Ask For Help

If it hasn't happened to you already, there will come a point in your life where you could use some help. I'm certain of this — but if you have never needed help in your life, and expect not to in the future, then do not continue reading this post. Clearly you are more than human.

I'm only 18. I need help all the time — there are many, many, things that I do not know. How do I cook a healthy meal? What should I do with my life? Should I go out with my friends tonight or stay in? What's a 401(k), and should I start one? How do I get a job that I'll like?

I can answer some of these questions. But not all of them. Sometimes I answer them incorrectly and need to fix my mistakes. What do I do? If you're in this situation, what should you do?

You should ask for help.

It's astonishing how much people will give you if you ask for it. Even if you don't ask for it: what have you learned from the teachers you had in school, from your friends, from your family? Probably a whole lot more than what you explicitly asked for. How many times have they helped you solve or cope with your problems? I'm willing to bet that the answer is "many."

I got my first real job by asking for it. I emailed Rick Van Berg, a staff scientist at UPenn's High Energy Physics Lab, asking if he had any positions available for a summer intern. He did; I set up an interview and got the job. It was as simple as asking for it. Had I not asked, though, he would never have hired me ()I doubt he would have ever met me!).

Recently, I've been thinking about the future. MIT accepted my application, and I'll probably start going to school there starting next fall. I'm pretty excited about going off to university, but I'm not sure what I want to study in or what I want to do with my life. So I asked David Albert, one of the founders of Hackruiter, to Skype with me.

We ended up talking for about 20 minutes. We talked about a lot of things, but two pieces of advice he gave me really stuck out. Paraphrased here:

Above all, do what makes you happy.

It's nice to hear this from someone else. I'm still trying to figure out what I really love, but at the moment I'm enjoying programming, reading, writing, and running. Getting paid to do so would be a dream come true. There's more to be said on this, but I think that it would be better addressed in a different post.

As often as you can, work with people who are smarter than you.

My time at Penn has definitely humbled me. I've never bragged to be an incredible programmer, but all of the people working there are ridiculously intelligent. I learned more useful skills during the two summers I worked there than I did attending my high school. Being around smart people helps make you smarter. Anytime I asked them for help (recurring theme!), I received it and more. Simply seeing how they worked helped me improve as a programmer.

The reason I bring this up is that all of this, the advice, the job, the improved programming skills, I got for essentially free. All I had to do was take the time to ask for it. David took 20 minutes of his time, which is definitely worth something, to answer the (extremely vague) questions of a complete stranger. Rick took a chance by hiring me, an inexperienced high school student, and ended up teaching me more than I ever thought I'd learn.

Everyone else I've learned from, too, has given me something extremely valuable — their knowledge and experience — at very little cost to me. Now, I've never asked someone for their car, or to let me live in their home, but I can't remember the last time I was turned down when I asked for someone's advice. Maybe people, adults especially, don't realize how valuable their personal experience is to someone who doesn't have much of their own.

It could be a combination of the will to help young people and the low personal cost of doing so — a 20 minute conversation isn't very long — but I've always been given the help I've asked for. I began to learn more, faster, the second I stopped worrying about appearing to know everything (a proclivity of the young and the foolish).