found out about you through Joanna Penn and read your book The War On Art, I loved it, your wisdom is incomparable. As far as the ” social sociopaths” their lack of shame never ceases to amaze me.

  15. April 15, 2015 at 7:28 am

    This is exactly right and well said. The people I am willing to do the most for are those who never ask and are genuinely appreciative. I have a tenant right now who thinks nothing of asking for outrageous improvements though he is always late with his rent. It’s like he has no idea how the world works. “Askholes.” Love it.

  16. Patti
    April 15, 2015 at 7:43 am

    Social sociopath is the perfect description for time-sucking persons with no regard for others.

    I liked the link to Josh Olson’s blurb – I am sharing this with a few of these social sociopaths who are lurking in my world.

  17. April 15, 2015 at 8:00 am

    Would you walk up to a farmer and ask if you could pick some strawberries, without also asking how much a basket of those would be? I doubt it. And it makes me wonder why do so many people ask to pick someone’s brain — for nothing, as if that brain is somehow worth less than a basket of strawberries!

  18. April 15, 2015 at 8:40 am

    Steven,
    I understand that “asking sucks” is your experience; however, let me encourage you to see that your asking extends out of a genuine context and is appropriate. If you could get over the “suck” attitude, that would benefit all concerned because the ask wouldn’t come with the aura of your regret.

    Perhaps you are subconsciously associating YOUR ask with the social sociopath’s ask because of surface similarities, but that’s like being reluctant to love your child because there are pedophiles who also “love” children. It isn’t the same emotion. The two share a word and a forward motion, but there on the surface is where the similarities end. They shouldn’t be confused with each other.

    Resistance clouds your need to ask, but you know whose interest it has most in mind!

  19. April 15, 2015 at 8:52 am

    Steven … We met at the bookstore in downtown Quantico. You and I spoke about The War of Art and Do the Work! … So I went to war with resistance and wrote that book that had evolved over time. It never occurred to me to present an ‘ask.’ Wishing you continued success as I read this post on Tax Day. And thank you for Writing Wednesdays … It has become one of my favorite blogs on the craft of writing … Now if only I could find a blog that’s as well done and focuses on the business of promoting ones work … John

    PS: That last sentence is not an ‘ask’ but rather a hint to anyone who’s read this comment and wishes to point the way.

    • April 16, 2015 at 8:04 pm

      John,
      You might want to try MichaelHyatt.com and his book – Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World.

  20. BING
    April 15, 2015 at 9:22 am

    I liked your examples of asking and giving. When I post I try to give. I try to put something in the pot that is helpful to the other readers. I love this group that shows up on this web site. You are all warriors like Steven describes in his books. I am an artist who as Seth Godin and Steven remind me, I need to ‘SHIP’. I need to ship my art out to the world. I realized not long ago that writing on this site is another form of shipping. I need to be part of this group to learn from others and to cheer ourselves onward.
    Thanks for listening,
    – BING

  21. Alexis
    April 15, 2015 at 9:26 am

    Steven, your “asks” never seem as if you are asking for a favor. When you ask us to read a book, whether it is one of your own or say, Giora Romm’s, it feels like you are sharing something wonderful and have given us the first heads up on it. Following your progress on “The Lion’s Gate” was exhilarating and I bought the book as soon as it was released. Extraordinary book! I read “Solitary” immediately after and pairing them was an immersion into that world that has stayed with me in a way that is rare. I even had a movie-esque dream about “The Lion’s Gate” just this week. Your “gives” on this blog have been another kind of immersion–the writer’s life and the struggle against resistance– that has been invaluable. “Ask” away!

  22. April 15, 2015 at 9:37 am

    I love the fact that the world exploded with “look at me because I’m forcing you” form of advertising from the 1960’s-2000’s and then magically has morphed back into our old-school tribal days style which says “trust me first before we hunt together.”

    I love this because if you take all the hungry-ghost wanting out of what you are trying to do, it starts to become a friend-making machine where you get to meet interesting folks who are smart and have great ideas. Those folks may not get you a million-dollar advance but you don’t need that filthy lucre. You really want connection. And it gets you that! Yay!

    Buy my book!

    Just kidding, I don’t have one. But be my friend!

