Dreaming is the easy part. Asking for the help needed to pursue your dream can be a tad more complicated.
This is precisely why the best TED Talk of all time, in my opinion, would have to be Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking." In a nutshell, Palmer uses her motivational TED Talk to tell us the story of how she leveraged her social media and communication skills with her fans to crowdfund over $1 million for her band after deciding to pursue music independent of a label.
Take that all in for a second. She decided to rely on the people who love her music, rather than labels that may have exploited it, to help her raise money to pursue her dream. Not only did she surpass her goal of $100,000 — she broke a crowdfunding record by hitting over $1 million. To say that she has a lot to teach us is an understatement. Bear in mind that Palmer is not an economist who preaches her knowledge of money. She is a real person who spent a lot of time perfecting the art of asking for help. It sounds like a simple enough ingredient to success, doesn't it? Just ask for help.
And yet, asking for help can be the most challenging part of bringing any one of your ideas to life. I'm a playwright who has had to rely on myself to self-produce theatre so that my plays can see the light of day, and let me tell you — plays are never truly “self”-produced. You have to ask someone for the money. By doing so, you first have to be emotionally ready to have your creativity see the light of day. And by asking for money, you have to be ready for people to tell you “no.” My fear of rejection is so massive that I often fantasize about creating plays that have no actors and no budget and will be seen by no one, just so that I don't have to let anyone down. It sounds ridiculous, right? Palmer has truly tapped into the thing that makes us all human, the fear of asking, and turned it into a strength. In other words, she’s perfected the power of vulnerability.
Palmer got her start in the realm of “asking” by performing as a street performer. More specifically, she was an 8-foot bride who stood in a statue pose with a top hat at her feet. She spent hours staring off into the distance, beckoning strangers to make eye contact with her. If a stranger made eye contact with her, she offered them a flower. The stranger would then take the flower and (usually) leave her a cash tip in the hat. What she was doing was so much more than just street performance. She was building connections with the people around her and finding ways to leave a mark on their day. For some people, she provided an inspiring human connection that they didn't often receive in their everyday lives. While some would drive by and ignorantly yell, “Get a job!,” what they failed to realize was that she was offering a service — that of a human connection, and she just happened to be tipped for it. It was actually a truly fair exchange.
As time went by, Palmer's line of work switched from street performer to band member of The Dresden Dolls. And the key to her success in the music industry, she realized, was utilizing the same tools she used as a street performer. In essence, she needed to seek human connection. So, she would take to social media and tweet, for instance, that she needed a piano to borrow so that she could rehearse. And, seemingly out of nowhere, a piano would present itself.
She wasn't just yelling into a vacuum to ask for things she wanted, and to think that asking is a one-way street would be missing the point entirely. People came to her for stuff, too. Some people wanted to perform at her gigs, so they would reach out to open for her. People who found her music inspiring would offer up their couch so they could host her in their home — again, a fair exchange. What we fail to realize in our pursuit of creativity is one simple and scary fact: People want to help us. We just have to be ready to let them.
The dozens of cars that would drive by a younger Palmer and yell 'Get a job!' exist for everyone. It's the voice of fear. The voice that tells us to feel shame for dreaming of something better. The voice of shame that wants us to skip past the very human element of feeling vulnerable and instead be “strong.” What we fail to understand is the fact that being “strong” doesn't mean putting up walls and not letting others in and trying to handle everything yourself. Being strong is admitting to the fact your dreams are a risk and thus attempting to put your trust in people and let them help you. And there’s power and motivation to be found in that.
It's hard being an artist. You are taught that being an artist is a meaningful contribution to society, but you just as easily get batted down when you ask for help. Why should you live a life that is full of dreams while others have to work mind-numbing 9-to-5 jobs that are turning them into zombies?
Do you see what I did right there? That was that jerk-inner-voice trying to manipulate both myself and you, my dear sweet reader. Don't listen to that jerk. Here's the truth: People actually do want to help you. That fantastic community of empowering helpers can happen for you. It happened for Palmer because she trusted her community: she hugs her fans after shows; shows an interest in their lives; and offers her music online for free in exchange for the ability to ask for help.
Personally, I have many terrifying moments where I wonder if my dreams will come true. Terrifying moments where I realize that it is up to me to make my ideas happen. When I have these moments, I reflect on all of the things people have given me when I finally had the courage to ask. The friends who have lovingly offered up their apartment so that I could host play readings in their livingroom. The new friends I made through plays I wrote who offered to help me with box office and finding people in old-town Santa Ana to come see a show. The friends from across the country who produced readings of my writing and let me join in on Skype. The fans of my Youtube videos that nominated their hometown as a potential location for future play productions.
I have my people, because I have learned to ask. Because people like Palmer — who are champions for not just the artists, but all people — exist. Because all people deserve to see their dreams in life come true.
Erika Jenko is a playwright and theme park junkie trying to navigate the magical world of adulting. Also, a YouTuber and blogger at www.subwaymouse.com.