Asking is more than professional networking, salary negotiating, or relationship building, though any of these can motivate or arise from asking. Neither are we talking about currying favor. For me, asking falls into three general categories: seeking information, requesting roles or resources, and interrogating assumptions. Asking empowers new professionals to gain knowledge, build our learning networks, develop our careers, and do our jobs better.
Interested in a career path? Call someone to set up an informational interview. Need clarification? Practice your reference interview skills. Struggling with an assignment or project? Reach out to your professor or peers. Seeking someone’s unique insights? Shoot them an email or a tweet—chances are they’d be delighted to help. “Cold-calling” is surprisingly effective! In fact, many people are flattered that you reached out to them, and at minimum they will respect your initiative. Asking is the prerequisite to sharing.
Requesting roles or resources
Intrigued by a job, internship, volunteership, or other role? Apply or inquire about the opportunity! Met someone? Ask them to connect on LinkedIn! Seeking a raise or other resources? Articulate and justify your need in terms of mutual benefit! Attending a conference? Attend the meetings of committees in which you are interested, ask how you can serve, and follow up. I just landed my first state association committee assignment this way.
Ask the right questions of yourself and others. Solutions cannot be found without asking why the old ways no longer work. Critique the status quo. Self-awareness is key to growth, so question yourself too. Ask: Why?
How to ask
By all means start with colleagues and peers, but be sure to expand your professional learning network to social media and strangers. You can always call or email one expert to ask for information, but you can also crowdsource your information needs on listservs, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook groups such as ALATT. I and other HLS writers have made quite a few amazing connections via Twitter, and it’s neat to have the founder of LibraryThing applaud your Facebook comment! Definitely respect boundaries, but I’m continually amazed at how delighted people are to help. A Stanford University study found that people overestimate by 50% the number of people they’d have to ask to get something done! To quote an old-time social radical, “Ask, and it shall be given to you.”
I speak from privilege when I trumpet the power of asking. I’m Hispanic—a member of an ethnocultural group that is shockingly underrepresented both in librarianship and in U.S. power structures. Society pays more attention to the fact that I am straight, white, male, abled, and a natural-born citizen with blond hair who speaks without a Spanish accent. Hence, I have experienced little marginalization consequent to my identity.
What about women, non-Anglos, and LGBTQ persons? Time and again, scientific studies have established that women and minorities have been culturally conditioned to eschew appearing to be “bossy” or “angry,” so asserting themselves could potentially alienate the people they ask. Imposter syndrome is similarly gendered, as people—particularly women—doubt their own abilities. Sure, women can attempt to ask “harder, but also softer,” but in addition to operating within double standards, this pragmatism overlooks external factors that shape how others respond to them. This Wharton School study found that people bearing names associated with women, Asians, or blacks receive 25% fewer responses from potential mentors than correspondents with Anglo male names. Even among librarians, 84% of whom are female, asking is based on privilege as much as confidence. And yet…!
Asking can be empowering. I’m an introvert, so the act of asking, regardless of success, gives me a thrill and a sense of pride in my own initiative. Receiving is external affirmation of my sense of self-worth. I conceptualize asking not as imploring a favor but rather as requesting the recognition that my excellence has merited, or as my benefiting the other person by recognizing her expertise or influence.
Askers help us all. For senior librarians, requests are opportunities to help out newbies and reciprocate the generosity their own mentors showed them. For women and minorities, the simple act of asking can destabilize the status quo—an initial step toward social equality. As public servants, librarians tend to enjoy helping people and have a more egalitarian ethos than many folks.
At the risk of generalizing, all I can advise is to do as I do. Set your expectations low, assure yourself that you have little to lose, and ask. Then ask again. Calculate your asking. Ask several people. If possible, preassess the people you ask for bias or other barriers to receptivity. In most circumstances, the worst that can happen is denial. Chances are you will be pleasantly surprised! And with practice, asking will come naturally.
Final thought: Be the kind of person that you’d want to ask.
Tell us about times when you asked. Was it empowering? Frustrating? What are some benefits and challenges to asking that you have encountered in your own life?