  23. April 15, 2015 at 9:37 am

    Steven,

    You describe the delicate balance between giving help to others and asking for help yourself so well. I think that for each person the balance point lies at a different point on the continuum, and each of us defines the point of an “ask too far” in a different place. It also depends on the person asking–I can think of some people for whom almost no ask would be too far and others for whom the second ask would be one too many. Maybe the trick with finding the right balance is in being flexible.

  24. April 15, 2015 at 11:02 am

    Well said, sir, from a fellow warrior in the trenches! I promise not to send my military school-based novel, Virginia’s Ring, for a blurb! Thankfully, Pat Conroy gave me a great one and it’s led to lots of word-of-mouth. Keep up the great work!

  25. April 15, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    Give someone thirty copies of The War of Art? I’ve bought that many of the hardcover first edition and given them to friends! It was worth every penny.

    I don’t think I’d ever feel comfortable asking you for anything. Your work has already given me more than any other author.

  26. Christine
    April 15, 2015 at 10:13 pm

    The noun “ask” can have a meaning different from that discussed above.

    At the tale end of a 3-hour business meeting with no agenda (courtesy of my boss who I replaced at the last minute), I was trying to explain to the consultant what information I wanted from him. He just didn’t seem to GET that this meeting needed a clear outcome, a deliverable from him to me. His assistant framed my wants in a way he could understand: she said, “The client’s ask is ____.” Brilliant. My abstract wants, objectives, and outcomes crystallized into an “ask”. The consultant GOT it.

    Then my boss entered the room and changed the well-defined “ask” to a series of vague “wants”.

    The example above is from the business world, but I think this meaning of the word “ask” could help us in the artistic world. When your novel’s characters aren’t shaping up, instead of focusing on their life objective or scene objective, think about what their “ask” is in that very moment. You may be surprised.

  27. April 16, 2015 at 4:20 am

    Steve, WOW, ha ha….. I feel you on this!

    I’d say that 99% (MORE like Always) of the time someone asks to take me for lunch or come see “how you run your business so I can pick your brain” …..

    When I explain to them I don’t have time between the 2 gyms, travels and coaching at University 2 hrs each way, family first & foremost or simply NOT using my coaching time at the gym as a business coaching opportunity for them……

    They NEVER reply and say, “Oh, I understand…..”

    I am shocked most by people with NO manners.

    What a shame.

    People simply need to learn manners and to respect other people’s hard earned knowledge……

    The “Hollywood A**hole” part had me laughing!

    I am making a pact w/ myself to stop answering these “ASK” e mails bc I’m sure they say the same about me in their mind when I try to kindly explain….

  28. April 16, 2015 at 8:30 am

    Well written and titled.

    Thanks Steve

  29. Heidi Schmid
    April 16, 2015 at 10:00 am

    Thank you for such a wise, considered post. Your blog helps me in many practical ways and I especially appreciate this one.

  30. April 16, 2015 at 8:00 pm

    Incredible! People never cease to amaze. You continue to inspire and challenge me, Steven. That is gift enough.

  31. April 21, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Great title. An ASk Too Far.

    It is something, we as creative professionals, have a problem with.

    I think the best thing we can do is two fold.

    1) Give give give give give. I am not a huge fan of karma, but its an easier way of explaining the give thing. Giving keeps your ask ledger in order. Helping people is always a positive.

    2) Don’t let the ask psychopaths drive us away from our asks. When we prepare to ask, our “resistance” brings up the absolutely worst human being to ask that question. We remember how repulsed we were, and we stop ourselves – even if it is a legitimate ask. We have to pay attention to that and not let it effect us. If we do #1, our ledger is clean, and our ask will make sense.

    Quick tip – when you hear “Why didn’t you ask” enough, you may be letting #2 get to you too much. People who you are good too are more than ready to help. :-)

  32. May 5, 2015 at 11:49 am

    I often get asked to blurb books, write guest posts, appear at free events, etc. I also look at what benefit the person hopes to provide, or what mission or purpose underlies their “ask.” If I feel there is a lot of value in what they want to offer, I’ll say “yes,” even if I don’t really know them.

    It takes a lot of confidence and chutzpah to ask–for almost anything. It takes even more to ask someone for support that you don’t know and whom you feel is higher up the ladder or farther along the path. There’s a great deal of overcoming resistance–fear–to an ask for most people (not the askholes).