"Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it."
-Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter series)
The Job-Market Mentoring Project that Helen and I just launched got me thinking this morning about what I think is the single most important professional lesson I've learned--and I figured I might share it, just in case some of you might find it helpful.
I think I've learned a lot of lessons over the years--about writing, teaching, publishing, and so on--but, when I think about the thing that seemed to make the biggest positive difference, I always come back to the same thing: the importance of asking for help when you need it.
This was not an easy lesson for me to learn. I'm an independent person by nature, and my overwhelming natural inclination is to avoid bothering people and try to solve my own problems. This was especially the case during my first several years of grad school. I would seek out feedback on my work here or there, but aside from that--and just talking philosophy--I never asked anyone for help. I never asked for help learning how to publish, or for help on how to go about coming up with a good dissertation idea. I just played the "good soldier", buried my head in books and my own writing...and tried to figure it out myself. I don't know how many people are like, but I do know that many grad students and early-career faculty struggle. I've seen person after person struggle to learn how to publish, put together good job-market materials, come up with good dissertation topic, etc. And in many cases I saw them do exactly what I did: try to solve their own problems--rather unsuccessfully.
I learned how to ask for help by necessity. After nine months or so of independently working on my PhD prospectus, my committee rejected it the night before my oral defense. I felt lost, and worried that I would fail out of grad school. And, so for literally the first time (as far I can remember), I swallowed my pride and approached a faculty member in my department: "I don't know what to do", I remember saying in his office. He wasn't even a faculty member I knew particularly well, or had taken me under his wing, so to speak. He was just a faculty member who worked in the area(s) I was interested in. And he gave me advice: "Stop focusing narrowly on the topic you're struggling with, and just read broadly--outside of your central areas." I did, and just a few months later I had a good dissertation topic...in a totally unexpected area.
The next time I remember asking for help was in my first job (a VAP at a research department). I hadn't published anything, and was spending all of my time trying to polish a couple of papers into publishable shape. But I wasn't getting anywhere. So, I approached two people I'd gone to grad school with who had published up a storm (by phone and email)--people who I wasn't close friends with, but who I nevertheless knew--and "asked them their secret." They both told me the very same thing: write lots of papers, and send lots of papers out (they both told me they always had 7-10 papers under review at any given time). I followed their advice...and began to publish.
The third time I remember asking for help was when I moved from my research VAP to the University of Tampa. It was/is a teaching job, but the class lengths and format were entirely foreign to me--and I was failing as a teacher (my first semester reviews were horrific). The classes at UT were so much longer than I was accustomed to (2 hours twice a week apiece, for three classes--all new preps, as compared to the standard 50-75 minute courses at most schools), and my traditional lecture/discussion format didn't work at all. So again, I asked for help: I joined a "teaching guild" at my school studying teaching pedagogy, and asked my wife and even my mother what I could do to make such long classes fun and interesting for students. And they all gave me the same advice: lecture less and get my students to do more work in the classroom. I did, and things got better.
The next time I asked for help was with the job-market. I had been on the market for over five years, with no luck. Some acquaintances of mine (people I'd "met" through the Cocoon!) had fared a whole lot better than me, getting lots of interviews and job offers. And so I approached them, once again asking their "secret." And they both helped out. They said I should get a job-market consultant, and although I was skeptical, I gave it a shot...and I finally got a permanent job.
You can see where this is going. Although I am not a person who finds asking for help easy, literally every time I can remember asking for help, someone (usually multiple people) were kind enough to offer advice, and the advice helped out. Asking for help is not easy. You might worry--as I did--that faculty in your grad program will judge you. You might not want to show the kind of vulnerability that asking for help involves. But, I will tell you this, even if people do judge you (and I myself am not a mind-reader, so I cannot say), what ultimately matters is not what people think of you now, but whether the help you get enables you to solve the problems you are facing, whatever they may be. Further, for what it is worth, my own experience is that a little faith goes a long way. Quite to my surprise, the people I asked for help did not seem to judge me. By and large, everyone I asked for help was all too willing to lend a helping hand. And, of course, asking for help alone won't solve all of your problems. There is still a lot of work to do, to follow through--and of course advice does not always work (though, in my experience, it usually does, if you ask people truly "in the know"!). But, or so my experience has been, asking for help, and following through, can make an incredible difference.
Anyway, that's the single most important professional lesson I think I've learned. What's the single most important professional lesson you think you've learned?